Cowboys' Hall of Fame visit offers peek at Jason Witten's future

OXNARD, Calif. -- On Saturday, before Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the players will be able to soak up the history of the place.

For Jason Witten, it will be at least the third time he has been to Canton, Ohio. In 2010, he saw Emmitt Smith inducted. In 2013, he saw his first Cowboys coach, Bill Parcells, and teammate, Larry Allen, get enshrined.

This time he gets to see Jones earn the highest honor.

"Being a fan of football, really that's sacred ground," Witten said. "So many great football players over the years and I spent many days sitting around the dinner table talking about a lot of those guys that have those busts in there."

The room full of Hall of Fame busts is Witten's favorite. Darkly lit, it offers a glimpse into the history of the game. As Witten stops to look at the busts of ex-Cowboys Roger Staubach or Mel Renfro, or some of the best to play his position, such as Mike Ditka, John Mackey or Kellen Winslow, he will pick up pieces of their stories he did not know.

"It kind of puts chill bumps on your arms and the hair on the back of your neck stand up because that's why we play," Witten said. "That's why we have the game we have today, because of the way those guys play."

One day Witten's bust might be in that room. He is seventh in NFL history with 1,089 catches. With 14 more catches, he will move into the top four. Among active players, only Larry Fitzgerald has more receptions (1,125). Witten has played in 10 Pro Bowls. He owns the Cowboys record for most receptions and needs 17 yards to pass Hall of Famer Michael Irvin (11,904) for the most in team history.

His place in NFL history is secure, but Witten is not thinking about what might happen after he retires.

"I try not to let that creep in, but I'd be lying to say that's not one of the things that you hope as a player," Witten said. "Just to be mentioned with those guys is such an honor, and I think I'll have plenty of time to reflect on it being there. That's the highest honor individually. Obviously, we don't play for that, but individually that's what you hope you can be a part of.

"They don't let anybody slip through the cracks. You can't just get in there because you've got a lot of money or anything like that. I respect that so much, being able to know what all goes into it."

Entering his 15th season with the Cowboys and having turned 35 in May, Witten signed a four-year extension in the offseason. His numbers might not be what they were a few years ago, but that's more because of the offense's style than a dip in Witten's play.

Witten was one of the team's award winners for the offseason program. One of the prizes is a golf cart to get around at training camp and a parking spot closer to the doors of The Star. He doesn't win the award because of his status. The tests are not subjective. The timing is done digitally. There is no faking body-fat percentages.

"He just absolutely earns it," coach Jason Garrett said. "He earns it with his work, his attendance, his attitude, his effort, and then the scores. Both the raw scores and the improvement that he makes, it's remarkable. ... We have agility drills, we have lifting, we have stretching, we have a variety things that go into the evaluation in our offseason program. Literally each and every one of them stay the same or they get better."

There is not a more respected player on the roster. Rookie receiver Noah Brown said he watches Witten -- not just his fellow receivers -- to get route-running tips. Fellow tight end Rico Gathers said if Witten is writing down something in the meeting rooms, then he will write it down figuring it is important. Even the defensive coaches marvel at him.

"Consistency," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "Every down. He is going to be the same player every single down -- end of the game, beginning of the game, the details, makes plays he's supposed to make, blocks. It's awesome man. It's great for our guys to see what that looks like. That's a real pro football player now."

Dez Bryant lives down the street from Witten. He said everybody in the neighborhood loves Witten.


"Because he's Jason Witten, man," Bryant said.

"This guy is phenomenal. If you can't get motivated just by watching him, something's wrong with you. He's 15 [years] in, going strong. He's just a great guy to look up to and a great guy to learn from. We all love Witt around here. And we all understand that's our No. 1 leader."

On Saturday, Jones will become the 16th inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame based mostly on success with the Cowboys. The retirement of the Cowboys' all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, this offseason could put him in Canton before Witten. Some other former Cowboys, such as Darren Woodson, could get in as well. But Garrett knows one day he will be in Canton to watch Witten's bust be unveiled.

"I don't think there is any doubt in my mind that he's a Hall of Fame tight end, and he's one of the best tight ends to ever play this game," Garrett said. "And certainly the best of his generation in my view, and such a complete player."