Jason Witten's title quest transcends Dallas

The last thing every Dallas Cowboys player sees before stepping onto the practice field is a giant portrait of Jason Witten. It's a vividly enhanced, 40-foot snapshot of the 10-time Pro Bowl tight end as he rumbles 53 yards through the heart of the Philadelphia Eagles' defense, his eyes on the end zone, a trickle of blood leaking from his right nostril, his helmet nowhere to be found.

At first glance, the massive 2007 photograph that celebrates Witten's iconic and breathtakingly violent play, one that left NBC TV analyst John Madden practically shivering with delight, appears to be just one more garish artifact inside The Star, the Cowboys' new 91-acre, $1.5 billion training facility. Visitors here enter through a grand atrium and stroll across an endless field of white Italian marble toward an outdoor practice field that doubles as Jerry Jones' private helipad. Every available inch of wall space seems to have been commandeered for the gaudy glorification of America's Team.

But the more you study Witten's impact on this franchise over the past 14 seasons, and especially his role in leading the 2016 Cowboys to the top seed in the NFC playoffs -- with rookie Dak Prescott at quarterback instead of Witten's best friend, Tony Romo -- the more you understand how the larger-than-life portrait of the future Hall of Famer might just end up being perfectly to scale.

"If you could capture how you wanted to play this game and what your legacy would be in one photo, then, for me, that picture is it," says Witten, 34, the Cowboys' all-time leader in starts (213 in 223 games played) and receptions (1,089) and just the second tight end in NFL history with 1,000 catches and 10,000 yards receiving. "But I still wake up every day thinking what it would be like to hand the Lombardi trophy to Jerry Jones. And while I know, certainly, there have been a lot of great players who didn't win the Super Bowl, I don't want to be one of them."

"And while I know, certainly, there have been a lot of great players who didn't win the Super Bowl, I don't want to be one of them." Jason Witten

So, he's genuinely honored by the massive likeness, and especially appreciative of the thick head of hair he could still sport in his younger years. But as the Cowboys begin what they hope is their long-awaited run at a sixth Super Bowl title, one they'll make with Witten's pal Romo watching from the sideline, he finds himself drawn to a different piece of art on display inside The Star. This one is just around the corner from his billboard and out of the public's eye. It's an inscription on a wall deep inside the team's inner sanctum, and these days any time Witten is close by he recites the mantra out loud.

"The only thing that matters," he says, "is what we do now."

During the calm of the Cowboys' bye week and in the tranquil setting of the team's deserted aqua-therapy room, a barefoot and relaxed Witten talked for almost an hour about the past 23 years and the next 23 days. He touched on proceeding toward the NFL pinnacle without Romo, and the way he has been "re-energized" by rookies Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, both over 10 years his junior.

Witten talked about a recurring theme in his life and career, something he refers to as the spiked football theory: The harder life threw him down, the higher he bounced back.

Witten grew up in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, with his mother, two older brothers and an abusive, addicted father. By the time Witten was 11, the verbal and physical attacks had escalated to the point that his mom, Kimberly, was forced to escape with her boys to Elizabethton, Tennessee, where they lived with her father, Dave Rider, a legendary high school football coach.

"Early on, yeah, my life was a bit of a roller coaster," says Witten, whose SCORE Foundation supports people affected by domestic violence. His mom's brave escape to Elizabethton, though, turned out to be a life-changer for Witten in almost every possible way.

Witten met his wife, Michelle, in Elizabethton. They now have two boys, C.J. and Cooper, and two daughters, Landry and Hadley Grace. Meanwhile, Rider, a classic Southern gentleman and tough, old-school coach, stepped in as a much-needed father figure to Witten while grooming him into an All-American linebacker in high school. "The things I learned early on from my granddad, the things he instilled in me, are still to this day a huge part and a huge priority of my own life," says Witten. "Even the little stuff like my granddad always telling me to tuck in my shirt at church. It sticks with you. Because now I find myself telling my own kids to tuck in their shirts on our way into church. And when I think about this game, it means so much more to me knowing that I'm representing a lot more than just myself out there."

"The things I learned early on from my granddad, the things he instilled in me, are still to this day a huge part and a huge priority of my own life." Jason Witten

The 6-foot-5, 263-pound Witten dabbled at tight end in high school and averaged a double-double as a basketball forward. But his heart was set on becoming the next Jason Taylor or Kevin Greene. After eliminating any college that even mentioned "tight end" during the recruiting process, in 2000 Witten chose to play defensive end for Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee.

Before the start of his freshman season, though, after a rash of injuries on offense, Fulmer asked Witten to switch positions. How rooted is Witten's determination? As an 18-year-old freshman, he stood firm and told the Vols' Hall of Fame coach, "No, thanks." Witten knew his football. Back then, Fulmer had been reluctant to embrace the evolution of the tight end as a weapon in the passing game. In 1998, when the Vols won the national championship, Fulmer's leading tight end caught a grand total of four passes -- the entire season. Witten resisted until Fulmer agreed to upgrade his scheme.

Three years later, Witten was Tennessee's all-time leading pass-catcher at tight end and an All-SEC selection predicted to go in the middle of the first round. But he ended up falling to the third round of the 2003 NFL draft, where the Cowboys took him with the 69th pick overall. "That's been my story," says Witten. "My parents getting divorced gave me the opportunity to play for my granddad and to meet my wife. I fell in the draft but I ended up in Dallas."

The spiked football theory had proved right once again.

Arriving in Texas for the first time after the draft, Witten jumped onto a hotel shuttle and sat down across from the only other passenger.

"You play football?" the guy asked.

"Yeah," Witten replied, "you?"

"Yep," answered Tony Romo.

They've been nearly inseparable ever since. "Tony and I came in here as kids," says Witten. "Now we've grown into men. We've become brothers. We've seen each other get married and have children. This game provides a lot of things but it almost never allows for two guys to be the cornerstone of a franchise together."

While constantly being hounded by Bill Parcells to improve his blocking technique, Witten managed to catch 87 passes in his second season as a pro and was voted to his first Pro Bowl. It would take Romo four years to break into the starting lineup, but when he did, he and Witten were so close they could practically read each other's minds at the line of scrimmage. They spent hours on extra pass reps after practice and would debate the details and nuance of a single pass play for hours at a time. What developed was a rare, symbiotic relationship that helped the pair perfect, among other things, the Y Option route, a 10-yard hook pattern that has become Witten's signature.

The route is nothing fancy: Go 10 yards downfield into the heart of the defense and then cut to the inside or outside, based on coverage reads. It requires great feet, sure hands and a big body that can carve out space in traffic. More than anything, the Y Option depends on intelligence, instincts and a deep level of trust between passer and receiver because the ball often must be thrown before the tight end makes his cut. If Witten and the quarterback aren't on the same page, it's almost always a guaranteed pick-six. When it works -- as it did on fourth-and-6 during the game-winning drive against Detroit in a wild-card game in the 2014 postseason -- the play, in its simplistic beauty, is virtually unstoppable.

"[Head coach] Jason Garrett says, 'We don't want flash players here,'" says Witten. "What he means is we don't want the guy who makes the impossible one-handed catch and then two plays later misses a key block or a gimme catch on third down."

On roughly one of every 20 Y Option routes, though, Witten says there's a third and final possible read called a 3 Pump. Sometimes, the defender sits on the cut, halting his momentum and leaving him flat-footed in the open field. When this happens, Witten will give a quick head fake, then burst past the defender and down the deep seam, just like he did on his iconic, bloody, helmetless play against the Eagles in 2007. (Which, subsequently, inspired the NFL to start blowing plays dead the instant a player loses his helmet.)

In the first full season Romo and Witten played together, Witten caught 96 passes for 1,145 yards (a career high for Witten) as the Cowboys went 13-3 to earn the top NFC playoff seed. When then-coach Wade Phillips instructed players to get as far away from the game as possible during the bye week, Witten jetted with linebacker Bobby Carpenter, Romo and Romo's girlfriend at the time, singer Jessica Simpson, down to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Fans and media were predictably apoplectic, and criticism only grew louder when Romo turned in a mediocre performance in the Cowboys' 21-17 divisional-round loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Although now a decade in the past, Witten's Cabo faux pas came up again last week after Odell Beckham Jr. and other Giants wide receivers flew down to Miami Beach, and with similar consequences. Witten spent this year's bye week far away from the beach, self-scouting all of his game film from the regular season.

"It's about winning championships here," he says of the attention any off-field activities can draw. "That's the standard. That's the expectation. This is the big boys. The lights are bright and you just have to embrace it."

Any remaining bad taste from the Cabo episode most certainly disappeared in 2012, when Witten suffered a lacerated spleen in the preseason but returned without missing any regular-season games and posted a career-high 110 catches while earning the NFL's prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his charitable work. "He was in bed for 10 days. I mean, the guy couldn't move and the next thing I know I look over and there he is in the game," says Cowboys veteran long-snapper L.P. LaDouceur. "That's Jason Witten in a nutshell, a true depiction of the man and proof that the power of example is bigger than the example of power. When the kids on our team see that kind of stuff, you don't have to tell them anything about how to be a pro, they just watch Jason and they get it."

In the offseason after a 4-12 finish in 2015, Garrett challenged Witten and a group of 13 other veteran leaders to formulate a players' creed. Witten's role among Cowboys leaders is unquestioned. Several teammates, in fact, mentioned his unique talent for "motherf'ing guys" -- said less colorfully, getting guys into line -- at the drop of a dime anytime he feels the Cowboys lack the proper focus or energy.

After days of spirited debate that echoed through the hallways of the team's former practice facility in Valley Ranch, Witten & Co. came up with 21 sentences and 174 words that sum up the 2016 Cowboys' mission statement and core values. (The team has resisted making the creed public.) Every player then signed and added his fingerprint to the creed.

The sworn words were posted near Witten's locker, and the ink was barely dry when the creed was put to the test. In a preseason game at Seattle, defensive end Cliff Avril drilled Romo into the turf, breaking a bone in his back. He was replaced by Prescott, permanently, as it turned out. The implications of the injury, coming after Romo's rehab from a broken collarbone in 2015, and the subsequent quarterback switch were not lost on Witten.

"When Tony went down, you hurt for him because you know how hard he worked to get back," he says. "But I wouldn't say the rest has been bittersweet. This is a hard game, a tough game, and it doesn't wait for anybody."

And it didn't.

"When Tony went down, you hurt for him because you know how hard he worked to get back." Jason Witten

After a season-opening loss to the Giants, a Cowboys team loaded with a dominant offensive line and led by the preternaturally poised Prescott and explosive rookie running back Elliott ran off five consecutive victories before its bye.

"Our young guys deserve a lot of credit; the stage has never been too big for them," says Witten. He saw the future unfolding as success continued. Flying home after an early-season win, Witten walked to the front of the team plane and found Elliott and veteran right tackle Doug Free, a guy not exactly known as a conversationalist, already breaking down the game film together and engaged in long, detailed discussions about double-teams. It reminded him of his rookie-year chats with Romo.

A few weeks later, Prescott won Witten over when he popped his head into the huddle before the game-winning drive against Pittsburgh and calmly said "one first down at a time" as though he were a 10-year vet. "The way they both work and carry themselves, the love and passion they have for football, that's what allowed me to embrace them right away," says Witten. "And the chance to play that big brother role, that has really re-energized me in a lot of ways. That's what I'm most proud of and that's been the most rewarding part of this season for me."

That big brother role has been noticeable to teammates.

"Witt's had a huge impact on everyone on this team, young and old," says Prescott, "and he does it just by the way he carries himself. He doesn't have to really say much. It's just what he does and the way he goes about his normal days."

"Witt's had a huge impact on everyone on this team, young and old, and he does it just by the way he carries himself." Dak Prescott

"You want to be a great pro?" asks receiver Cole Beasley. "Just follow [Witten] around. You can ask any coach here how they want things done and they'll say: Just do everything he does. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the greatest tight ends ever, if not the greatest. And he's just a normal dude. No big ego. That's why guys love him. He's the oldest guy in here, but he can still mingle with the younger guys."

In Week 8 against the Eagles, almost nine years to the day of his iconic helmetless catch, Witten passed Ed "Too Tall" Jones for the most career starts as a Cowboy. Then, in overtime, he won the game with a 5-yard TD catch from a scrambling, improvising Prescott who, two months earlier, had been too nervous to even complete a warm-up pass to Witten before a preseason game.

Witten and his new QB embraced on the field after the game. Inside the locker room, Garrett hugged Witten so hard after presenting him the game ball that his face mask left a nasty scratch across the coach's right cheek. "There've been a lot of amazing football players that have played in this franchise since 1960," Garrett told the team. "There's no player that's started more consecutive games. There's no player that's played in more games. He's a 10-time Pro Bowler. But that's not the story. The story is what an inspiration Jason Witten is."

A few minutes later, Romo and Witten shared a hug, a smile and the silent, unspoken realization of the inevitable: The Cowboys were becoming Prescott's team. Two weeks later, Romo held a news conference and publicly conceded the job.

"Tony has always been very clear to say to me 'Don't allow my circumstances to get in the way of what's taking place with this team,'" says Witten. "One reason why this season has happened is because of the play and execution of guys like Sean Lee and Zeke and Dez Bryant and the offensive line and Coach Garrett. They all deserve credit. But Tony sticking to our creed had a major influence on this team. Nothing destroys you faster than division from within, and Tony's ability to get out ahead of that situation and to eliminate the distraction for all of us was a big part of our success, too."

"Tony has always been very clear to say to me 'Don't allow my circumstances to get in the way of what's taking place with this team.'" Jason Witten

Witten knows these are likely his last few weeks playing on the same team as Romo. He falls silent for a moment inside the empty, half-lit training room, then continues speaking, almost to himself. "People ask me, 'Would you go chase it with some other team?'" he says. "Well, I don't know what happens down the road, but if you did you'd be losing the relationship part of this, and, for me, that's what it's all about, the relationships, the shared commitment and, in the end, the winning. I hope."

With that, Witten slides down from the trainer's table and walks off, past the whirlpools, through the locker room and, eventually, out toward an immaculate, enormous weight room roughly the size of an airplane hangar. As they lift, players can gaze through a glass wall and across the hall at yet another display of Cowboys-inspired art, this one a five-panel set of 3-D collages celebrating each of the team's Super Bowl victories.

It isn't until Witten walks by, though, that the most significant, telling space inside The Star comes into focus. It's not the Italian marble, the 19,200 LED lights, the helipad, the training room mantras, the blue board containing the sacred players' creed, or even Witten's giant portrait. It's the large, noticeably blank section of wall right next to the collage of Super Bowl XXX images. The wall is empty, reserved for the day when the Cowboys need space to commemorate their next championship.