Late last week, the NFL tweeted a four-minute clip from Jason Witten’s retirement news conference. In it, Witten never said a word.
Instead, Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett did the talking. To the slow, stirring hum of a “Friday Night Lights”-ish instrumental, he starts out happily, detailing an epic presentation that Witten, a team captain and future Hall of Fame tight end, had given to his teammates during training camp in 2015.
.@JasonWitten was asked to give a presentation on his signature play.
And it brought his head coach to tears. pic.twitter.com/LVKnvgrxx0
— NFL (@NFL) May 10, 2018
The presentation, which Garrett called the greatest he’d “ever seen in football,” was about “Y option,” Witten’s signature passing play. For the first two minutes of the video, Garrett chugs along expectedly, explaining the processes of the play, and how it is designed to get Witten one-on-one coverage in the middle of the field. If you love the X’s and O’s, it’s a fantastic watch — you rarely hear NFL coaches or players go in depth on a play like this.
But then, right around the 2:22 mark, something unexpected happened. When Garrett got to the part where Witten explained to his teammates why the play worked in a crucial situation in the playoffs the year before — hint: it’s because of the presence and shared execution of the other 10 men on the offense — Garrett became emotional. And as he remembered Witten pausing to individually explain what his teammates sacrificed to make that play work in that moment, Garrett’s voice cracked, and he even paused to gather his composure.
Garrett does not strike me as a man driven to tears all that often. On this year’s season of the Amazon series “All or Nothing,” he comes across as a man with an understanding of his role as a leader, and the need to always project strength, confidence and stoicism. In professional football, most save the tears for moments of undeniable achievement, like winning the Super Bowl … not a retirement news conference.
But Garrett, who has been in the NFL long enough to understand how the money and the fame of the sport can change people, also strikes me as a man who knows what’s great about the game. The recollection of this Witten presentation tapped into something pure in him, something that also resonated with the nearly 20,000 people who retweeted it and the 46,000 people who liked it.
Look, I never played the sport beyond high school. I was a 5-foot-8 defensive lineman with short arms, no bubble and barely enough talent to start my senior year for a Jesuit all-boys school known more for its academics than its football in Michigan’s second-biggest classification.
But to this day, that journey with my buddies — and our run to the state semifinals that year — remains one of the best memories of my life. More than anything, I remember the way the sport brought a group of teenagers of different races, sizes and shapes together, all for a common goal of winning the first football state title in our school’s history. Shared sacrifice — from the 6 a.m. weight-lifting sessions, to the summer workouts in the heat we still joke about, to the miserable two-a-days that felt like they would never end — and the collective appreciation and recognition of it, always brings people together. Always.
And I’d be willing to bet that many other football fans have memories like that, which helps explain why a Gallup poll released earlier this year revealed that football remains, by far, the most popular sport in America. It checked in as the favorite of 37 percent of Americans, with basketball coming in second at a measly 11 percent, a notable achievement since the NFL and NCAA certainly hasn’t made it easy to love all the time. All great things are eventually sullied by money, at least to a degree, and football is no exception, as the NCAA’s hypocritical refusal to pay players grows more off-putting by the day, topped only by the NFL’s collective greed.
The league’s drive to protect the shield at all cost stretches back years, contributing to its overall mismanagement of the concussion issue and its most recent crisis, the furor over players protesting social injustice during the national anthem. No matter where you fall on either issue, you can probably agree that the NFL should have handled each better but didn’t, likely due to its overriding concern about protecting the bottom line.
This, in addition to the often-contentious contract negotiations between teams and players who sacrifice their bodies for a billion-dollar industry, is the business of football, and it’s often ugly.
Throw in the micro issues that have infuriated fans for years, like the crackdown on celebrations and force-fed TV timeouts (at least until recently), not to mention the NFL’s ongoing stinginess over their rights on social media — the latter of which runs counter to the policies of other leagues like the NBA and MLB, which actually want fans and media to share and enjoy gifs and videos of their stars doing cool things — and it’s been easy for football fans to grow frustrated with the NFL over the years, which contributed to the decline of TV ratings for the past three years.
Yet, I don’t worry about football’s short-term future, and I’m only a bit worried about the long-term. Fact is, of the three major sports, there is none more inclusive of different heights, body types and talent levels than football, because on the high school level, you can generally play — and maybe even earn playing time — as long as you’re willing to play hard and/or show up for workouts and practice. You don’t have to be tall, like basketball, and you don’t have to have coordination like baseball or even soccer. Football also offers more varsity opportunities than other sports, which generally have smaller rosters than football does.
And yes, participation is declining at the high school level — down 3.5 percent, according to a survey released by the National Association of State High School Federations last year. But flag football’s popularity is rising, in comparison, and there are some communities — particularly in the West, Midwest and South — where football, which remains the No. 1 participatory sport for boys at the high school level by a large margin, is so engrained in the culture that it won’t be going anywhere.
So long as that all remains the case, you’ll continue to have teenagers who pick up the life lessons the game teaches, particularly about the value of shared sacrifice. And as they grow older, many will continue to find a way to separate the beauty of the recognition that sacrifice — captured perfectly in the video of Garrett and Witten — from the business of football.
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