Go be John Wayne.
That’s the message Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had for Jason Witten when ESPN offered the veteran tight end the color commentary position with Monday Night Football.
It’s simply too prestigious of a gig for Witten to pass up in order to play what would have been a 16th season in the NFL in 2018.
"As being a fan of this game, I knew that was John Madden’s chair. That was Jon Gruden's chair," Witten said, referencing a couple of high-profile predecessors.
"Having an opportunity to do that, I just expressed [to Jones] what the details of what could possibly be out there for me. He shared with me what he thought and in the only way he can do it, he told me to go be John Wayne."
Witten and Jones laughed about that conversation on Thursday, as Witten formally announced his NFL retirement after 15 seasons.
Witten, who turns 36 on Sunday, follows other Cowboys players down a similar path into broadcasting. Former Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith was an original member of the Monday Night Football broadcast team in 1970.
Former quarterbacks Troy Aikman (FOX) and Tony Romo (CBS) are the lead analysts at their respective networks, and former fullback Daryl Johnston calls games on FOX as well. Former receiver Michael Irvin and cornerback Deion Sanders are regular fixtures on NFL Network and former safety Darren Woodson is a football analyst on ESPN.
For Witten, the opportunity to follow in those footsteps became an easier decision than chasing a Super Bowl for another season. He had every intention of playing a 16th season, stating so publicly as recently as last month, until being offered the high-profile job.
"With opportunities, that changes it," Witten said of his thinking the last couple of weeks. "Look, I always knew where I was at in my career. I knew the demands and what I had to do every day and day in and day out, and I was committed to doing that. Really, I did not think that was going to be my last game in Philadelphia [on Dec. 31].
"But when you go through that process and I was certain that when I went through that I wanted the blessing of Jerry and his family. The opportunity I have to stay around the game for me, as I said, no man really leaves on his terms. It was just an opportunity. When you're in those moments, those other things didn’t really exist, so I think that had a lot to do with it."
Most felt Witten would become a coach after his playing days, but he joked that the broadcaster's lifestyle is a little better.
"Those coaches work a lot of hours," Witten said, smiling. "I mean, if you don’t play it, you want to coach it. If you can’t coach it, you want to be around it. I think it’s a unique opportunity to join a good team and to be able to partner with guys who have that same passion and a huge platform to share our love for this great game and the National Football League."
Witten will replace Gruden, who left in January to return as coach of the Oakland Raiders. Witten will be paired with new play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore.
Witten will call his first Cowboys game on Nov. 5 when Dallas hosts the Tennessee Titans at AT&T Stadium.
"We want to congratulate Jason Witten on a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Dallas Cowboys and we are thrilled to welcome him to ESPN and Monday Night Football," ESPN executive vice president Connor Schell said in a statement. "Jason's passion, his insight, and his ability to clearly communicate his knowledge of the game thoroughly impressed us. He has all the potential to be an exceptional analyst and we can't wait to get started."
Jones couldn’t be more excited about Witten’s next chapter, either.
"He has prepared himself as well as anybody who has ever worn the star as much to take that next step," Jones said. "From my perspective, they don’t come along every day, those steps or those opportunities. If anybody has worked and given of themselves as much as he gave to the fans of the Dallas Cowboys, if anybody deserves to have taken advantage of that opportunity, Jason Witten deserves to take advantage of that opportunity. He earned it."