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June 22, 2012Former Vol Jason Witten has played at the highest level in very big games. He's always been a solid role model for the younger generation.
It was no surprise to see Witten standing in front of the Halls/Powell Boys and Girls club on Thursday cutting a Cowboy-blue ribbon as he and Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley unveiled the Dooley-Witten Learning Center.
"It's been a great experience," Witten said. "A big part of my life was growing up in the Boys and Girls club. We started our (SCORE) Foundation about five years ago and take advantage of that platform to give back to the less fortunate. A lot of great memories came from here in my life. I honestly wouldn't be where I am today without people who made sacrifices so it was great to partner with coach. I think a lot of him."
Witten made the move to Elizabethton when he was 12 years old, when he began attending the local Boys and Girls club. Early on he learned a valuable life lesson that he takes with him to this day.
"I was in sixth grade and I was too big-time to play in the Elizabethton Boys and Girls Club," Witten said. "I had to go to Johnson City and that was like the crosstown rival for us. It was a great opportunity and I learned really quickly what it was like to have a dream. It just takes one person to believe in you and that's what this building is all about. If we can change the life of one kid, one at a time, then it's worth it."
Witten's foundation's work against domestic violence and to promote education in Texas and Tennessee made him a finalist for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2007, won him the Home Depot Neighborhood MVP in 2008 and the Pro Football Weekly Humanitarian of the Year award in 2010. His ability to give back to the community makes a big difference in the lives of so many and he truly believes self-belief is effected at an early age.
"It's amazing how the journey goes," Witten said. "I had people believe in me at an early age. My grandfather talked about dreams and working hard to achieve them and then every step of my career there were people and coaches. Obviously coach (Phillip) Fulmer and his staff believed in me early on and that showed the way. The stage wasn't to big for me. I was able to get drafted and play for a great coach in (Bill) Parcells and it took off from there. You are embracing the opportunity to one day win a Super Bowl and become a really good player in this league, but also all a long having a legacy off the field to try and give back in the community. That's what today's about."
Witten returns to Knoxville each off-season and he fondly remembers the big games he had in the orange and white. He also remembers the relationships he made with lifelong friends.
"Some of my best friends to this day are guys I went to college with," Witten said. "That's what shared commitment, that's what college football is all about. I try to see certain people. I try to see coach Fulmer. He changed guys' lives. I was a boy coming in here and when I left he had changed the way I viewed life and I'm a lot better football player because of him. It's a special place. It always is for former players who are in the NFL because they appreciate this part of their life for where they are at now."
The one time high school All-American arrived at Tennessee in 2001 as a defensive end. He was quickly asked to move to tight end. He made the move, but things were different than his day as a Cyclone running go routes and catching jump balls.
"I wish it would be that easy like it was then," Witten said with a chuckle. "It was a tough transition and you see it anytime a guy makes a switch. You have to have mindset that I'm going to learn it and figure it out. The game is 90-percent mental whether it's pee-wee or pro ball. Mentally you have to be able to handle it. That was an advantage for me because I was able to find that mindset. Obviously it was a great move for my career."
This weekend is the annual Jason Witten Football Camp with over 1,200 kids learning the game for free. He enjoys giving back to the upper East Tennessee area that helped mold him into the man he is today. After the camp, his attention turns to training camp and the upcoming season with the Cowboys. A team that has been scrutinized for its lack of playoff success. So are the Cowboys close to bringing the Big D back to the top of the mountain for the first time since 1995?
"I believe we are close," Witten said. "Obviously a disappointing season last year to finish 8-8 losing to the Giants down the stretch. They go to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl and we go home. We don't need any extra motivation. I think it's time for the Cowboys being in that stage to keep our mouth shut and go to work. That's the approach we are having. Great leadership and great vision. We have to stay healthy and it comes down to execution. I think we have the right guys to compete for a championship."