Mac Engel

The terrifying risk Jason Witten takes playing football

Jason Witten has missed only one game during his 15-year NFL career.
Jason Witten has missed only one game during his 15-year NFL career. Special to the Star-Telegram

Memory loss. Slurred speech. Dementia. Depression. Anxiety. Confusion. Suicidal tendencies.

We all know they’re on the table for guys who play too much football.

Would you willingly risk the chance of taking on these life-altering conditions to play football and make a six- or seven-figure income full of potential security, fun and fame?

Because that is the trade.

“I know for me, and a lot of guys who come from certain situations, it’s worth it,” Cowboys tackle Byron Bell said. “Because of football, I am able to take care of my mother and my family. And hopefully, when I get older, they will be able to take care of me.”

This is the trade that Cowboys tight end Jason Witten makes every day in his 15th NFL season. He is at risk of dealing with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease that was found in 110 of 111 deceased NFL players’ brains that were donated for research, according to a study published in July.

There is an absurdly high probability all of your favorite players are dealing with the realities of repeatedly slamming their heads into the ground, hard plastic or another person.

Witten says he feels great. He does not sound like a guy who is seriously contemplating retirement, even if he should be.

Unlike previous generations that were oblivious to the potential life-altering hazards of the game, both player and fan are well aware of the risks.

Accordingly, if a player is educated and aware and wants to play, he is free to. As such, we should enjoy the game guilt-free, or as guiltless as we can when two human torpedoes try to kill each other over the advancement of a leather ball toward a white line.

Everyone knows the score when it comes to football, including Witten.

“I think we all understand where we are at with the game,” Witten said Thursday, when I asked him about making peace with this trade. “The league and all of us have come a long way in our strides. Is it a different game than it was 30 years ago? Certainly.

“Does that mean we are not going to have some of the things [retired] players we are seeing guys deal with in 30 years? I don’t know about that. It’s a great game that we get to play. I take the safety part of it — and what I do to prepare with your body and in the training room — very seriously, not to be my best now but in the future.

“There are risks. It’s a hell of a room to get in here and to play this game. These guys are great athletes, so that’s part of it. It’s a safe game, but there are still things that you just don’t know.”

Witten as a coach has become a popular theme of late, but he sounds like a guy who doesn’t want to do that just yet.

In the off-season, around the time he signed a four-year contract extension, the coach who drafted him made a public plea for him to retire. Witten respects Bill Parcells’ opinion, but the man wants to play despite the fears and concerns expressed by the Hall of Fame coach.

Who is to stop Jason Witten?

Witten has clearly slowed down, and he might decide to quit early next year. God knows the Cowboys don’t want him to stop.

“I don’t want to think about Jason not being a part of our team,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “You don’t replace guys like Jason Witten. Guys will do the job, but Jason’s value is more than playing tight end. He’s probably the best pro football player I’ve ever been around when it comes to being a professional.”

Witten is the rare NFL player who is so respected and valued by his organization that the decision to stop will be his. The Cowboys will have a hard time telling him to quit.

I have yet to meet a single retired player who regrets his decision to keep playing. They would all make the trade.

The only part of the deal they would not replay precisely is going back into the game immediately after sustaining a big, brain-shaking hit.

Witten has played in every NFL game but one during his career, and that miss was his rookie year. He has sustained more than his share of hits that could cause scary damage.

There are some concussions in there that have been diagnosed, and far more that have not.

Witten knows the score. He knows the risks of memory loss. Slurred speech. Dementia. Depression. Anxiety. Confusion. Suicidal tendencies.

He’s willing to make that trade, and he sounds like a man who will do it for another year.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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