Q&A: Jason Witten

I still recall the look on Jason Witten's face shortly after Tennessee's football coaches asked him to play tight end.

Shocked. Dumfounded. Dissapointed.

All could be used to describe his not-so-veiled reaction.

A native Tennessean, Witten knew the history of tight ends at UT, what little history there was.

Witten was supposed to be a dominant, pass-rushing defensive end, not a seldom-used receiver/glorified blocker.

That fateful day back in 2000, however, was the beginning of what may soon be an NFL Hall of Fame career for the Dallas Cowboys. Here, I, along with former Vol Terry Fair, visited with Witten during a rare trip back to East Tennessee to take in The Color Orange: The Condredge Holloway Story.

HOOKER: What do you remember of Holloway?

WITTEN: When I came to Tennessee as a freshman you learn about the tradition and what he was about and how important he was to this university and how important he was to the SEC. It was special because he was on staff there and always helping and he was always there to listen. For me, it's a little different because I've always heard stories. My granddad tells stories and different people would tell stories, and Condredge was something else. For us as players at Tennessee he was always a guy that you could talk to about the experiences that he had. I am excited for him. It'll be a big night for him tonight and I'm glad I could be here for him.

FAIR: How does it feel being back in Tennessee?

WITTEN: It feels great. It's been a long time since I've been back. I've had so many great memories, not only playing here week in and week out in the falls. It changed my life. At the same time, just the memories I had and the friendships. There were great people that were mentors to me and good friends of mine. They really showed me, and paved the way for me to go on and have success in not only football but in life as well. It's great to be back in Knoxville. Every once in a while we need this in our life, to come back and rehash it up a little bit and see a lot of people that sacrificed a lot for you as an individual. For me it's no different, and it's great to be here.

FAIR: How much do you follow Tennessee's football team in Dallas?

WITTEN: I follow them as much as I can, no question. I grew up in this state and I've always been a big Tennessee fan. Honestly, playing here is a big part of who I am. You always try to support them. I'm always pulling for them. I only got to see two games this year and they were actually pretty tough ones: LSU and the North Carolina games. I probably ought to stop watching. I told coach (Derek) Dooley that. He probably doesn't want me watching. In the NFL, guys are always trying to watch their teams and be a part of that and for me it's no different. I'm hopeful that they can get it turned around.

HOOKER: What are your impressions of Derek Dooley right now?

WITTEN: I've just talked with him briefly, probably two or three times. I don't think it's fair for me to offer really too much of my opinion on it just because I really don't know. I think from the outside he looks like he's got a lot of energy and I can tell he's passionate about it. More than anything, I think he holds those guys to a high standard. That's the thing I think for Tennessee is more important than anything else. The standard can't change even when you're not having much success. The standard has to stay at the top. That's winning titles. That's winning the SEC titles and giving yourself a chance to play in the big game every year. I think everybody knows it's bottom line, even in college football. It's bottom line. It's wins and losses. There's a lot that goes into it. The process is huge, as far as recruiting and academics and conference games and out of conference games. The bottom line is we know the records we need to get to but for them just focusing on that process. Getting better one day at a time. Taking that mentality and really just control those things that are inside that locker room and meeting rooms and behind those doors. Control that room and that will give you the best chance to succeed. That's my thoughts, and I think Derek does a great job with his staff and his players and recruiting. He also goes about it the right way and is professional and he represents the university the way we all want it to be represented.

HOOKER: I imagine last year with the Cowboys was the least fun season of football in your life

WITTEN: It was. I've been playing for a long time and it was the toughest year I've been a part of. Not just in pro football but in general. I think that there were such high expectations and starting the season at 1-7, you can't imagine. We think Tennessee fans are tough. Try playing and you got Staubach and Aikman and Danny White telling you how bad you are. They are some of the greatest to ever play. It was tough and none of us saw it coming. Some of it could have been prevented, but also the NFL is no different from elite college football where two, three or four plays can change a game. That can't be an excuse but we just weren't capitalizing on those plays. It was a tough year. We lost a great coach in Wade Phillips. We had some of our best years in Cowboys history under him over the last 10 years with him. At the same time, I think we're all optimistic because Jason Garrett came in and did a wonderful job taking over a team at the midway point and they're already out of the playoffs and it's hard to motivate and to get the most out of them and he didn't blink. He went in there and demanded the room and gave us a game plan and we went out and executed and won five of our last eight games and finished strong with him getting the job. With Tony (Romo) getting healthy and the rest of us getting back on track and him leading the way, I think we're all optimistic about next season.

HOOKER: How deflating is it to lose a Pro-Bowl starting quarterback?

WITTEN: It was frustrating. Tony's an elite quarterback. You've got Peyton (Manning), Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Tony's in that mix. Anytime you lose a guy like that five or six weeks into the season it's hard to overcome. This game is driven by the quarterback and there are a lot of tight windows that those guys throw it in. If you look at the Super Bowl, just look at how well those guys play. That's the only chance you have of winning. We lost him, but Jon Kitna came in and played great but your mentality changes when your elite quarterback goes out like that. It was tough for us but we improvise and adapt and try to overcome those things and try not to let it affect you in a negative way. At that time it was tough too because we were already at 1-5. The bullets are flying and nobody feels sorry for you in the National Football League. It was hard to overcome that but hopefully we can get him back starting this year and start fresh.

FAIR: What are your thoughts on Jason Garrett getting the job?

WITTEN: I'm excited about Jason getting the job. For those that don't know he played 12 years in the National Football League. He was a backup eight of those years in Dallas ... in the Super Bowl years behind Troy Aikman. He still has a close relationship with Troy. He worked for Nick Saban in Miami. He's been on both sides of it. He's had the tough coach in Jimmy Johnson. He worked with Nick. At the same time he's been on the other end of it on the players side. I think he understands accountability. Demanding the team without doing so in a way where there's diminishing returns. I think he has a great mindset and I think he knows that every game is tough, every play is tough. The guy across from you is getting paid good money too. Have respect in your opponent and, like I was saying about Tennessee, have that mindset of let's focus on today and respect that process that it takes to be a really good team. When you start the season, 31 other teams have the same mindset that we are going to play in the Super Bowl. So much has to unfold for you to get there. I think a lot of it's the mindset of we're just going to focus on having a good training camp and a good preseason and then each game unfolds and works itself out. You can't look at the big picture of we need to go 9-3 to make the playoffs or whatever it is. That's the mentality he creates. He has accountability, which is good, and he gets a lot out of his players.

HOOKER: You've been to the Pro Bowl seven times in eight seasons. Do you ever think that you might be on the verge of a Hall-of-Fame career?

WITTEN: I appreciate you saying that. No, I really don't. It's been a great run. Coming into Dallas out of Tennessee you felt like they didn't really use you enough here and then I left school and didn't get drafted as high as I thought. Then things unfold to get me to a point where I was sitting at training camp under Bill Parcels just trying to survive the day and make it through one practice more or less a season or eight seasons. It's a lot of hard work and you've got to have breaks go your way to get an opportunity. You got to have that mindset that you can always improve. It's been an amazing road so far for me to have the success I've had. I just feel like there is so much more that I could do. Honestly, winning championships helps with that to get in the Hall of Fame. For me it's just taking it one game at a time and not getting too caught up in that. It was neat to get to some of those things this year with the passes to get to 600 catches for a tight end. It was neat accomplishment and I know one day I'll look back at it and be proud of it, but at the time when you are in the process of doing it sometimes you don't really get focused on that. You're just trying to win the next game. I appreciate you saying that, but I have a long road to go and hopefully have more games to play and more catches to be had and hopefully a championship or two down in Dallas


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