History within Jason Witten's grasp

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Witten remembers the first catch of his career.

It came in the fourth quarter of his first game, on Sept. 7, 2003, against the Atlanta Falcons, a sliding catch in front of linebacker Matt Stewart that led Dallas Cowboys radio play-by-play legend Brad Sham to say, "It's the tight end Jason Witten, making his first NFL reception, a gain of 13."

"It's one of those deals, you catch it, get up and it's normal. It's football. This is what you do," Witten said Wednesday. "Seems like yesterday, you know? But you never get caught up in any of that, and your expectations get higher and higher. You raise the bar for yourself, and you're having this conversation."

Since, Witten has added 746 receptions, and "this conversation" is about becoming the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver. Witten needs four catches Sunday at Atlanta to surpass Hall of Famer Michael Irvin.

Just talking about the upcoming achievement made Witten uncomfortable.

"You're so focused on winning, and you guys know me well enough that that's the most important thing," Witten said. "But talking about a guy like this [Irvin], it's special because he was one of the greatest. Just to be mentioned with Michael Irvin is special, and hopefully we'll have a good discussion after a big win about it."

Irvin, who caught 750 passes for 11,904 yards and 65 touchdowns from 1988 to '99, planned on sending Witten a text before Sunday's game wishing him the best.

There is little on the exterior that would seem to connect Witten and Irvin other than the Cowboys star on their helmets. Different upbringings. Different personalities. Different positions.

But on the interior, they share a drive and a passion.

"Each of those guys is as good a teammate as I've been around, as passionate about this game as I've been around, works as hard at this game as anybody I've ever been around. Really, really well liked, well respected by their teammates, by the opposition. They show up to work every day and they do things the right way," said Witten's current coach and Irvin's former teammate, Jason Garrett.

"They're guys you can point to and say, 'Do things like that guy does it. Watch 82, watch 88. And for the most part, they'll provide you an unbelievable example of how to do things.'"

Irvin would spend hours at the Valley Ranch complex, catching passes well after everybody else was gone from either Garrett or Troy Aikman.

A few years ago, Irvin stopped by the complex in the offseason, and an image was seared into his mind.

"The only two I saw on the football field doing the same things Jason Garrett and I did and Troy Aikman and I did were Tony Romo and Jason Witten," Irvin said. "This is apropos. This is how it's supposed to be. We showed them, so to speak, and our ceiling is their floor. They're going higher. And hopefully some other people are watching them.

"He is my favorite Cowboy right here. Period. I've always told him that because I know how he's been working when nobody else was looking."

That's what the Cowboys didn't know when they drafted Witten in the third round in 2003 out of Tennessee as a 20-year-old. In some ways, they got lucky he was still there to be picked after they passed on him in the second round.

All Witten wanted to do was survive his first training camp, never mind have a career like this.

"It was obvious very quickly football was important to him," said Bill Parcells, Witten's first NFL coach. "He was diligent, eager to learn and determined as a young player. All he needed was some direction. Very simply, he was willing to pay the price to maximize his ability. Nothing ever distracted him. Besides good physical gifts, he had other attributes you couldn't see. You had to learn about them, and those are the qualities that make him special.

"One of the best to ever play. One of the greatest Cowboys."

That Witten could break Irvin's mark Sunday against the Falcons also seems fitting because Tony Gonzalez will be on the other sideline. Gonzalez has more catches and yards than any other tight end in NFL history with 1,195 catches and 13,797 yards. Witten is third in catches and yards, with Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe sandwiched between them.

Witten and Gonzalez have played in the same Pro Bowl six times. Through the years, they have become friendly. Sitting on the beach, they have talked football, schemes and about other tight ends with each giving small tips to the other, if not all their secrets.

They will face each other for only the third time Sunday.

"Last week I was watching the game on the plane home and he catches 18 balls," Gonzalez said. "He's a pass-catching machine. He's been able to stay healthy. Obviously he's the blanket for Tony Romo. He's going to him on checkdowns and quick routes. It's no surprise at all. When I have gotten to know Witten, the way he prepares, we talk about that because that's a huge part of being successful in the NFL. The way he prepares, the work he puts into it, it can't be a surprise."

At 36, Gonzalez believes this will be the final year of his career but he has not completely shut the door on a 17th season. He leads the Falcons with 46 catches for 459 yards and four touchdowns.

"He's the greatest to ever play it, the tight end position," Witten said. "It's amazing he's still doing it at the level he's still doing it at. You talk about durability and consistency, he defines that, especially at this position."

Witten turned 30 in May and is signed through 2017. He does not dare to think of surpassing Gonzalez's NFL records for a tight end, just as he never dared to think of passing Irvin in the Cowboys' record book.

One day, Irvin hopes to welcome them both to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten, they are two tight ends that everybody is looking up, up, up to them," Irvin said. "They are two of the greatest to have played the game."