FRISCO, Texas -- For 16 minutes Jason Witten kept a room full of now former Dallas Cowboys teammates, owner and general manager Jerry Jones, coach Jason Garrett and hundreds of staffers at full attention as he said goodbye to the National Football League.
"I never allowed my mind to drift to a place of what this day would look like," Witten said in his speech, adding it was time to "pass the torch to the next generation of Dallas Cowboys."
"I never wanted this day to come. But it does come for all of us. My mindset has always been that they would probably have to drag me off the field. And I was OK with that," Witten said.
But Witten found an offer that was too good to pass up as the lead analyst for ESPN's Monday Night Football, in calling it a career.
"If you can't play it, you want to coach it. And if you can't coach it, you want to be around it," Witten said. "I think it's a unique opportunity to join a good team and to be able to partner with guys that have that same passion and a huge platform to share our love for the game and the National Football League."
Soon after Witten's news conference, ESPN announced Witten's hiring.
"We want to congratulate Jason Witten on a Hall of Fame caliber career with the Dallas Cowboys and we are thrilled to welcome him to ESPN and Monday Night Football," said Connor Schell, ESPN Executive Vice President for Content. "Jason's passion, his insight, and his ability to clearly communicate his knowledge of the game thoroughly impressed us. He has all the potential to be an exceptional analyst and we can't wait to get started."
Witten leaves the Cowboys with the fourth-most catches in NFL history. Only Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez and Larry Fitzgerald have more. In Cowboys' history, he is the franchise leader in receptions (1,152), receiving yards (12,448), games played (239), consecutive games played (235), games started (229), consecutive games started (179) and catches in a game (18). He tied Bob Lilly for the most Pro Bowl appearances (11) in franchise history. No player has had a longer length of service than his 15 years.
"For the past 15 years, every practice, every film session, every notebook I filled, every ounce of sweat, I did so because of my love and drive for the game of football," an emotional Witten said. "And I tried my absolute best to be dependable -- dependable to my teammates, to my coaches, to my family and to all those who were cheering us on."
Witten was flanked by Jones and Garrett as he spoke, with the owner and general manager and coach wiping away tears at times. Witten was joined by his wife, Michelle, and children, C.J., Cooper, Landry and Hadley.
On social media, former teammates like DeMarcus Ware, Terence Newman and Dez Bryant shared their appreciations for Witten.
Witt, Mr. Dependable. Thank you for taking me under your wing as a rookie and showing me the way. For helping fight the battles on and off the field, I appreciate you. This next chapter of life will be even better if you can imagine that 🙂. Cheers #CowboysNation pic.twitter.com/8H6FfYnlUB— D-Ware (@DeMarcusWare) May 3, 2018
Witten thanked the Jones family, his former head coaches, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Garrett, all of his assistant coaches, athletic training staff, strength coaches and support personnel.
"I can only count and get part way up a hand of the men who loved football and the approach that you just heard Jason articulate," Jones said. "Loved the hurt, loved the pain, loved the challenge to do for everybody and do for himself. About eight years ago, I was talking and said, 'Of all of the owners, of all of the heads of networks, of all the coaches, all the people that I have met since being in the NFL, Jason Witten is the top five of all of those as a man.' I ran into Troy Aikman right after and said, 'Troy, I think I've gotten in trouble with a lot of these guys because I'm afraid they may have thought I left them out with that five.' And Troy said, 'You didn't get in trouble with anybody because you're right.' "
Said Garrett: "He's simply the best example I know of, of what you want a football player and a person to be on and off the field. The number of times I told young players, veteran players, every player, 'Watch No. 82. Do it like he does it,' it was incredible. He's an easy guy to talk about, but he's also a hard guy to talk about. We had a lot of talks through the years, a lot of talks the last couple of weeks. Sometimes you can't get out what you want to say. It's too emotional. The depth of the appreciation and the admiration and the love and respect, makes it hard to convey in your words. There's nobody I respect more as a person, as a football player than Jason Witten. I can't imagine ever respecting someone more as a football player and as a person than Jason Witten."
After the Cowboys' 2017 season ended in Philadelphia last December, Witten had every intention of returning for a 16th season. He was a regular at the captain's workouts before the offseason program and was there every day after it officially started until Monday.
He wavered on whether to take the ESPN job on numerous occasions. ESPN's Chris Mortensen said another network made an "interesting" offer for him to play in 2018 and move to television in 2019. Witten spoke with Jones numerous times throughout the process and the owner left him with a message as he steps into a new career.
"Being a fan of this game, I knew that that was John Madden's chair, that was Jon Gruden's chair and to have an opportunity to do that, I just expressed what the details of what could be possibly out there for me," Witten said. "He shared with me what he thought and in only the way he can do it, he told me to go be John Wayne. He said go be John Wayne."