In a black, metal magazine rack stuffed with old copies of Sports Illustrated, ESPN’s The Magazine and a couple of books on writing, sits the only photograph of a Cowboys’ player in my home.
It’s a picture of tight end Jason Witten.
It shows him surrounded by three Philadelphia Eagles players in the moments after his helmet gets knocked off, but before he gets tackled 40 yards downfield on the iconic 53-yard catch-and-run that will surely be included in the video on the day he enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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That’s the only picture I have from 22 years of covering the Cowboys, including five Hall of Farmers and owner Jerry Jones, because that one play represents every trait you want in a football player: toughness, competitiveness and athleticism.
It also represents everything you want in a man: determination, fearlessness and the ability to fight through adversity.
Witten officially ended a spectacular 15-year career Thursday that included 1,125 catches, 12,440 yards, 68 touchdowns and a franchise record 229 games to begin a career as lead analyst for Monday Night Football.
He revealed the secret of his success during a emotional 16-minute ceremony at the Star, the Cowboys’ billion-dollar training facility, attended by players, coaches, teammates and virtually every member of the Cowboys’ organization.
“Whenever young kids come up to me and ask me, 'How do you grow up and play for the Dallas Cowboys, and have that type of career?'" Witten said. "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."
See, he really wasn’t the biggest, fastest or strongest. Maybe, you thought Tony Gonzalez, the all-time leader in receptions among tight ends, was better receiver and route-runner.
Perhaps, you thought Antonio Gates made more big plays because he scored 114 touchdowns in a career that also began in 2003 and appears to have ended when San Diego released him last week.
It’s all irrelevant because no one worked harder to make himself the NFL’s most complete tight end in an era where the position has morphed into soft, oversized receivers who have forgotten they’re supposed to block.
We’re talking about a dude that started 179 consecutive games, and missed just one game - the fifth of his rookie year when he broke his jaw. He ruptured a spleen in a 2012 preseason game and returned in time for the opener against the New York Giants, giving his teammates the ultimate example of what it means to sacrifice for the team.
He didn’t enter the offseason contemplating retirement. At the Super Bowl in January, Witten scoffed at the notion of playing fewer snaps in an effort to stay spry late in the season, and a couple of weeks ago he talked openly of playing until he was 40.
Then Monday Night Football offered him the job as lead analyst. It was an offer no sane 35-year-old refuses.
He played for an iconic team and now he’s part of an iconic broadcast.
“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late,” Witten said Thursday.
“After much self reflection, prayer and faith, today I’ve decided the time has come to pass the torch to the next generation of Dallas Cowboys and retire from the National Football League.
“I never allowed my mind to drift to a place to think of what this day would look like for me. I never wanted this day to come, but it does come, for all of us," he said.
Witten waged a battle with himself for a few days, pitting his desire to compete one or two more years and the chance to win a Super Bowl against the pragmatic understanding he might not ever have another opportunity to get one of the best jobs in broadcasting.
The quest for a championship weighed heavily on Witten. He played in only eight playoff games and never made it to the NFC Championship. The Cowboys had the NFC’s best record in 2007 and 2016.
Each time they lost in the first round.
And in 2014, they were victimized by Dez Bryant’s catch that wasn’t a catch that should’ve been ruled a catch in a close loss to Green Bay.
"The hardest part of this decision,” said Witten, his voice cracking as he looked at Jerry Jones, “was knowing that I would never be able to hand you that Lombardi Trophy.
“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.”
And that’s why he received a ceremony fit for king. When he arrived at The Star, dozens of teammates and employees formed two long lines in the foyer and greeted him with hugs and applause.
As he sat at a dais with Jerry Jones to his left and Jason Garrett to his right, meaningful quotes from throughout his career flashed on the 10 video boards in the dining area, where the press conference was held.
Witten’s voice wavered off and on from the beginning. Jerry dabbed his eyes more than once, and Jason Garrett took a long swig in the middle of a story about Witten’s ability to perfect the option route to keep from bawling.
“There aren’t many decisions that come with absolute certainty, but I can tell you one thing that is certain,” Witten said, “Putting on that white jersey, that silver helmet with the navy star, seeing your name on the back of the jersey, running on the field as a member of America’s Team, it brings a certainty of pride and honor.
“The kind of certainty that comes once in a lifetime, to be a Dallas Cowboy.”