When the Cowboys line up to play their annual Thanksgiving Day home game, a lot will be on the line. The Panthers are 10-0, for one thing, and the Cowboys, still breathing in the NFC East at 3-7, need the game to stay alive in the division race. Another reason it matters more than just a little: Tight end Jason Witten, one of the best and classiest players to ever wear a star on helmet, needs six receptions to become the 11th player in NFL history (and only the second tight end) to catch 1,000 passes.
Witten has had a storied career for a storied franchise, beginning as a rookie under first-year head coach Bill Parcells. On Thursday he’ll play in his 198th consecutive game, building upon a team record he set last weekend. Witten was a little emotional talking about it this week, as he went Unplugged with editor-in-chief of The MMQB, Peter King.
Draft day 2003, when the Cowboys picked him in the third round out of Tennessee
“I remember the third round comes up and I get the call from Bill and Jerry Jones. I remember Jerry first. I knew that voice, saying, ‘I want you to come put a star on your helmet.’ The disappointment of falling in the draft and then the opportunity … my emotion just completely switched in five minutes. And then Bill coming on the phone and just being very direct, ‘You better be ready to come in here and work, kid.’ ”
On playing for Parcells
“Early on, it was tough. I was a receiving tight end and he would constantly bust my chops about that. I really believe he was trying to break me. I think he realized early on that, Hey, this guy has a lot of improving to do, but he is all in, he wants to learn, he wants to be a great player. Early on, I didn’t even think I was going to make the team. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but I was the whipping boy. In the film room when he had the remote-controller in his hand, he’d be like, ‘This is what not to do. Just watch this Witten guy.’ But it was great to play for him because he taught me so much about the game and the position and how you have to approach it and how you have to respect it. His approach to me early was, ‘I know I’m kicking your tail right now, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.’ ”
On breaking his jaw in three places in a game as a rookie, and missing only one game
“I caught a pass against Tampa and took this hit and I really thought, Man, I think my tooth got knocked out. I got out of the hospital a couple days later, with my jaw broken in three places and plates surgically put in there, and it was going to be three or four weeks that I was going to be out. Bill came right in there in the training room. I’m dead serious—he had a jar of baby food and he told me, ‘You are going to have to eat this to keep your weight on. Baby food has high calories.’ I’m sitting there thinking to myself, This guy is out of his mind! I’m serious—sweet potato baby food!’’
Fond memory or bad one?
“It’s a fond memory. It was a great opportunity for me to show my toughness. I was able to show Bill that I am this player, I am this tight end that you had in the past and you can build in the structure of your offense around.”
Why it’s important to be known as a tough guy
“I think it is not about proving that you are tough. I love playing football. My whole life is … I love to play. This past week there was conversation about it, because I passed Bob Lilly on the Cowboys’ consecutive-games list. But to me it’s not about like this streak or anything else—it’s just I love to play. To ever think I’m not going to get to play, it kills me.”
On 1,000 catches
“The reason why I am acknowledging it and am humbled to join that group is because of the names on that list. The respect I have for the game, that there are only 10 guys over the course of almost a hundred years of football with 1,000 catches … To me, the highest honor you can have is when people say you played the game at a high level and you played it at a high level for a long time. To reach a milestone like this, that is consistency. You look at the names, from Jerry Rice at number one to Hines Ward at number 10. There are a lot of guys with different personalities and different styles and talent and how they got there, but the constant of all of them was the consistent way they approached the game and the way they played it. I can’t even put it into words what an honor it is to say I could shortly be a part of that group.”
Playing on Thanksgiving every year
“It puts chills on my arms thinking about it. As a kid I watched it, as so many families will do this Thursday. I sat on the couch with my family and have such great memories of that day as a kid growing up and watching it. From the first day I played and now this will be the 13th, you get to do what you love in front of the whole country, when we all are enjoying our families and our loved ones and giving thanks for what we have in life. My hair stands up on the back of my neck thinking about it. Are you kidding me? How many kids would love to play on Thanksgiving Day—and for the Dallas Cowboys?”
“People know that he is loyal and he has high expectations, but this guy is all in now. The greatest thing I have learned from him is to stay as determined as he is now. When your owner approaches it that way, it is motivating, it is encouraging, you want to succeed for that. I think people see the flashiness. But really, he is all in for his team, with the big things and all the little things, and he wants his players to be able to achieve what those teams were able to achieve in the nineties.”
The greatest game of his career
“As a player, just having that Michael Jordan moment, where you just feel like they can’t stop me—that was the Giants game in 2012 where I caught 18 balls and was targeted 23 times. Really we fought back, we came back in that game. And I just felt like I was in this zone where Tom Coughlin was just sending the safety on me, he sent a corner, another linebacker, it was just this rotation of guys and I just felt like I was in that zone where I could not be denied. But there’s another game, another play, I would have to go back to. It’s not a game that was probably my best game ever or any crazy stats, but the Detroit playoff game last year was a wild game. We had a fourth-and-six in the fourth quarter, game on the line, season on the line, and Tony checks at the line to call my play; it’s a Y-option play. The guy covering me knew I was running Y-option, so instead of breaking out, which the play calls for, I turn in and Tony saw it, he felt it. I probably shouldn’t have turned in if we are going by the rules, but Tony followed me. He knew, and I knew. We got a big fourth-down conversion and we went down and scored and set up that win. To me, that was the ultimate game, because it is years upon years of working at the craft. Two guys sharing a dream and working together for a ton of offseasons and now we’re in a playoff game with our season on the line to get to the second round. I think we are all ultimately defined by, Can we win a championship? At this point in my career, everything is defined by that. Me and Tony, on that play, that moment, we read it right and we made the play and we ended up winning. That play will always be huge to me.”
Surviving an abusive father growing up
(Witten’s mother took her three boys, including Jason, from the Washington D.C. area to live with her parents in Tennessee, in 1993, after the boys’ father, a substance-abuser, abused the mother physically and the family verbally.)
“People will tell you when you are in those relationships, you love the guy. My dad was my dad in a lot of ways, but when it got bad, it got dark. It was constant tough battling. When my mom made the decision that it was enough, we went from Northern Virginia to Tennessee to live with my grandparents. The feeling wasn’t, Great! We got out of a bad thing. I mean, my dad was somebody that we loved. But it just got to be this battle of which person is it going to be today? I just think back to the courage my oldest brother Ryan and my mom had to be able to just stay resilient. We just moved forward to a better opportunity. My brother and my mom had such courageous spirit and instilled that in me. Like: ‘This is not perfect, but keep moving forward and be mentally tough. We’re going to create a better opportunity.’ And look at what happened. We did.”
Winning Man of the Year in 2013
“I wanted to encourage people to know that you can make a difference. I look at my grandfather, who was my high school football coach. Any dream that I ever had was because of what he instilled in me and taught me and dreamed with me. I wanted people to understand that and my appreciation for him and my mom to be able to find a way out of a bad situation and be helpful enough to go get help and put her children in a situation that she knew was going to have a positive influence in our lives. It’s a platform and that has to be a part of your legacy as much as what you do on the football field as a player. To receive that award, to me, it’s the highest honor you can get as a pro football player. I was overwhelmed because I respect this game so much and the players who make it what it is. Man of the Year, that’s the ultimate list.”