by Jimmy Watson, USA TODAY Sports
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten never played in the Independence Bowl when he was with the Tennessee Volunteers, but driving by Independence Stadium on Wednesday left a pit in his stomach.
Speaking to approximately 1,000 attendees of the 2013 Advocare V100 Independence Bowl kickoff luncheon at the Shreveport Convention Center, Witten said he played in the venerable facility during a 2006 preseason game against the New Orleans Saints.
"It was raining, and I had played most of the first half, catching a touchdown pass, and we were beating the Saints pretty good," Witten said. "I figured I was finished at halftime, because starters usually didn't play that much in preseason games. I walked under the stadium and saw the most beautiful hotdog you've ever seen. I dressed it all up with mustard, and ketchup and relish - then I was in mid-bite when coach (Bill) Parcells walked in.
"I felt about this big," he said spreading two giant fingers. "I didn't figure I'd play another game as a Cowboy."
Witten survived that ignominy and has continued to become one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Launching his 11th season in Dallas this weekend, Witten has the most receptions in Cowboys' history (806) and ranks third all-time among NFL tight ends with 8,948 receiving yards. He's received eight Pro Bowl selections and been voted an All-Pro six times.
"My goal was to make it to 10 years. Now I'm just taking it a year at a time," Witten said.
He plans to attend Parcells' Aug. 4 enshrinement into the NFL Hall of Fame at Canton (Ohio's) Fawcett Stadium.
"Bill was a great coach, a great man, and I learned so many things from him," Witten said.
The 2012 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner has been honored for his volunteer and charity work through the SCORE Foundation, which develops programs associated with domestic violence. Witten has been instrumental in developing learning centers for the Boys and Girls Clubs in east Dallas, Knoxville, Tenn., and Elizabethton, Tenn., his hometown. He annually hosts a free football clinic annually in Tennessee.
He believes several character traits lead to greatness, including making winning and losing personal.
"The great ones hate to lose more than they love to win," said Witten, citing NFL quarterback Peyton Manning as an example.
And winning is all about putting the team ahead of personal agendas, which many people have trouble doing.
"You have to be able to recognize the value of the people around you. Show me who someone is running with," he said, citing former UCLA center Swen Nater, who never started a game in two years under coach John Wooden. "He played behind Bill Walton, who told people Nater was the toughest guy he ever went up against."
The third tenet of greatness is "understanding that adversity and an inner fire can create a legacy."
Witten said a Martin Luther King quote, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy," was left on his dresser by his grandfather, who took him in after his father dumped the family on the side of a Tennessee road.
"That was a fork in the road. There are two ways your life can go at that point," Witten said. "Fortunately for me, my grandfather gave us a life I could never dream of. He was my high school football coach, my best friend, my school teacher - really my dad. For my brothers and I, he was the way."
Witten praised the work of bowl supporters and volunteers for their devotion to college football.
"You guys understand what (football) can do. It's about changing a community. It's about being with other people and challenging them," he said.
When asked about some NFL players running afoul of the law, Witten said NFL players are role models.
"It's a demand, and they should embrace it," he said. "Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't happen. There should be zero tolerance (for bad examples). But there is a lot of good being done. A lot of guys are giving back to their community, like (Fair Park, LSU great) Mo Claiborne, who we expect great things from this coming season."
At the conclusion of his speech, Witten was presented with a fleur-de-lis ornament, courtesy of Lee Michael's Jewelers, which he proudly displayed, despite the correlation with the hated New Orleans Saints.
Watson writes for the Shreveport (La.) Times, a Gannett property.