OXNARD, Calif. -- Before Wes Phillips showed last year’s preseason game at Oakland to the rest of the Cowboys’ tight ends in preparation for tonight’s game against the Raiders, he sought out Jason Witten.
“Hey, are you superstitious or any of that stuff?" Phillips asked. "Because we’re going to be watching the film.”
At first, Witten wasn't sure what Phillips was talking about. Then, it clicked.
“Oh,” he said, “the play.”
Yes, the play in which Witten nearly had his 2012 season end after six preseason snaps. Turning as he made a catch of a Tony Romo throw, Witten was slammed by Oakland linebacker Rolando McClain. He was slow to get up, but it was not one of the biggest hits the eight-time Pro Bowler had taken in his career.
He was sore but actually returned to the game and caught another pass before his night was over.
It wasn’t until the plane ride back to Oxnard, Calif., where he realized he did not just get the wind knocked out of him.
“On the plane, it was, ‘Man, this is more than a shot in the gut. This is something a little bit more,’” Witten said. “It wasn’t til the next day we got back and I had a CT scan and the trainers and doctors said, ‘Hey, we need to get another one. This time we’ve got to get the IV going to light you up.’ They must not have liked what they saw if they’re sending me back in there. That’s when I began to get a little concerned.”
Witten suffered a lacerated spleen, though the benign “slightly” was used as an adjective, which is easy to say when it’s not your spleen. Witten came within whiskers of having his season end. If the spleen needed to be removed, he would not have played in 2012.
“The toughest thing, other than it being an organ and not a sprained ankle, was just the uncertainty of not knowing and nobody being able to tell me, ‘Here’s the date where you can be back,’” Witten said.
While he hoped to play in the season opener against the New York Giants, he was wondering if he would miss the first month of the season. For two weeks he had to lie in his hotel room bed while his teammates practiced.
“You hear the horn go off and practice starts and I can’t even get out of bed,” Witten said. “I think you appreciate being able to play through a tough injury.”
Even Witten might not have truly believed it at the time, but he told coach Jason Garrett not long after hearing the diagnosis that he would play against the Giants in the regular-season opener.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘What are you going to do the next couple of weeks?’” Garrett said. “He said, ‘I have to be motionless in my bed for two weeks.’ I was like, ‘Huh, this will be interesting timing.’ But he’s an amazing guy.”
Witten was cleared by a New York doctor the night before the opener and caught two passes for 10 yards in the Dallas win.
Witten had a slow start to the season with a number of uncharacteristic drops, not because he was hurt, but because he could not practice. He finished the year with 110 catches, an NFL record for a tight end in a season, and was named to the Pro Bowl for the eighth time.
“Forget all that stuff,” Garrett said. “When you tell the Witten story, I start with (the Giants game) because I think he showed what he’s all about and what he’s been doing for a long time in this league. I think it’s a great example for the rest of our football team and really for the rest of humanity in the whole NFL. That’s how you do it. He’s really a tough guy, an amazing guy and we’re lucky to have him.”
Because of his status on the team and his desire to win, Witten said he felt obligated to get back so quickly.
“It was a long three weeks, I know that,” Witten said, “but I’m a better person and player because of that.”
With the return to Oakland tonight, Witten said he “hopes and prays for a different outcome, that’s for sure.”
And that brings us back to Phillips showing the play on Tuesday.
“He went fast on it,” Witten said. “We watched it, but there wasn’t much rewind to it. He fast-forwarded it pretty quick.”