Jason Witten remembers the pain.
The Dallas Cowboys tight end remembers the screaming, the confusion and all the other terrible consequences of domestic violence. He doesn’t want others to experience what he did growing up. So he’s doing something about it.
While many NFL players occasionally throw a requisite bone to charities to satisfy their team’s public relations staff, Witten is the rare breed who cherishes self-sacrifice. He devotes untold hours to a myriad of different organizations, mostly involving children, the underprivileged and survivors of shattered homes. He also recently started his own foundation, S.C.O.R.E., which supports families in crisis.
“I’m trying to break the cycle of family violence,” Witten told BPSports, the sports Web site of Baptist Press.
Witten, 26, a six-year Cowboys veteran and one of the best tight ends in the NFL, grew up with an abusive father in the greater Washington, D.C., area. When Jason was 11, his mother relocated Jason and her two other sons to Elizabethton, Tenn., to live with her father, Dave Rider. Jason saw a model of true biblical manhood from Rider, who was also his football coach at Elizabethton High School. Eventually, Jason’s mother, Kim, became a Christian as well.
“It’s amazing how God works in our lives,” said Witten, whose Cowboys finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs this season.
Even though his NFL career consumes much of his life, Witten’s spiritual calling is never far from his mind. He launched S.C.O.R.E. (which stands for “Support, Community, Overcome, Rebuild, Educate”) in December 2007 to assist several nonprofit organizations in Texas and Tennessee in preventing domestic abuse and helping victims recover.
The foundation’s first event, a Christmas party at a family entertainment park, raised support for 30 clients of The Family Place, a domestic violence shelter in the Dallas area. In September, thanks to a $100,000 donation from the Allstate Foundation, Witten teamed with the Texas Council on Family Violence to make a public service announcement to air on TV.
Witten has been active in charitable work since his first NFL season. As a member of the 2003 Cowboys Rookie Club, he made visits to various Dallas-area charities. He also is involved with the Salvation Army, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the United Way, and each summer he runs a large youth football camp in Elizabethton. In 2007, he was one of four finalists for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Witten placed his faith in Christ as a 10th-grader during a Fellowship of Christian Athletes retreat in Nashville. He and his wife Michelle have been married five years and attend Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Tex. Witten admits he has learned much from Michelle and the godly family she was raised in – a luxury he didn’t have as a child.
“My wife is so strong in her faith and is such a follower of Christ,” he said. “Having her beside me encourages me. It’s neat to experience the [Christian] walk with her.”
The Wittens have two young boys, C.J. and Cooper, who inspire Jason to be the kind of father figure he lacked early on. They also provide living proof of the benefits of a loving family structure, which he is trying to support through his foundation.
“It’s about being a man and a role model,” said Witten, who says he holds no grudge against his father. “We take in not just the mothers involved [in domestic abuse] but the children affected by it. That’s something we’re really active in, and also underprivileged children as a whole. God has blessed me enough to do it because of the game I play.”
A can’t-miss prospect since high school, the 6-foot-5, 266-pound Witten played linebacker and defensive end before finding his calling at tight end at the University of Tennessee, where he earned All-Southeastern Conference honors as a junior after setting single-season school records in catches (39) and receiving yards (493).
The Cowboys drafted him in the third round (69th overall) after his junior year, and his career has since been on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He has averaged 918 yards and nearly five touchdowns a season since 2004. In 2007, he enjoyed a career year with first-team All-Pro numbers. His 96 catches and 1,145 receiving yards established Cowboys records, while his seven touchdowns marked a career high.
“I was very humbled by it because there are so many great tight ends,” Witten said. “It was obviously a great experience … because you put so much effort in it, and to see it pay off.” He also spread the credit around, noting, “I have a lot of great players around me.”
Witten enjoyed another sterling year last season, with 79 catches for 952 yards and four touchdowns en route to his fifth straight Pro Bowl appearance. All this comes despite a broken rib he suffered in Week 8, an ankle sprain in Week 16, and the media circus surrounding teammate Terrell Owens’ alleged complaint in mid-December that Witten and quarterback Tony Romo were scheming plays to deny Owens the ball.
While the offseason will provide time to reflect on his accomplishments, Witten is more intent to do some ongoing introspection as a follower of Christ.
That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be at. I fall every day. It’s the challenge of being closer to God. I need to grow every day, and I believe I am.”