Why Jason Witten will be remembered as an all-time tough guy

Cowboys to replace Witten via the draft? (1:28)

Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. offer their solutions for replacing Jason Witten in the remaining rounds of the 2018 NFL draft. (1:28)

Editor's note: This piece originally ran on April 27 and has been edited after the news Thursday that Jason Witten is retiring.

FRISCO, Texas -- There are a million Jason Witten memories for everybody.

The helmetless catch against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007 is perhaps the one most replayed in the minds of Dallas Cowboys fans. As Witten was sandwiched by two defenders, his helmet popped off, but he kept running down the field anyway, gaining extra yards before getting out of bounds. As the television cameras closed in on Witten, a small trickle of blood could be seen under his nose.

In fact, as players walk into the facility at the The Star, they can look up and see a giant picture of Witten’s helmetless catch-and-run as a reminder of his toughness.

Witten, who will turn 36 in May, is set to retire after 15 seasons with the Cowboys and move to the booth on Monday Night Football with ESPN, according to multiple sources.

Witten's place in Cowboys history and league history is secure. He is the franchise leader in games played, receptions and receiving yards. Nobody has played in more Pro Bowls as a Cowboy than Witten. He is fourth in league history in catches behind Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez and Larry Fitzgerald.

For 15 seasons, Witten gave everything he had, even his health. In 2012, he returned to play in the season opener despite a lacerated spleen suffered in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. Witten was under doctor’s orders to not really move for two weeks. He barely practiced leading up to the opener. He wasn’t cleared until a few hours before kickoff.

He caught two passes for 10 yards against the New York Giants, but Cowboys coach Jason Garrett still can’t believe Witten played.

“Forget 110 catches, forget eight-time Pro Bowl, forget all that stuff, when you tell the Witten story, I start with that one, because I think he showed what he's all about,” Garrett said. “What he's been doing for a long time in this league, and a great example for the rest of our football team and, really, for the rest of humanity and the whole NFL, that's how you do it. He's really a tough guy, he's an amazing guy, and we're lucky to have him.”

As a rookie, Witten suffered a broken jaw. He could not eat with his jaw wired shut, but he missed only one game -- the only one of his career.

Bill Parcells told him that Mark Bavaro missed just one game with a broken jaw, almost daring Witten to be as tough. The Hall of Fame coach told Witten to eat baby food to keep his weight up. In order to play the following week, Witten needed to be at a certain weight. He stuffed rolls of quarters into his sweatpants to make it.

For me, the memory that stands out came in Week 2 of the 2015 season. The Cowboys lost Tony Romo to a broken collarbone in their win against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Standing on the hill outside Valley Ranch getting ready for a live shot on ESPN, I saw Witten hobbling into an office for an MRI. He could not walk. Both ankles were hurt. One with a high ankle sprain. The other with a regular sprain.

After 25 minutes, he came out of the office, unable to go any farther. A golf cart was summoned from the back of the building to take him to the locker room.

Two days later, Witten was on the practice field, both ankles taped so tightly his toes were purple. He played that Sunday, catching six passes for 65 yards.

A lot of Witten’s greatness was in the consistency of play. He caught at least 60 passes in 14 straight seasons. Only Rice (17) and Gonzalez (15) have more in NFL history. He has the second-most 90-catch seasons in NFL history by a tight end, and in 2012 he set the NFL record for most catches in a season by a tight end (110) after suffering that lacerated spleen in training camp. He had 21 games with more than 100 yards receiving.

In 2017, he finished with 63 catches for 560 yards and five touchdowns. In January, he played in his 11th Pro Bowl as the first replacement on the NFC squad.

He caught two passes for 16 yards in his final game, but the memories he gave Cowboys fans were already secure and unforgettable.