If you enter the locker room at the Dallas Cowboys headquarters at The Star in Frisco, you’ll see something unmistakeable: a giant photograph of #82, Jason Witten, taken as the tight end charges toward the end zone, his helmet ripped off by a defender, during a Sunday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Witten was in his fifth season with the Cowboys when the play happened, and it cemented his reputation as a gritty, team-first guy. The moment may not singlehandedly be responsible for Witten’s revered place among the Cowboys pantheon, but it exemplifies why fans and the Jones family alike hold him in such high regard. The sight of a helmetless receiver running 53 yards toward the end zone before being tackled (besides being an obvious health and safety risk) reinforces much of what fans want to believe about football and the people who step onto the field. In the photograph, Witten looks like someone who just wants to play to win. As Charlotte Jones Anderson, executive vice president and chief brand officer of the Cowboys, once explained, the image is emblazoned inside the team’s locker room because it demonstrates the sort of heart that the team wants every player to aspire to.
On Thursday afternoon, Witten announced that—despite his retirement after the 2017 season, which led him to spend 2018 in the announcer’s booth during Monday Night Football—his heart is still ultimately in playing football, rather than talking about it. At 36 years old (he’ll be 37 before the team opens training camp), Witten stepped out of retirement and signed a contract to return to the Cowboys for 2019. “The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong,” he said in a statement. “This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to getting back in the dirt.”
Witten’s on-field impact is unlikely to be massive. His last 1,000-yard season came in 2012, and in his final season before retirement, he posted the lowest yardage and reception numbers since his rookie year. He and Dak Prescott didn’t enjoy the same sort of immediate chemistry that Witten and Tony Romo had, and while tight end is a position where older players can still contribute—Witten is more likely to be like Antonio Gates, the 38-year-old Los Angeles Chargers legend who returned from retirement last season to serve as a reliable role-player at the position, than like Tony Gonzalez, who exited the league as a 37-year-old Pro Bowler.
Despite a $5 million salary from the Cowboys, though, Witten’s on-field contributions probably aren’t what the team is most interested in. As his face outside of the locker room tells us, there’s an aspirational quality about what Witten represents that the organization hopes to pass on to the team’s young players. If that makes him more of a player/coach who’s good for a few first downs of a game and a handful of TDs, along with valuable mentorship and an energizing jolt for fans who’ve missed him, it’ll likely be money well spent.