GRAPEVINE, Texas -- Cowboys legends past and present gathered Thursday evening at the Gaylord Texan to honor tight end Jason Witten as he accepted Albertsons Companies Lifetime Achievement Award.
"I'm really honored and humbled," Witten said. "I think it's been an amazing journey since I got here as a 20-year-old kid and now 13 years later with the family and what we've gone through on and off the field."
Dallas selected Witten as the 69th pick overall -- fifth pick in the third round -- in 2003. In that span, Witten has helped his club reach the playoff five times and secure three division championships. He has also made the Pro Bowl 10 times along with two first-team All Pro selections.
"Jason Witten is one of the most special people I've ever been around," head coach Jason Garrett, who has coached Witten in some capacity with Dallas since 2007, said. "And I think a lot of people recognize how good a player he's been throughout his career, but he's a much better person. And I always think about this. As a 10-time Pro Bowler, but he's a significantly better person and a better human being. And I feel so fortunate to have been around him as long as I have.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo joined the team the same year as Witten in 2003. Their friendship on and off the field is well documented. The four-time Pro Bowl quarterback, who will turn 36 this month, admitted to "looking up to" the 33-year-old tight end.
"You know, you're just seeing how he interacts, how he talks, how he goes through games," Romo addressed the gala prior to Witten's reception of the award. "And you're like, 'Oh, I kind of like that. That's what I want to do.' And it's kind of silly. We're all grown people here. We're not 12. But you find yourself kind of emulating him. And I can tell you right now: it keeps going back to him being the standard, not only for myself and our teammates, but for everybody who wants to be a great dad, a great husband, a great son, a great brother. I mean, he exemplifies everything you want in any area of life you want it to be. And it's an honor for me to talk about it truly because I don't get the opportunity."
Cowboys Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer Charlotte Jones Anderson stated Witten was the standard for what it means to be a member of "America's Team."
"First of all, [the award] is incredibly well deserved," said Anderson. "He's too young for it to be a lifetime achievement, but he certainly deserves the recognition. There's probably no one who epitomizes what it means to be a Dallas Cowboy more than Jason and what he does both on the field and off the field sets the standard for what we all aspire to be. And I think the passion he brings to the game is the same passion that he brings off the field to people in need. There's probably not a greater person than Jason Witten."
The Cowboys all-time receptions leader has launched a myriad of initiatives in his NFL career, notably the Jason Witten's SCORE Foundation that has done everything from hold two annual youth football camps to establishing learning centers for area Boys & Girls Clubs. In 2010, well before domestic violence became the cause celebre of pro football, Witten he founded the "Coaching Boys Into Men" initiative to help prevent domestic violence. As this program has permeated throughout high schools in Arlington, the home of AT&T Stadium, Witten has opened up six safe shelters for battered women across Texas as part of his SCOREkeepers program. For these efforts, Witten won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year honor in 2012.
Coming from a background wrought with domestic violence and a father who eventually walked away from raising Witten and his two brothers, it would be easy for him to enjoy his well-earned spoils from playing pro football and tend his own garden. However, Witten has shared the fruits of his labor with the rest of the community to bring hope and comfort to a broken world.
"I have a pretty unique story, the road that I got to who I am today," Witten said. "I think it was really clear on the outset when I became a professional that I wanted to be able to provide that and that's part of the legacy to me."
One of the prime partners in nearly all of Witten's humanitarian endeavors has been Albertsons, chiefly Community Relations Manager Carol Roberts.
"This is our 22nd year doing this event, and it's better every year," Roberts said. "And tonight is really special with Jason and being able to honor him with the Lifetime Achievement Award for everything that he's done, and not only for us but the community."
"Albertsons has been a great partner of ours for many years and very much so going forward," Anderson said. "And I think you always want to find someone who shares commonalities with you and what you try to be and what you try to achieve. And there is probably no person and no organization that is more passionate than Carol Roberts and her passion at Albertson and her passion for the community is unparalleled. And to get a chance to walk alongside her and lend hopefully the Cowboy magic to what she accomplishes at Albertsons just makes it a very special team."
Said Witten: "I'm really honored especially from Carol and the entire Metroplex and the entire support they've given me throughout my career. It's unbelievable. I'm so humbled by it."
The grocery company of 76 years further humbled Witten that evening with a surprise announcement from Albertsons Companies Southern Division President Dennis Bassler when he announced the company was donating $100,000 to Jason Witten's SCORE Foundation. For Witten, this is another example he hopes to provide of pro athletes using their platforms to inspire with selflessness rather than debase with selfishness.
"So many times we focus on the negative but there's a lot of positive that athletes are doing," said Witten. "I think that that was something that I wanted to be a part of, and I didn't think in a million years it would turn out to become this."
With "the standard" such as Witten a staple of the Cowboys locker room for over 10 years, the question becomes how often does a head coach encourage younger players to be more like the 2012 Ed Block Courage Award winner.
"Probably 15 times a day, really in everything that he does because he does it the right way," said Garrett. "Really one of the most unique players I've been around in terms of his approach. Like I said, he's an equally good human being. He just has such a positive impact on his family, on his team, on his community. He's a special guy."
"I think everybody here knows how good of a football player he is," Romo said. "He really is the best football player to play at his position. He's a tight end. He's a Hall-of-Famer. I know I'm so close to him. He's literally my best friend, and I look at him and I get emotional. I cannot imagine what his wife is feeling. And you saw how honored his Grandpa was. It's an emotional connection that he has. And the reason it's so emotional is you know who he is and you know what he does every day, day in and day out.
"I feel kind of lucky just literally standing here and being a part of him getting an award because to me he's kind of a standard. He's the standard you want to be when it comes to playing the game. He's not just someone who's there. The Lord gives us the ability to go play this game, and believe me, no one is better at it, no one lays down the line more, and no one cares. And for me, it's like that's a standard. Then you get done with football and you go home, and you know what's funny? He's just as good at that. It's really like no one's this way."
The University of Tennessee alumnus gracious accepted his award from Albertsons. With his 14th NFL season, all with Dallas, coming up this September, he reminded the audience, "not to get out the shovels just yet."
"I'm still pretty young. I tell them don't go shut the coffin yet."