It's a Jason Witten re-retirement. Time to re-tell a story ...
FRISCO - There's a classic old Western, 1962's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,'' that perfectly elevates the actor John Wayne to his everlasting pedestal.
Wayne is Tom Doniphon ... but yet he's also John Wayne. The bad guy, Liberty Valance, is terrorizing the town of Shinbone, and particularly tenderfoot Eastern brainiac Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart (and yes, Stewart, too, is playing a familiar version of himself: a sweet, stammering pacifist.) It seems that Stoddard/Stewart is the shocking winner of a gunfight with the evil Valance, though actually, from the shadows, it's John Wayne who fires the shot that saves the town.
But Wayne/Doniphon never tells a soul. Instead, he lets Stewart take the credit, and thus empowered, the celebrity Stewart/Stoddard leads the territory to U.S. statehood. Years later, at Doniphon's funeral, Stewart spills the beans to a reporter, wanting to recognize the honorable memory of Wayne's character. The reporter, however, declines to write the truth.
Stoddard/Stewart: “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”
The reporter's (now-classic movie line) response: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Which brings us to Jason Witten's retirement. Then. And now.
“Whenever young kids come to me up and ask me, ‘How do you grow up and play for the Dallas Cowboys, and have that type of career?’” Witten said at his May 2018 goodbye ceremony at The Star in Frisco. “My answer was always the same: 'The secret is in the dirt.' I was never the most talented, never the flashiest, I relied on grit.”
Ah, grit. As in "True Grit,'' yet another classic John Wayne flick in which he plays an American prototype: He's big and he's broad and he's square-jawed and he's patriotic and he's unflappable and he always gets in the last word, the last punch, the last rifle-shot.
Like Jason Witten.
At some point during the 2018 "I'm-leaving'' meetings Witten conducted with Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner gave the iconic tight end a Hollywood-level farewell.
"Go be John Wayne,'' Jerry said.
Witten didn't go into the movie business, but close enough: He joining ESPN, to star on "Monday Night Football,'' to in a sense "play himself'' ... like John Wayne played a "Tom Doniphon'' who was really John Wayne.
It did not go well for Witt's one year on TV, maybe because not even John Wayne was John Wayne. His real name was Marion Morrison, and while going to high school in California he allowed himself to be nicknamed "Duke,'' and he wasn't a cowboy -- actually, he played football at Southern Cal, got hurt surfing, and then become a Hollywood prop boy, and then an actor.
Is Jason Witten - who came back to the Cowboys in 2019 and then squeezed out one last season toiling for the Raiders - really "Jason Witten''?
In the years I've known him, yeah, he's pretty close. The passion and work ethic and big heart were always real. At that retirement presser, the tears were real, too.
“The hardest part of this decision was knowing that I would never be able to hand you that Lombardi Trophy,” the franchise leader in games, catches and yards receiving said to Jones during his 15-minute speech that day. “I told you back in 2006 that I would not let you down. I hope that in your eyes, I held up my end of the bargain.”
Witten said just the right thing about coaches, teammates and staffers over the years, just right right thing about every member of the Jones family, and just the right thing about Cowboys fans, noting, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people won’t forget how you made them feel. ... I hope along the way I made you proud to be a Dallas Cowboys fan.''
Said Jerry: “When I look at where we were with the great legacy of our fans that have had 56 years of being around some of the greatest people and names of players ever ... to me, no one has ever given more of himself and no one has ever made any bigger impact.”
This is the sort of comment many of us have made about Witten over the last decade-and-a-half. We can get caught up in the moment, as some of my colleagues did in watching the presser and then labeling the ol' ballplayer "a god,'' and we can immerse ourselves in the symbolic photograph of a helmet-less Witten chugging downfield in a 2007 game against the Eagles.
There’s an old saying in pro football: 'The circus doesn’t stay in town forever,'' Witten said in May 2018, not knowing then that his circus would inceed come back to town.
The Jason Witten Circus leaves town having never been a circus at all. It was more of a ride on a "Stagecoach'' (yeah, another classic Western starring John Wayne): "Cowboys and Indians'' and good guys and bad guys and white hats vs. black hats and the hero wins at the end.
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The "character'' Witten plays is awfully close to the person Witten is. So he's qualified to take Jerry's advice, maybe not as a celebrity but more as a charity powerhouse, a community leader, a role model.
"Go be John Wayne''?
Sure. For a second time. Go get 'em, Pilgrim.
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