Watch: Jason Witten gives emotional retirement speech
Jason Witten officially walked away from the Dallas Cowboys Thursday with a sendoff normally reserved for a conquering hero.
Hundreds of teammates and employees lined the entrance and halls of the Cowboys headquarters at the Star in Frisco as Witten made his entrance with family and kids in tow for the final time.
A sure-fire future Hall of Famer based on 11 Pro Bowls, 12 franchise records, a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award and recording more catches than all but three people in the history of the game, Witten announced his retirement during an emotional news conference. He is leaving to join ESPN as an analyst for Monday Night Football.
After what Witten, 36, has accomplished on and off the field since joining the Cowboys as an unheralded third-round pick from Tennessee, the embraces and tears were plentiful and well deserved.
While he was never crowned champion in his 15 years with the Cowboys — representing the face of a dead era in team history that featured just two playoff wins — he left with no regrets as an undisputed winner who gave his all to the game, the franchise and to Cowboys fans.
“To all the Dallas Cowboys fans around the world, for 15 years I tried to represent you the right way, bring you joy and win you a championship, and while I leave today falling short of that mark, I hope that along the way I made you proud to be a Dallas Cowboys fan,” Witten said in his opening speech.
He then told owner Jerry Jones in a personal moment: "The hardest part of this decision was knowing that I would never be able to hand you that Lombardi Trophy. When 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."
As much as Witten excelled as the most prolific pass catcher in franchise history, it was the fact that he was always on the field that most typified his legacy.
He learned from former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells as a rookie in 2003 that availability was as important as ability in the NFL. No one in the history of the Cowboys was more available on Sundays than Witten, who left as the team's all-time leader in seasons, games played, consecutive games played, games started and consecutive starts.
He missed one game as a rookie after suffering a fractured jaw. He didn’t miss a game despite suffering a lacerated spleen in the 2012 preseason. He ran 30-yards downfield without his helmet against Philadelphia in 2007 in what the signature moment of his career.
All epitomized his selfless and humble career as a dependable teammate and consummate leader.
A teary-eyed Jones called him one of the top five men who has ever played for the Cowboys and no one has had a bigger impact, regardless of title or pedigree.
"Jason has given so much to this team, to this franchise. He emptied the bucket here,” Jones said. "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.”
Jones said this after spending the 1990s with three-time Super Bowl champion Cowboys that featured Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
Coach Jason Garrett played with all three and echoed the same sentiment. He called Witten one of the best and most complete tight ends ever to play the game because of his ability and willingness to block for the run, pass protect and catch passes. But he also says he has been around no one who he admires and respects more.
"He’s simply the best example I know of what you want a football player and a person to be, on and off the field," Garrett said. "The number of times I told young players, veteran players, every player, watch No. 82. Do it like he does it.
"He’s an easy guy to talk about, but he’s also a hard guy to talk about. The depth of the appreciation and the admiration and the love and respect, makes it hard to convey in your words. There’s nobody I respect more as a person, as a football player, than Jason Witten. I can’t imagine ever respecting someone more as a football player and as a person than Jason Witten.”
Witten walks away in great shape, looking like and knowing he could still play the game. But he also knows he was blessed to be able to do it so well for so long. While he ultimately found the opportunity on Monday Night Football too good to pass up, his decision to leave was his own and done on his own terms.
It was an agonizing decision for Witten, who was committed to return for a 16th season until the offer came. His wife, Michelle, said she didn’t force him out the game and he thought he was going to continue to play.
But, as he said, "It’s better to leave three hours too soon than a minute too late."
There might be more celebrated former Cowboys, but no one played with more pride.
"There aren’t many decisions that come with absolute certainty,” Witten said. "But I can tell you one thing that is certain, putting on the white jersey, that silver helmet with the navy star, seeing your name on the back of the jersey and running onto that field as a member of America’s Team, it brings a certainty of pride and honor. The kind of certainty that comes but once in a lifetime to be a Dallas Cowboy."
He also left a message to his Cowboys teammates and coaches who are now charged with the mission of claiming a Super Bowl title that ultimately proved beyond Witten's reach: championships are important but enjoying the journey and being a winner in life matters most.
"I hope that I showed to you that, yes, you can do things the right way, be a leader in your community, be a gentleman, hand the ball to the official after you score a touchdown and show good sportsmanship, and still be a really good football player,” Witten said in closing. “We’re all focused on results and they are important. But what you learn as you get older is that the journey is the reward. If I’ve learned anything along the way in the last 15 years, it’s that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people won’t forget how you made them feel. We do good, upright things because we want to leave a positive legacy in our wake. That is certainly what I tried my best to do during my time with this organization.”