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Smitten With Witten

A good guy on the field, a better one off it.
James D. Smith/Icon SMI

Warning: This column is about a professional football player who needs neither DNA test nor bullet-proof vest. It involves no drugs, dancers or dogfighting. No ego or ammo. No greed, weed or excessive speed. You won't hear him being "misunderstood," being "at the wrong place at the wrong time" or "making it rain." He doesn't have a machete under his bed or NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in his Fave Five. I know it's rare these days, but put aside your jurisprudence for a nice story about a nice guy helping nice kids. Please, proceed with caution.

It's December 3 and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is in awe. A guest at teammate Terrell Owens' 34th birthday party at the Gaylord Texan's Glass Cactus nightclub, he's rubbing elbows with celebrities Jamie Foxx and Serena Williams. Fun.

It's December 4 and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is in his element. A guest at Carrollton's Rainwater Elementary as part of the NFL's "Take a Player to School Day," he's doing math with 8-year-old Adam Weinstein. Funner.

"The party was cool," Witten says, "but this...this is more me. There's nothing better than having a positive impact on kids."

Just 12 hours after walking the red carpet, Witten is strolling the stars. Thousands of blue and silver paper stars. Placed there by Weinstein and his classmates, who now line the hallway and scream with an unbridled joy that suggests the principal has just announced cookies for lunch and recess until Christmas.

But this is even better. Weinstein, bespectacled, affable and certainly the most popular dude in school, won a random drawing in an NFL online contest sponsored by JCPenney. Without even telling his parents he entered, the kid with the disheveled black hair and left guard's build turned himself into a celeb and his school into a shrine.

Are you smarter than a third-grader?

"Adam's a great kid, everybody likes him," says his principal, Robert Bostic. "But today we like him even more. This is one of the most exciting things to ever happen to this school."

Says Adam upon arriving in a limo with Witten, "I like him because he plays offensive line, like me. But he can catch too. He's my favorite player."

Getting Witten to go back to school was simple. All the Cowboys had to do was ask.

See, community service is much more enjoyable when you're 12-1 and a genuinely good guy, so deep-rooted in common sense and uncanny humility that you're unfazed by the NFL's fatal trifecta—fame, fortune and females.

Refreshingly, Witten balances his $28 million contract with a 28-cent ego.

His modest hobbies include fishing, spending time with wife Michelle, playing with 1-year-old son C.J. and conducting an annual youth football camp in his hometown of Elizabethton, Tennessee. He's out of place and mostly anonymous sipping a drink at Dragonfly or picking out a trendy tie at Lombardo Custom Apparel. Keepin' it real? He endorses Pickle Juice, sucks on sunflower seeds and only occasionally provides NBC analyst John Madden with a nationally televised wet dream by galloping helmet-less against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Seriously, if Witten weren't 6-foot-5, 265 pounds and already the best tight end in Cowboys history, he'd be your best buddy. Instead, that distinction goes to Tony Romo.

"Jay's a great player," the quarterback said of Witten, the guest on his Inside the Huddle radio show later that night. "But even a better person."

Romo immediately eschewed a hug to recalibrate the show's testosterone, calling Witten's No. 1 jersey at the University of Tennessee "a little girly."

Witten's retort: "OK, who ya datin' this week?"

The quick wit is handy, but it's the nimble feet, precise routes and pillowy hands that have already reserved Witten's space in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor. In last Sunday's thrilling 28-27 win over the Detroit Lions, he had the most productive receiving day in franchise history with 15 catches, including the game-winning 16-yard touchdown with 18 seconds remaining. He leads NFL tight ends with 80 receptions for 955 yards and, though only 25, needs just eight more catches to become the Cowboys' most prolific tight end ahead of Billy Joe Dupree, Doug Cosbie and, yes, even Jay Novacek.

"Please," Novacek said of Witten back in training camp. "He's already better than I ever was."

Witten plays for America's Team, but this morning he is Carrollton's Dream.

The school is abuzz. Anxiously awaiting his 8:30 a.m. arrival are signs, balloons, life-sized caricatures and a pee-wee paparazzi armed with ADD and disposable cameras. Immediately, Witten is sent to the principal's office.

"This is the only day I want to see you in here," Witten jokes to Adam as he autographs jerseys, balls and bobbleheads.

Wearing jeans and his familiar No. 82 jersey, Witten follows the streaming stars and screaming kids to Adam's class.

While Weinstein's identical jersey fails to camouflage his nerves at his desk near the back of the room, his idol hovers nearby, surveying the kids like a teacher's monitor.

"The Cowboys score 35 points in their first game and 21 points in their second game," says Miss Burroughs. "How many more points did they score in their first game?"

Burroughs punctuates the problem with the three most dreaded words in educational vernacular: "Show. Your. Work."

Grunts Witten, "Uh-oh."

Using the equivalent of a leather helmet—a No. 2 pencil—Adam answers correctly. As does an adorable 8-year-old girl named Heaven and, in fact, the entire class.

"They've been excited about this for weeks," Burroughs says. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. The trick will be trying to calm them down and get back to normal. That probably won't happen until next week."

Witten finishes his 90-minute visit in the "cafetorium," the half-lunchroom/half-auditorium epicenter for a lively Q&A session.

"Do you eat nachos on game day?" one kid asks. (Nope. For a noon game, it's pancakes. Otherwise, spaghetti.)

"Who's your best friend?" queries a girl wearing a Cowboys cheerleading outfit. (Romo.)

"What's the best thing about being famous?" poses another. (Hanging around Romo's plethora of pretty girlfriends, of course. "Being famous is fun," Witten admits.)

"Have you ever been to the Super Bowl?" says Adam. ("This is the year," responds Witten.)

"Adam's my hero, my little buddy," Witten tells the captivated audience of wide eyes and priceless smiles. "He knows more about football than I do."

Before he can get back in the limo and back to Valley Ranch and back on the road to Super Bowl XLII, Witten has to leave Rainwater. Not sure if that's harder on him or the kids.

"It's surreal to see how excited they are, knowing that once I was sitting right there in the same seats dreaming of playing pro football," Witten says. "I just hope I can help them believe in their dreams. It's special to me, a privilege being a role model. I take pride in being a good one."

Witten poses for more pictures, signs more autographs and—as long as they commence the play by loudly barking "Blue 80!"—lets the kids in Adam's class throw him passes. Alerted by event organizers that it's approaching 10 a.m., Witten makes one last request.

"Do we have time for a couple more?" he begs. "I want to see the kids go long."

Your heroes can still be Cowboys.


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