Bob Lilly is Mr. Cowboy.
There is no disputing that.
He was the team’s first draft pick, the first player inducted in the team’s hallowed Ring of Honor, and the first Cowboys player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There are several other Cowboys legends who have come to be known as the face of the team in word and deed since Lilly, including Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.
But if there ever was a player who fits the moniker Mr. Cowboy II, or the new age Mr. Cowboy, it would be current tight end Jason Witten, a future Hall of Famer and Ring of Honor member who is has exemplified excellence on and off the field for the last 15 years.
Already the team’s career leader in yards (11,947), catches (1,096), starts (214) and consecutive starts (164), Witten will become the Cowboys’ all-time leader in games played Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
It will be his 225th game as a Cowboy, breaking a tie with Ed Jones.
“It’s certainly flown by,” Witten said. “I think it’s been a collection of years on this journey. You continue to try to get better and better and better, stay focused on that and next thing you look up and you accomplish something like that. So many great football players come through this organization, the right type of guys, tough mentally and physically. To be able to reach something like that, I’m appreciative of it.”
The all-time games played record is special considering that Witten broke his jaw four games into his rookie season in 2003.
This is when he learned about the laws of then-coach Bill Parcells, who frequently said “football players play football in football season.”
After suffering the fractured jaw, a strength coach came into the locker room asking when Witten was coming back in.
Trainer Jim Maurer intervened and said Witten wasn’t coming back because he was going to the hospital for surgery and to have his jaw wired shut.
“I come back in a few days later, my mouth is swollen after the surgery and of course, Bill had the sweet potato baby food waiting for me cause the challenge was keeping your weight up,” Witten said. “I said you got to be kidding.’ And he was serious.”
Witten missed one game then and none since, though once he had to pull a fast one on Parcells to play.
“He wasn’t going to play me if I didn’t make weight,” Witten said. “He was so proud of me that I made weight and was going to get a chance to play. I think he was giving the sweet potato the credit. Little did he know there was a 5-pound weight in my pants. That was a gutsy move on my end as a 20-year-old kid to make that decision, but here I am 15 years later.”
In the interim, he’s had a signature moment of running down the field without a helmet while being chased by Eagles. He was also in the starting lineup for the 2012 season opener despite suffering a lacerated spleen three weeks earlier. These types of actions have helped Witten become known to the Cowboys as Mr. Reliable as well as Mr. Cowboy.
“That’s how we see him,” Lee said. “There is nobody better to represent this franchise, and really no one better to represent the NFL and how you succeed on and off the field. It’s outrageous. For him to be able to play like that, I mean, he’s a legend. We all see him as a legend in this locker room.”
Coach Jason Garrett refused to weigh in the Mr. Cowboy moniker, but he acknowledges Witten exemplifies the excellence of the organization on and off the field as much as anyone in any era.
“You said it, there’s been such a great history here with the Cowboys,” Garrett said. “The greatest coaches, the greatest players and the greatest teams. The Cowboys have been a part of that for the last 58 years. Jason Witten fits into the conversation with all of those greats. He’s among the best who have ever played in this organization. It has a lot to do with his production over the last 15 years, it ranks among the best in the history of the National Football League. So there’s something to be said for that. But it has more to do with his approach each and every day and how he goes about it, the example he sets consistently day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out. He’s a great example for all of us.”
Witten, ever the dignitary and statesman, is flattered by the Mr. Cowboy nickname, but respectfully defers to Lilly as the original.
“It’s special,” Witten said. “Mr. Lilly said that to me last year. It means a lot coming from somebody like him. You just try to do things the right way, play the game the way its supposed to be played. We are looking for consistency, dependability and availability. That is what this game is all about. That is what I have tried to do and emulate on and off the field.
“I’m honored to be mentioned with that. To have something like that go with your legacy is special. But I learned real quick who Mr. Cowboy was when I came here. [Lilly] will always be that. Until he passes the baton, I will show my respect.”