Though I was born in 1966 and my consciousness as a Cowboys fan began early in life, I do not have a firsthand recollection of those great 1960’s teams. However, as someone born after the inception of the team, I do have a working knowledge of those legends who roamed the Cotton Bowl prior to the heroes of my youth emerged in the 1970’s. One such player was Bob Lilly, the All-American defensive tackle from TCU who became the first ever draft pick of the Cowboys in 1961, which is a year after the inception of the franchise. (Little known fact: they had the #2 overall pick but did not use it on Lilly, but traded it for Eddie LeBaron. They actually traded their 1962 1st round pick for the 14th overall and selected Lilly)
Sadly, I did not have the pleasure to witness him in his prime when he led the original Doomsday Defense to 2 NFL championship games against the all-mighty Vince Lombardi led Green Bay Packers. But thanks to NFL Films, I have been able to experience the ups and downs of that young team and witness the heartache that plagued them for a brutal 5 year stretch of disappointment bookended by championship losses to the Packers and a loss in Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts. Even though I did not personally live through the pain and suffering, I can always look to Bob Lilly and his infamous 50 yard helmet throw at the end of the Colts loss which serves as the exclamation point to the Cowboys victimization brought on by games of sub-zero conditions, end zone turnovers, and fluke plays. However, after Lilly’s display of frustration, the team started a new paragraph in the annals of Cowboys lore in 1972 with their first of 5 Super Bowl wins and thus healed the wounds of a city and its greatest Cowboy, Bob Lilly. All of this has led to the bestowment of one of the most deserved nicknames in team history for he is simply and undisputedly known as….Mr. Cowboy. How fitting!
But wait! Could there be an heir to the throne? Are we permitted to have Mr. Cowboy part II? If it were possible, I believe such a man exists. And when I say “man” I couldn’t be more literal. This player broke Bob Lilly’s consecutive games played mark last season at 197. Like Lilly, he has endured disappointment on the field, but for a longer stretch of time. While Lilly exorcised the demons of “next year’s champion” 12 years into his career, Tight End Jason Witten is 13 years in without so much of a sniff of a championship. If Lilly was the tough guy of the 60’s, then Witten is his equal for the new millennium. Drafted in 2003 by then head coach Bill Parcells who knows a little bit about toughness, he has missed only one game in his career.(after he broke his jaw) Heck, even a spleen removal couldn’t keep him from missing any other games in his career. While the signature play of Lilly was his 29 yard lassoing sack of Bob Griese in Super Bowl VI, Witten’s will always be a 53 yard reception where a chunk of yards came without a helmet as he was blasted by a Philadelphia Eagles player at the point of the catch. Whoever took the photo of a helmet-less Witten running toward the end zone like William Wallace may not have won a Pulitzer, but came away with a nice financial windfall I’m sure. Like Nolan Ryan’s Bo Jackson induced bloody lip, the image of Witten galloping like a warrior will be branded into our minds forever. (The fact that he was tackled 10 yards short of the goal line is mere parenthesis)
I won’t bother you with his Hall of Fame numbers, pro bowl selections, or Walter Payton Man of the Year acknowledgments. Those are all readily available from a variety of online sources. But I will point to you a couple of off field situations where Jason Witten makes a case for being the reincarnation of Mr. Cowboy. The first one was how he gracefully deflected the criticisms of Terrell Owens in 2008 as Owens accused him and Tony Romo of conspiring to exclude all the other receivers from the game plan. (a ridiculous notion indeed) Owens, a career locker room cancer on his 3rd team wasn’t satisfied with his 1000 yard double digit touchdown season, he wanted more. So he led a small revolt of a small band of small minded malcontents and smeared Jason Witten’s name. Needless to say, #82 is still a starting Tight End 8 years later and the rest of them are out of football. Never once did Witten stoop to the Trumpesque lows of prima donna wide receivers. Instead, he brushed the distractions off as if they were unnecessary clumps of Soldier Field sod.
The 2nd situation where Witten was sucker punched (Clint Longley would approve) was just this week by talented journeyman tight end Martellus Bennett of the New England Patriots, his 3rd different team. Inexplicably, he bashed Witten and his time with the Cowboys during an E:60 profile where he said “Witten didn’t talk to me when I was in Dallas. He didn’t help me. Very rarely did we talk. I hated him. I hated Witten.”
“Busy schedule,” Witten said with a smile. “I’ll make sure to get around to that (the program) real quick to see it. I did hear about it. Marty is a good player. He really is. He enjoys entertaining, but I’m glad he’s in a good place now and he’s having a good year so far. He is. He’s a good football player.”
While egoistic characters such as Terrell Owens and Martellus Bennett entertain, Jason Witten endures. While passes deflect off their hands, Witten deflects criticism and praise. While their actions cry out “look at me!” Jason Witten’s exemplify the team, his teammates, and in the case of Bennett, even his detractors.
When Roger Staubach led the Cowboys to their first championship, the sentiment at that time was how good it was to win one for then Head Coach Tom Landry, to which I agree. I’m not sure how often Bob Lilly’s name was mentioned in those Gipper similes, but the cigar protruding from the corner of his smiling face seemed to echo the sentiment. That win was as much for Bob Lilly as anyone. He had suffered, been bloodied, and ultimately persevered as a champion. Now today, people wish the same for Tony Romo for all that he’s endured, but you rarely hear that bleed into talk about our Iron Man Tight End. Hopefully one day this man with John Wayne stature and humility will get his puff of the champion’s stogie. But if he doesn’t, it in no way diminishes his career and reputation.
There may only ever be one Mr. Cowboy, but when it comes to Jason Witten, the case has been made that his Stetson shines as bright!
Copyright 2016 Silver and BlueBlood
Excellent article, Rob. I, too, mostly saw Lilly's exploits secondhand, as my Cowboys obsession didn't really get the support of television access until the early 70s. But I remember him and have consumed tons of articles, books, films, game clips, etc featuring him. Witten is today's Lilly...and heir to the title Mr. Cowboy.