Jason Witten award modeled after NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year

FRISCO, Texas -- The night before Super Bowl LII at the NFL Honors program, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten talked with Jarrett Payton and had one question for him: "You're coming, right?"

Payton, the son of the late Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, wasn't sure. He had work, but he also knew he couldn't say no.

What he couldn't turn down was a chance to attend Thursday night's ceremonies at The Star for the first Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award, which will be given to either Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick, UCF's Shaquem Griffin or Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph by the Cowboys' tight end.

"It's not kind of an honor, it is an honor," Payton said. "The first time I got a chance to meet Jason, you could just tell he was cut from a different cloth and how big he is in stature. I think his heart is bigger than it looks when he's in his jersey and shoulder pads and helmet. His ability to want to give back, it's amazing to me. For me, all the years I've been doing this, you look at the winners of the Man of the Year Award, they all had certain qualities my dad had. The biggest is giving back in service, but they all had something. You watch [Witten] make the room and control the room and bring people together, he's got something special about him. Our family is thrilled to get a chance to be able to see him hand over the award."

The award was modeled after the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. It will be presented to the FBS player who "has demonstrated a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field. The award honors the type of exemplary character and commitment to community, family and teammates demonstrated by Jason Witten, the 2012 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year and one of the most prominent role models in the game."

Fitzpatrick helped lead Alabama to a national championship. He also earned a spot on the SEC's Academic Honor Roll, has done mission work and is a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Griffin helped lead UCF to an undefeated season and was named the 2016 American Athletic Conference's defensive player of the year despite having just one hand. He graduated with a degree in sociology and was a regular volunteer at local Boys & Girls Clubs. Rudolph, a record-setting quarterback at Oklahoma State, worked with children's programs throughout the Stillwater area.

"With how big college football is, a lot of guys have platforms before they step onto a college campus with social media and are able to elevate the reach they have," said Payton, who was part of the selection process for the Witten award. "It might not have the impact like some of the NFL guys giving money to certain causes, but with these college kids giving time, it's not always about the money. It's about the time you have and the ability to impact somebody's life or change somebody's life."

Early in his career, Witten, along with wife Michelle, established the SCORE Foundation, which supports families and individuals affected by domestic violence. Growing up, Witten's family was torn apart by it, but with the help of his grandfather, Dave Rider, who was also Witten's high school football coach, he was able to achieve his dreams.

Witten has set Cowboys records for catches, receiving yards, games played and consecutive games played, but the highest individual honor he has received was the Walter Payton Award, which recognized his off-field contributions.

He hopes the award named after him can be as meaningful at the collegiate level. So does Payton.

"It's going to be special for me, and the reason it's special is I'll be there," Payton said. "I'll have a chance to be there and been part of the selection process. It's an honor to have him reach out to me and ask me because I know what he's all about and the kind of things he's doing with his foundation and what we're doing with my foundation and my family in the process of giving back. I don't know if I'm nervous, but I'm anxious to see, to be there from the beginning and see how this grows over time. That's what's so cool, being at something from the beginning and watching it grow."