Jason Witten is retiring after 15 years with the Dallas Cowboys. The former Vol will be neither gone or forgotten:
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 3, 2018
Tennessee currently has two players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Doug Atkins and Reggie White. Peyton Manning will be the third in three more years. All three already have their number retired at Tennessee.
What do you do with Jason Witten?
The Elizabethton native trails only Tony Gonzalez in every major statistical category among NFL tight ends all-time. He retires fourth all-time among all players in NFL receptions. He was the 2012 Walter Payton Man of the Year. And he played more games than anyone in a Dallas Cowboys uniform.
Witten is a lock for Canton. The initial criteria for number retirement at Tennessee required far more than that, but was waived for Johnny Majors in 2012.
However, Witten’s career in Knoxville didn’t produce the sort of accolades one associates with that particular honor. As a sophomore in 2001 he played on a dynamic offense with Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington, and a pound-the-rock mentality that nearly carried Travis Stephens to the Doak Walker Award. His contributions were memorable, including a big touchdown against Alabama and leaving the entire Michigan defense in the dust. But he only caught 28 passes for 293 yards.
As a junior in 2002, Witten suffered when injuries to Casey Clausen and Kelley Washington severely limited Tennessee’s passing attack. He still earned first-team All-SEC honors with 39 catches for 493 yards and five touchdowns, including the game-winner in the sixth overtime against Arkansas. Witten opted to leave for the NFL before a senior season could have improved his legacy at UT, but it was clearly the right decision.
What do you do with such a player, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer who didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to be a College Football Hall of Famer? The current answer is, “Put him on the JumboTron”, where he joins Al Wilson and, in years past, Condredge Holloway: beloved former Vols who may not get their number retired, but made a lasting impact on Tennessee Football. The university now has an all-sports Hall of Fame, which I’m sure Witten could make his way to one day. But I wonder if there’s a place for something more specific to football to celebrate former Vols.
Witten may not find his way to jersey retirement; for my generation, #1 makes me think of Leonard Little more than Witten in a Tennessee uniform. But there are other players who will fall short of jersey retirement status, but are well-deserving of additional recognition.
For example: this fall we’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1998 National Championship, a group led by Al Wilson (who is in the all-sports UT Hall of Fame). But it’s also the 25th anniversary of Heath Shuler’s Heisman runner-up season, still the greatest statistical offense in school history. Shuler was the third pick in the NFL Draft, and though his pro career obviously didn’t pan out, it feels like his amazing college career gets more lost in the mist every year. It doesn’t help when you’re immediately followed by Peyton Manning, but still. The proverbial kids today should know about more than just Atkins, White, Majors and Manning. Witten’s NFL career should ensure he’s on that list anyway. Tennessee should find a way to celebrate it well.
The good news: these are the kind of things you’re probably in good hands with when the man in charge is Phillip Fulmer.
Congrats to Jason Witten on an incredible career.