Monday December 7th, 2015

Looked at now, of course, the photograph is wondrous, symbolic, a bit of comfort in a cruel and random universe. Isn't it reassuring to think that some things are meant to be? That tradition, a code of behavior, can be passed on through one brief encounter? Even if you're left cold by the chest-beating lore of the Dallas Cowboys, this Instamatic image smacks of an innocence that, nowadays, pro football can rarely claim. It feels like the start of a childhood dream.

Courtesy of Kim Barnett

See: There's Tom Landry, squinty-eyed avatar of the pop-culture entity dubbed America's Team. It's November 1986, nine seasons removed from Landry's last Super Bowl title and two before he will be fired, and he has just emerged from the visitors' locker room at Washington's RFK Stadium. Before him are three brothers. The youngest is a four-year-old towhead who will grow up to be the greatest receiver in Cowboys history. He will embody all the will, smarts and hard-bitten dedication of "God's Coach"—and, just to complete the circle, in 2012 he will name his first daughter Landry.

The coach looks delighted too, even though the rival Redskins have just destroyed Dallas 41–14. This is the first clue that while, yes, every picture tells a story, it is often the wrong one. The second is that Landry—fedora planted firmly, topcoat buttoned as if he's stepping onto the 5:00 train—seems barely aware of his spiritual heir; his huge hands rest on the shoulders of Jason Witten's older brothers, Ryan and Shawn, whose football careers will peak respectively in high school and college.

And Jason? While he's too young to apprehend Landry's stature, he knows that his is a Cowboys family, and he senses his mother's thrill; with this snap she's got her father's Christmas present. Indeed, here is one of the happiest moments the Witten clan will ever have. The worst of the fighting between Jason's parents, Eddie and Kim, lies in the future, with Eddie's increasingly erratic behavior and physical abusiveness.

The Landry moment, in fact, came about partly because of one of Eddie's healthier interests. Before his troubles deepened and the family headed to Tennessee, the 6'8", 300-pound mailman fostered a sports madness in the Wittens' Vienna, Va., condo, and finagled endlessly to feed it. The region's pro venues were old and porous then, so Eddie had little trouble moving his boys down from the cheap seats in Landover, Md., to gawk at the Bullets' 7'7" Manute Bol, or working a connection to get into the dank hallways in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium just as Cal Ripken Jr. clattered by.

On fall Sundays, Eddie would follow up a morning of baseball, basketball and football drills with his sons by tracking the Redskins' score. At halftime the Wittens might race the 20 miles to RFK, where ushers sometimes let them in for free. Or they just hung near the players' parking lot, waiting for John Riggins or Art Monk to appear, whereupon Eddie sent the boys running for autographs.

In the bowels of a stadium, though, is where the man did his best work, maneuvering the boys close, persuading star after star to stop for a word or a handshake. “He had a way—I don't know if it was just because he was big,” Jason says. “He was excited for us: ‘You want to be that one day? Watch how they act, how they warm up. Watch how they carry themselves.’”

But the Landry photo, the one that resides in a box in a closet at Kim's house—Jason doesn't remember any of it: not his mom yelling about her family connection to former Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley, not Landry's double-take and “Who said that?”, not the coach's warm greeting and the flashbulb's explosion. Jason was just a child, standing at a slight remove. His chin is up, his jaw set, just enough to hint at the man he will become, the one who says, “I'm just going to be tougher—mentally, physically—to where you can't break me.”

Not that the world hasn't tried.

Darren Carroll for Sports Illustrated


When she heard the news, Michelle Witten was fresh out of yoga class—mind clear, muscles stretched, her frazzled self this close to getting right again. Then some guy on the car radio boomed, “Guess who was out on the practice field today?” and before he could answer she knew, and an ungodly noise—equal parts groan and bellow—spilled out of her mouth. She thought, Are you serious?! Can't you have more sense?

This was in late September, three days after her husband sprained both ankles and his left knee during the Cowboys' 20–10 win at Philadelphia. Adrenaline and tape had carried Jason Witten through the final quarter, but by late Sunday both ankles had ballooned beyond recognition, a study in purple and blue. He couldn't walk. He didn't sleep all night, and what with fetching and setting ice bags, Michelle didn't either.

Monday morning the 6'6", 263-pound Witten could put no weight on his legs, and he showed up at the team's training facility on crutches. An MRI confirmed the damage: high ankle and deltoid sprains in his left leg; a lesser lateral sprain of his right ankle; a Grade 2 sprain of his left MCL. When he hobbled home late that afternoon, Michelle said, “Babe, there's nothing to prove. Why don't you just not play this week?”

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That was new. Ever since Michelle, as a senior cheerleader at Elizabethton (Tenn.) High, asked Jason, a towering sophomore, if she could wear his football jersey, she had rarely played the overprotective partner. Save for the time a jaw broken in three places sidelined Jason for one week as a Cowboys rookie (“It's just your jaw,” Michelle said as she drove Jason, spitting blood into a cup, to the hospital), he has played every game of his 13-year NFL career: 198 straight and counting. The three concussions and 28 other injuries to tissue and bone that Jason has suffered concerned Michelle, of course, and the lacerated spleen he endured in 2012 made her all but beg him to sit out, but for the most part she assessed his damage coolly, almost casually. Her nine-year stint dealing with gunshot wounds, heart attacks and car-wreck carnage as a nurse at Dallas's Parkland Memorial Hospital hadn't left Michelle hard, exactly; some nights she came home in tears. But she knew better than most wives what the human body—and her husband—could take, and she loved how she and Jason pushed beyond the point where most people give in. “I'm mentally tough,” she says. “We're both crazy together.”

Just to test herself, Michelle gave birth to the second of their four children, Cooper, without painkillers. Then, after her water broke for Landry, she did it again. Yes, she hears Jason's 33-year-old joints cracking when he climbs stairs. But she saw too much in the ER to worry about football's long-term effects on body and brain. “It could end tomorrow,” she says. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but people get Alzheimer's anyway. It's life. This is the risk we're choosing.”

Still, risk after the Eagles game just felt ... unnecessary. Dallas had lost star receiver Dez Bryant for six to eight weeks when he broke his right foot in the season opener, then in Philadelphia quarterback Tony Romo went down for seven games with a broken left collarbone. (Romo reinjured the collarbone on Thanksgiving and is out for the season.) Witten's tender legs would now be an issue all season; nobody, Michelle argued that Monday evening, would blame him for resting up for a second-half push. “Yeah,” Jason said, seeming to agree. “I cannot even walk.”

But there were a few things Michelle didn't know. On the team plane on Sunday night, Jason had told trainer Jim Maurer, “I'm going to be fine. You got me?”

“We can treat this,” Maurer replied. “I think you will be fine.”

Also, Witten's reputation for quick healing carried its own pressure; everyone in the organization expected him to be in uniform the following Sunday against the Falcons. “100% confidence,” says third-string tight end James Hanna. “He's just different. If it's physically possible—and sometimes maybe when it isn't—he's going to find a way, and he's going to play well.”

Lastly, Jason was barely listening to Michelle, though he trusts her more than anyone else. "I already had, in my mind, my plan," he says.

That Monday evening he endured two and a half hours of deep tissue massage. Another sleepless night ensued, all ice bags and restlessness. Before he left the house on Tuesday morning—still on crutches—for treatment at Valley Ranch, Jason told Michelle, “I think I'll take Wednesday off too.” But at 9:22 p.m. he texted his mother, grandmother and two brothers a photo of his swollen legs with the caption, when you get two ankle sprains, and you're trying to grind to get back on sunday....

“Especially this season, he feels like he's the last man standing,” says Ryan Witten, five years Jason's elder. “He wants that franchise and those players to know that he can be depended on.” So Jason didn't take Wednesday off—as Michelle soon heard. Maurer's crew reduced the swelling to almost nothing, taping his legs mummy-tight, and Witten dropped into a stance a few times, launched and planted and cut. Hellish pain shot up his legs. Then he called Maurer over. “You know,” Witten said, “if we get some of this tape off, I think I'm going to be all right.”

After participating in the walk-through, Witten spent four hours that night icing. And less than 36 hours after he had left the house unable to walk, Michelle too knew that he would play. Suddenly, as if a switch inside her had been thrown, she loved the idea. “I'm like, Yessss!” Michelle says, slow-pumping a fist. “Isn't that sick?”

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

No. Or yes ... if we view Michelle's case as just one in a nationwide epidemic. Because we all say that we're concerned about studies relating football to brain trauma. We tsk-tsk at the stories and documentaries about 50-year-old NFL legends who can barely walk, talk or think straight. We accuse the league of culpability, praise its new tackling rules and injury protocols, and rethink whether we should let our kids play. Yet Witten received the biggest ovation at AT&T Stadium when his face flashed on the massive video board during the national anthem that Sunday, and he warmed old-school hearts by playing every down and making six catches for 65 yards in a brutal 39--28 loss. Maurer still can't say what keeps Witten going. “I wish I knew,” he says. “I'd bottle it. He's unique. There's 20 guys on this team right now who, if they'd had one of those injuries, wouldn't have played.”

Two weeks later Witten rolled into a game against the Patriots leading all tight ends with 25 receptions, few of them breathtaking. No one speaks of the 10-time Pro Bowler as redefining his position—like New England's freakish Rob Gronkowski, who has scored as many touchdowns in six seasons (63 through Week 11) as Witten has in 13, or the Chargers' indefatigable Antonio Gates, who at 35 has scored 103. This pass-happy era features tight ends like never before, but Witten's 11,010 career yards, second only to Tony Gonzalez's 15,127, reflect the template forged by Mike Ditka. Witten is low-altitude, rock-solid: the tight end you take home to mother. “His durability has been remarkable,” Pats coach Bill Belichick said the Tuesday before the game. Citing Witten's run- and pass-blocking, great hands and clutch play, Belichick declared, “He does it all.”

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Even coming from one of the game's celebrated hard-liners, such hosannas seem inadequate. Witten's signature moment came against the Eagles in 2007, after he caught a pass and was hit and his helmet popped off. He shrugged and then chugged, bareheaded, 25 more yards before being taken down. Such resilience has a cartoonish quality—Wile E. Coyote getting up after an anvil drops on his noggin—that all but demands overstatement. “Witten's a certified war daddy,” says Dallas defensive end Jeremy Mincey. “He's the epitome of what football is.”

“Jason's like the old Wild West: the cowboy who rides in,”​ Romo says.

The latest in a line of iconic Dallas tight ends—Ditka, Billy Joe Dupree, Jay Novacek—Witten broke the franchise's all-time receiving record in 2012. But his longevity may well be most significant: Witten broke defensive tackle Bob Lilly's team record of 196 consecutive games on Nov. 22, at Miami.

Witten likes to say that he plays only if he feels he can perform at the highest level. But in truth, he would have taken the field against Atlanta in traction. “Yes, but not for a streak,” he says. “I truly believe I have a job to do. To think that there's a sprain, and in a week it's going to feel better? No—why can't it feel better now? Your mind can go places. If you've got a broken clavicle, there's nothing you can do. But I've been fortunate. When I've had injuries where there's nothing structurally wrong and I know it's just about gutting through? I have the ability to say, ‘Get better. I'm good.’”

Ability? Better to say family imperative. Two years ago Ryan was an assistant coach at the middle school opener in Elizabethton when he tore an Achilles tendon celebrating a first-half touchdown. He refused a trainer's offer of a walking boot, then dragged himself up and down the sideline through the rest of regulation and three overtimes. "I'll be all right," he said.

Then there was the time in 2001 that Shawn, Jason's older brother by two years, broke his right fibula playing wide receiver at Virginia Tech. Writhing in the grass, he begged to be allowed to stand, because that's the Witten Way: You leave the field under your own steam. He swears he saw his grandfather's face barking, “Get up, boy! Get up! You've got to walk off!”

Shawn stood. The leg buckled, and out came the cart. That night he called his mom, terrified, and said, “Please tell Pap I tried to walk off. Tell him I'm sorry, but I just couldn't. I tried, I tried, I tried.”

Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated


Some say that Dave Rider had softened by the time his Witten grandsons came into his life. Maybe, but the old stories still hovered: How if you got carried off the field during Dave's playing days at Big Creek High in War, W.Va., in the early 1950s, you never got out there again. How Dave played his junior year on two broken ankles. How his right knee was totaled—cartilage, ligaments, bone—in the spring of freshman year at West Virginia, and after a doctor said he'd never play again, Dave shed a hip-to-toe cast that July and didn't miss a start.

He played both ways for the Mountaineers, at running back and defensive back. When college ended Rider worked a decade in the mines, loading coal on top of coaching. Football was his joy. He coached 40 years of high school in Virginia and Tennessee, had only one kid quit, won 250-plus games. By the time all three of his grandsons were living in Elizabethton, in 1993, the town had no bigger name. “There was a reverence and fear of Coach Rider,” says his former player Mike Morrell, now an assistant basketball coach at Texas, “that felt like it shook the ground.”

At school his grandsons called him Coach. At home with his wife, Deanna, Dave was different: loving and open. In quiet moments he spoke of how he'd never known his own dad. The boys would sit with him while he studied game film and ride with him the five miles to school, so, yes, they learned quickly that you played with a busted nose. But they also learned to call their elders sir or ma'am, to open doors for women, to treat wives and children like treasure.

They needed that. According to all involved, the marriage between Dave's daughter, Kim, and Eddie Witten had become a war zone by the late '80s; Kim and the two oldest boys, especially, were victims of Eddie's alcohol and drug abuse. “You never knew what was going to come home,” says Kim, now Kim Barnett after remarrying in 2006. “If he was drinking, he was mean. If he was using something else, the house could burn down around him and he wouldn't care.”

Jason says he can't remember his father laying a hand on him, but he witnessed abuse of his mother and Ryan. Mostly, Eddie's rage left Jason bewildered: Didn't we have fun at an Orioles game two days ago? “I was stuck there, and I saw my dad do some horrific things to people I love,” Jason says. “It was a tale of two different men. Like, Who is this guy?”

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At 12, Ryan was pushed into adulthood: shepherding his brothers upstairs when things got heated, getting between his parents, taking blows. More than once Ryan called the police to their Vienna home. One time while driving, Eddie launched a backhand that broke Kim's nose. She says it was because one boy had forgotten his shoes; Eddie says it was because he was angry over getting lost. “I asked her to read a map, and she didn't want to do it,” Eddie says, “so I slapped her right there.” From the backseat, the older boys saw blood. “Jason was screaming, but he was so young he didn't know,” Kim says. “He was screaming because Ryan and Shawn were screaming.”

When Ryan began skipping school, in 1991, Kim sent him to live with her parents in Elizabethton, to play football for her dad. On Ryan's spring break visit to Vienna, in '93, the family was driving down I-95 when Eddie flared up, pulled over and made Kim get out of the car. Ryan jumped out, with 12-year old Shawn and 10-year-old Jason trailing. The four trudged to the nearest exit, where a state trooper picked them up and drove them home. “That was the day I knew,” Kim says.

One morning that June, Shawn and Jason woke up expecting to make their usual walk to school. As soon as Eddie left for work, Kim told them to pack. “Didn't tell our friends goodbye, didn't tell our Pee-Wee coaches goodbye, didn't even tell our teachers goodbye,” Shawn says. “We were just gone.”

Once they all moved into the house Kim had grown up in, the boys began feeling like a family again: meals together, church, a steady voice in charge. Rider never bad-mouthed their dad. When Jason cried for Eddie, Ryan consoled him most. “Trust me,” he'd say. “This is the way it's supposed to be.”

Ryan, small but fiercely committed, became a headhunting defensive back for Elizabethton High; if Coach Rider told him to take on five opponents single-handed, he wouldn't ask why. “He saved my life,” Ryan says. Shawn and Jason, water boys for the Cyclones, went everywhere with their older brother—movies, the weight room, even on dates. They'd throw a football for hours in the backyard with its steep slope, Jason fetching the misses. You develop good hands that way.

The first year Eddie came to take the youngest boys for a weekend or holiday. Jason lived for those visits, but soon the disappointments piled up, and he saw why Eddie made everyone else so bitter. “And I eventually learned on my own—he stopped showing up ... he's not coming ... wait, he talked to mom like that?” Jason says. “My dad showed me, which in turn allowed me to appreciate all the good that was coming into my life.”

But if his grandfather set the example for manhood, Ryan modeled the way forward. He stayed upbeat, even when forced to sit out his freshman year over a residency technicality or as people openly wondered if he played only because he was Coach Rider's kin. Then, as Ryan bounced among three small colleges, Shawn emerged as perhaps the greatest player in Elizabethton history, a quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back who was named all-state three times. Jason sprung up to 6'4", the fastest Witten of all, a soon-to-be high school All-America at linebacker. “But Ryan was never jealous,” Jason says. “My junior and senior year he was my biggest fan, last person I'd see before I went on the field: ‘Go get 'em today, man, they can't stop you!’ That's what you want your big brother to do.”

Still, it took a while for Jason to soak up his grandfather's core value. He missed the first three games of his junior year with a cracked ankle, figuring that the injury all but killed his chance at a college scholarship. One afternoon, thinking his grandmother would be a sympathetic ear, he complained about the unfairness and the pain.

“Jason, I want you to give up that football,” Deanna finally said. “It's an awful tough sport.”

“Mamaw, I can't just give it up,” Jason sputtered.

“Well, then get out there,” Deanna said, “and quit alibiing.”

James D. Smith


Rookie year, fourth game: Already the Cowboys are looking to Witten to bail them out. This matters, considering the fierce debate within the organization over whether to take him in the 2003 draft. Some had pushed hard for UCLA tight end Mike Seidman, but new coach Bill Parcells stood firm: He wanted Witten, whose numbers at Tennessee weren't as eye-catching but who had switched from defensive end his freshman year and produced three standout seasons in SEC hellfire, never missing a down. (Seidman, taken seven picks later in the third round by the Panthers, would be out of the NFL in four years.)

Now it's early in the fourth quarter; Dallas has third-and-11 on its own three-yard line. Witten hauls in a Quincy Carter pass over the middle and is cracked so hard on the right side of his head by Cardinals linebacker Ronald McKinnon—who will later be fined $7,500 by the NFL—that his jaw is fractured in two spots on the right side and sheared loose on the left.

Witten jogs off the field, of course, but on reaching the sideline crumples to his knees, blood streaming into the turf. Even as his face swells like a bullfrog and he undergoes X-rays under Texas Stadium, his only thought is of Parcells hearing the news and sneering, "What do you mean, he's not coming back in?"

They were made for each other. Parcells, the coach who delighted in ignoring any player who showed signs of fatigue, studied the great tight end Russ Francis as a defensive assistant with New England, and then as coach of the Giants and the Pats he developed standouts Mark Bavaro and Ben Coates. Parcells baited Witten on his toughness, calling him out in film sessions: “I forgot, Witten! You don't run down on kickoffs—just want to catch passes. You're everybody's All-American! Blond, blue-eyed farm boy...”

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​Witten showed up at Valley Ranch three days after his injury with three metal plates screwed into his jaw, a four-to-six-week recovery in mind. Parcells greeted him with a jar of sweet-potato baby food and the story of how Bavaro broke his jaw and played the same night. He told Witten to keep his weight up: Drop and you'll be fined and on my s---list. Witten missed one game, lost 15 pounds and panicked. He slipped a five-pound sandbag into his shorts, made weight, played the next week against Detroit.

Later that season Dave Rider visited Valley Ranch. Witten ginned up his courage and asked if his grandfather could attend practice. Parcells said yes and even sat with Rider for half an hour, telling tales, gathering intelligence. At the end the old man said, “Jason's a good boy, but if he needs a kick right in the ass, you give it to him. If that doesn't work, call me.”

Parcells crowed that he now had “carte blanche” to make Witten's life miserable. Witten didn't care. How many chances did he have to pay his grandpa back? “I've wanted to meet him a long time, Jason,” Rider softly said of Parcells in the car afterward. “Thank you for that.”

Coaches love coach-raised kids. The boys don't grow up hearing mindless praise at home, Parcells says, and they can't help but learn the game in toto. Witten's ability to read defensive shifts, and not only for himself, is uncanny: Often, while in motion, he barks out new blocking assignments to running backs. Coaches correcting his adjustments usually end up red-faced. “I'll look at tape, and 99.9% of the time Jason's decision was right,” Romo says. “Outside of the quarterback room? He would be the next guy you'd tell, 'O.K., you can go in and play QB and understand the concepts, the hots, the sights, all the simplistic yet difficult things that you need to know.' It's rare.”

In Cowboys training camp in July, veterans were charged with lecturing the team on one of their most important plays. Witten chose 595 Y-Option, his trademark route, which saved the Cowboys' winning drive against the Lions in the 2014 playoffs. In the play Witten runs 10 yards from scrimmage, reads the defender's lean and hooks outside or in. Nine times out of 10 he veers outside.

Witten began by breaking down the play into eight segments. Half of them—what he's thinking, how he fixes his eyes, how his weight is distributed, how he releases from his stance—covered just the first two steps. "The most detailed, thorough coaching demonstration I have ever seen," says Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.

Then Witten rolled the clip of his glory moment, the fourth-and-six conversion against Detroit with six minutes left. And though he had taken everyone by surprise with a textbook fake outside and instead cut in—and made the 21-yard catch that keyed the Cowboys' first postseason win in five years—Witten didn't dwell on that. Instead he pointed out how Dez Bryant's presence had forced the Lions into Cover 2, how left guard Ronald Leary all but shanghaied tackle Ndamukong Suh to give Romo just half a second more, how receivers Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams stretched the secondary to open up Witten's matchup with safety James Ihedigbo, and what each of the six other Cowboys did to make his feat possible. “He put it all the way back into team,” Garrett says. “How they made it happen.”

Don't mistake that for unselfishness. “Jason wants all the balls,” says Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Though known as a generous tutor, Witten took the drafting of tight ends Anthony Fasano in 2006 and Martellus Bennett in '08 as threats. When Garrett inserted one blocking play for Bennett in the game plan for the '09 opener, Witten didn't speak to him for a week.

That came after a punishing 2008, during which Witten played through a separated shoulder, torn rib cartilage, a broken rib, a vicious hit to the jaw and a high ankle sprain. He still finished with 81 catches for 952 yards, but "injury-prone" is not a label he wanted to stick. So he told Maurer that if he had any ailment that was less than crippling, he should be reported to team officials as fine. Come the Wednesday walk-through, he'd make sure he was ready to go.



Let's stop for a question. Jason Witten is a hero in Dallas, not least because he takes so much punishment, and considering the most influential man in his life, the former players he most respects, his love of competition, the organization that pays his $5.1 million salary, and all the newspapers, TV crews and, yes, magazines that find his endurance endlessly fascinating, he has little room for a voice advocating restraint. But it bears asking: Is football worth dying for?

Because, once, that's what it came down to. After Witten suffered a lacerated spleen in the first preseason game of 2012, he vowed to play in the opener 23 days later, against the Giants. This was not a sprain or bone bruise; even a laceration as small as his—three centimeters—can cause blood to drain into the abdomen. At the time medical practice dictated six to eight weeks of rest before resuming strenuous activity. Maurer, Kim, Dave, Michelle, the team doctor and a surgeon all advised Jason to stand down.

Michelle sent Jason's CT scan to a trauma surgeon at Parkland. “I don't know anyone who's going to clear you [to play],” the doctor told Jason. (He also noticed two healed—but previously undiagnosed—cracked ribs.) Michelle had seen plenty of spleen trauma. She knew that one hit could reopen Jason's wound, perhaps cause a full rupture. Worse, he could be hit during the Giants game, feel fine but have the wound reopen on the flight home due to modulations in air pressure. “That was the scariest,” she says. “I did not want him to play, and I was very vocal; I knew he could die in an airplane. He could bleed out and not even know.”

But Witten felt good. Reports at the time stated that he finally received clearance from O. Wayne Isom, then chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at New York City's Weill Cornell Medical Center. Jones, who had flown Witten there on his private jet and accompanied him to two evaluations with Isom, says that the doctor “advised Jason he could play.... He was very convincing.”

Isom has a different recollection. He says he told Jones that his lack of recent trauma experience rendered him less than qualified to judge. While Witten's injury was barely visible on the latest scan—Isom says it was more bruise than laceration—he also recalls saying that if he had seen the same in an auto-accident victim, “I wouldn't say go back and get in another car wreck—and that's what you're doing every Sunday.” He adds, “I didn't clear [Jason], and Jerry just said thank you and left. I didn't know till the next day that he played, because I watched the game.”

Witten caught two passes for 10 yards that Sunday and after a slow start pieced together perhaps his best season: a tight-end-record 110 catches and a fourth 1,000-yard season. That sealed his ironman rep, but “what really separates Jason is his pursuit of doing everything the right way," Garrett says. "Every pass-set, walk-through, motion: His eyes are right. There's never a frivolous moment.”

That Garrett says this while pointing to a PURSUE EXCELLENCE cup is no accident: Witten has become a living bromide, the perfect example. So here's another question: Why? “I think Jason lives his life trying to please,” Michelle says, and what could please coaches, fans and teammates more than dependability? “More than anybody,” Romo says, “Jason doesn't want anyone—a coach or father figure or wife or best friend—to think that he can't do something.”

Add family to Romo's list. Witten is determined to be there for his four kids—“constant in their life,” as he puts it—in a way his father wasn't. While gimping about, bleary-eyed, on his ankle and knee sprains in October, he still drove the children to school, still woke up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, his usual sleep-in day, to write his nine-year-old son, C.J., a three-page birthday letter. At a laser-tag party the night before, plans had to be made to protect Jason from himself. “I don't want to tempt Dad,” C.J. told his mom. “I'm not going to put him on my team. I don't want him to hurt his ankle anymore.”

In 2007, Witten created the Scorekeepers Program to assist families roiled by domestic violence. The initiative, which spread to six Texas battered-women's shelters and includes four learning centers in Texas and Tennessee, also provides for six full-time male counselors and is estimated to have touched the lives of 5,000 children “whether they've been abused or not,” Witten says, “because they've seen it. Their life has been disrupted, much like mine was—and probably a lot worse. The purpose was to provide a resource for these kids. To be a male mentor. To be Dave Rider. To be there to inspire, to push, to hug, to listen.”

When he first told his mom about this, she cried; Kim Barnett's pride in “the man, husband and father Jason has become” couldn't be clearer. Ryan calls his little brother “my hero,” and Shawn, who now has Rider's old job as Cyclones coach, regularly invokes Jason's name at Elizabethton High, which is located at 907 Jason Witten Way. Jason is the family achievement, made only more impressive when you realize that family troubles don't stop with the signing of an NFL contract.

In June 2008, Barnett pleaded guilty in Elizabethton on 25 felony counts of forgery for withdrawing, over eight months, $5,465 from a local woman's bank account. Jason's mother, sentenced to 30 days in jail and four years' probation, told the court she was trying to cover the last costs of Ryan's degree in physical education at nearby Milligan College. She has paid the money back.

Four days later Jason hosted, as he has since 2003, his annual SCORE Foundation football camp in Elizabethton for 1,200 kids. “I just felt like I needed to be that piece that would keep it all together,” he says. “That was my grandparents' daughter, and they're hurt. They're living in that town, respected in that town. So even though it is strange or awkward at times, I always feel like I need to be the one who does.”

Two years later Ryan, then the coach at John S. Battle High in Bristol, Va., was charged in Elizabethton with his second DUI in three years. Ryan resigned his high school position in February 2011, and his driver's license was suspended for a year the following May. Not long after, Kim was driving him to work when Ryan said, “I'm heading down the road my dad was on, aren't I?”

Jason is sure that Ryan, as the oldest, suffered the most from Eddie's abuse. “There was a long time there that I worried about him,” Jason says. He kept sending his big brother the message: That name on the back of my jersey on Sundays? You're the reason. You're a huge part of this. In 2013, Ryan began working for Shawn, coaching at Elizabethton's middle and high schools. He reconnected with his high school girlfriend and got married. He began a personal coaching business for kids ages five to 18 and vowed to let his twisted feelings toward his dad finally die.

Eddie, who served six months in 2002–03 for unlawfully wounding his 72-year-old mother, surfaces in his sons' lives from time to time. He lives not far from Elizabethton, and for a while he showed up, nervously, at Jason's football camp until Jason finally said, “I forgive you, what you did.” Relations became civil, if not warm.

But in October 2014, ESPN's E-60 produced a piece on Jason and interviewed Eddie, who said he remembered being abusive “maybe once or twice” but denied being violent with Kim or his sons. The family was irate. “He had a chance to make it right,” Jason says, “and he lied.” (“I have to admit to that,” Eddie says. “How can I lie and say, 'I didn't hit my wife' on national TV? I didn't know what to say.”)

Jason called Eddie, livid. The following Sunday, after a 20–17 overtime loss to the Redskins, Jason was walking out of the locker room at AT&T Stadium when he heard his name called. Even as he turned he thought, How did he get down here? It hit him: Eddie always had a way. So Jason stopped, and there they were again, in the dim echoing hall under a stadium. What was it his dad used to say? You want to be that someday. Now Jason was the player, cornered, and Eddie was getting him to shake hands with a random guy.

Some see that as the night Jason gave up on his father for good, but he shrugs it off. “Moving forward, being positive,” he says. No, football's toughest man cracks just once a year, and it is always the same: The Cowboys' season ends, and the locker room door closes. The pressure to endure and win and be the family rock and team rock and scared kids' rock lifts, just enough, and Jason Witten begins to cry. He peels the tape. He shucks his pads. He showers and dresses, crying still.

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