Cowboys legend Jason Witten surprises award-winning HS player, talks playoffs and Hall of Fame

For all the accolades and superlatives, former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has downright pedestrian numbers when it comes to one category. Sure, he played in more NFL games than any man ever at his position. He ranks second all-time among tight ends in targets, receptions, and receiving yards. He missed just one game in 17 seasons. He went to 11 Pro Bowls. He’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer.

Yet Witten played in just eight playoff games over his illustrious career. And he walked off the field victorious in a paltry two of them.

The Cowboys legend sat down with Cowboys Wire to preview the current team’s chances in Monday night’s wild-card game in Tampa, but he also talked about that gold jacket that’s proven elusive thus far for three of his former Dallas teammates.

And he introduced Cowboys fans to a Metroplex youngster who’s ready for big things at the next level, having just surprised the emerging player with the most prestigious award in high school sports.

Jan 12, 2023; Denton, Texas, USA; Former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten presents Jackson Arnold with the 2022-23 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year Award at John H. Guyer High School.

Thursday started fairly normal for Jackson Arnold. Normal, that is, if you’re one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation, having guided your high school team to a 14-1 record and a spot in the state semifinals, completing 69% of your passes for over 3,400 yards and 33 touchdowns to just three interceptions.

The Denton, Tex. senior has already graduated and will start classes at the University of Oklahoma in the spring. But Thursday started with a bit of housekeeping business at Guyer High School.

Or so Arnold thought.

“I thought I was going to be going through the whole signing-day process this morning and going home, hanging out with friends and family,” Arnold told Cowboys Wire. “But my head coach told me that I had to go pick up some packages from the weight room. When I walked in, there was a big Gatorade pallet and Jason Witten.”

Arnold is the 2022-23 winner of the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award. And the Cowboys icon was there to make the announcement in person.

“It was incredible. To see him celebrating with his teammates- all of them that were signing this morning- and the fact that Gatorade kept it a surprise, for him to come in that weight room,” Witten mused. “Gatorade National Football Player of the Year, that’s a big deal. I was privileged to present that to him. I was glad to be able to play a small piece in it all.”

It wasn’t just Arnold’s on-the-field achievements that earned him the hardware over Texas commit Arch Manning and Southern Cal commit Malachi Nelson. Arnold maintained a 4.5 weighted GPA in the classroom, was a math teaching aide as a senior, and has been a member and officer in the Texas Young Men’s Service League, Lantana Chapter.

Now his name will reside alongside previous Gatorade National Football Player of the Year winners that include Kyler Murray, Peyton Manning, and Emmitt Smith.

“None of it’s really sunk in, to be honest. It almost feels like a dream,” Arnold said. “But being etched in along those names is extremely special.”

Himself a high school coach the past two seasons, Witten has been surrounded every day by youngsters who must balance grades, athletics, and community work as they prepare for college. So he’s able to recognize the ones who get it.

“They don’t all look like this in high school football and play like that,” Witten said of Arnold. “For me, delivering this award, I knew about his accolades, I knew what type of player he was and the success he’s been able to have. But more important, you want to see the young man. You want to see how he carries himself: is it all about him, just another award to throw in the trophy case? I saw him doing some interviews, and it was about his team, about all the other things, he’s excited about the next opportunity, thanked his coaching staff. So to see a great player also be a great person and a good teammate and be somebody that this community respects? That means even more. To see the next generation coming up having that type of perspective and maturity about himself? He gained a lot of respect from me, and that’s what this award’s all about.”

Nov 4, 2007; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) carries the ball for a 53 yard reception after losing his helmet after he was hit by Philadelphia Eagles safety Quintin Mikell (not pictured) and cornerback William James (not pictured) as linebacker Chris Gocong (57) gives chase in the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

The level of excellence that Witten achieved over his career (and Arnold hopes to) will almost certainly get him into Canton. Maybe even in 2026, when he’ll be eligible for the first time.

Then again, that’s what DeMarcus Ware thought last year, when the Cowboys defensive end didn’t make the final cut for a bronze bust.

Ware will try again this year, having recently been named a Hall of Fame finalist. So will safety Darren Woodson, who had been a semifinalist six times before finally advancing in this voting cycle. Zach Thomas, too.

They all overlapped with Witten’s incredible tenure in Dallas.

“I caught Darren Woodson on the end of his career when I was coming in,” Witten recalled. “But he was a guy that set the tone for our football team. Great leader, great football player. I think sometimes people forget how valuable he was on those teams because there were so many guys [from those teams of the 1990s] that are in, that have gold jackets right now. Darren was a class act. Early in my rookie year, I remember thinking, ‘Maybe this NFL thing’s not for me,’ because I didn’t get much separation going against him.

“Zach came at the end of his career as well, but just a class-act guy. Studied the game, and he was always ready to go. When you’re looking at the guys as they get off the bus, you’re not picking Zach. That’s just part of who he is. And he overcame all of that.”

Witten and Woodson played together just two years; he and Thomas crossed paths for the 2008 campaign only. But Witten and Ware were leaders in the Cowboys locker room for nine seasons together.

“I remember seeing DeMarcus coming in as a pup, and we won a lot of ball games because of him. You see Micah Parsons doing it now, coming off the edge and what he’s bringing, but DeMarcus was just so good. Being a captain and doing life with him, I’m proud of him.”

But even watching his ex-teammates go through the stress of having outsiders analyze their careers while they wait for news that may not come, Witten- who will surely be in their shoes soon- maintains that it hardly crosses his mind.

“I have so much respect for the Hall of Fame and what that entails,” the now-40-year-old said. “But for me, I never played to think that I could join that list. It’s just a huge honor for someone to even mention that. I haven’t thought a lot about it, to be honest. I just find myself pulling for these guys. That’s a huge accomplishment, to be respected as one of the best to ever do it. My goodness, that’s an elite list. A fraternity. It gives me chill bumps even thinking about it.”

GREEN BAY, WI – JANUARY 11: Jason Witten #82 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the football past Nick Perry #53 and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix #21 of the Green Bay Packers during the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 11, 2015 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Witten’s place in Canton will take care of itself one of these days in the future. Of more immediate concern for Cowboys Nation is the team’s first-round postseason game against the Buccaneers.

And as one of the franchise’s all-time greats, who was in 17 different locker rooms- each one unique- Witten knows what it takes this time of year, even though he only made it there a handful of times as a player.

And he believes the 2022 roster has the goods.

“You get in these type of games, and you need to be your best every step of the way. It’s win or go home,” he explained. “I know what Dak’s about, I know what Zeke’s about, I know what Zack Martin’s about, DeMarcus Lawrence. I think they’ve shown that consistently, offensively and defensively. I don’t think, if you’re evaluating the Cowboys, that you look and say, ‘Yeah, that one little area? They can get exposed there.’ Being a complete team is what I’m referencing.”

More like a complete mess in Week 18’s season-ending loss to Washington. But Witten and Arnold both see that as an anomaly rather than the start of a downhill trend.

“They’ve been playing really good recently. Maybe not last week, but the weeks before that,” Arnold offered by way of analysis. “As Jason said, a complete team, playing together, dominating. That’s one thing the Bucs haven’t been doing; it’s kind of been up and down.”

But Witten knows that what Tampa does have is the most experienced X-factor in NFL history.

“Tom Brady,” he explained. “I know it’s not been the best season for Tampa Bay, but it’s a quarterback-driven league, and he’s a pretty special one. And if he can get on, he’s been in these moments a lot over the last 25 years. He’ll have his team ready to play.”

And even though the Cowboys enter as the five-seed, having dropped a few disappointing contests along the way, Witten thinks the rest of the NFC may be overlooking his old squad.

“I don’t think they really have any holes in their football team. I think they’re primed to make a strong run. And coming in the shadows of Philadelphia? Sometimes that’s the best place to be.”

He stopped short of making an actual prediction. But Witten did let Jackson Arnold have the final word. It was, after all, the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year’s big day.

“I think the Cowboys are going to pull off the win this week,” said Arnold.

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