“I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My
team expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than our
competition. If knocked down, I will get back up every time. I will draw
on every remaining source of strength to help my team and to accomplish
our goal. I am never out of the FIGHT.”
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Jason Witten and the Dallas Cowboys left nothing on the field Wednesday, exiting MetLife Stadium with a 24-17 season-opening win over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants while staking a “change of culture” claim.
But Witten and the Cowboys did leave something behind in the locker room: the note Witten wrote to himself, taped to his locker stall, carrying the above inscription. It inspired him. The Cowboys tight end — playing only 23 days after he sustained a lacerated spleen and doing so with virtually no practice time leading up to this game — inspired his teammates.
His teammates said more than he did about the toughness and heart it took to play Wednesday, a day after a specialist in New York cleared the All-Pro tight end to return to contact.
“That’s what the game’s about to Jason, going out there and being a gladiator and playing for the guy that’s beside you,” Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said.
Added Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo: “I can’t say enough about the respect that he earned from everybody with his attitude during this whole process. He’s the best teammate. He really is, for everybody.”
“Remember the movie ‘El Cid’?” asked owner Jerry Jones. “He’s our El Cid.’ He was inspirational.”
Jones knows about more than old Charlton Heston flicks. He also knows how to keep a secret. Witten received medical clearance to play on Tuesday after visiting with spleen specialists in New York, but the Cowboys involved themselves in some gamesmanship with the rival Giants and in some espionage with the media, which was so frustrated by the lack of information that one national media outlet created a silly story about Witten’s willingness to sign an injury waiver to participate against doctor’s orders. The preposterous notion would mean an unprecedented and illogical move featuring Witten’s willingness to forfeit his $3.5 million salary in case of injury . . . and featuring the Cowboys’ willingness to forfeit Witten.
“I want to be clear,” Jones said. “Never at one time did anybody in the club or me talk about a waiver.”
Happily, that nonsensical sidebar was pushed aside by a dozen powerful storylines: Newcomer Ryan Cook having to take over at center three plays into the game, despite being with the club for less than a week. Kevin Ogletree (eight catches, 114 yards and two touchdowns) carrying his weight alongside elite receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. The elusive Romo passing for 307 yards and three TDs. DeMarco Murray bulling for 131 yards, with the Giants never really stopping Dallas’ offense at all beyond one time midway through the second quarter. New cornerbacks Mo Claiborne and Brandon Carr controlling NY’s stellar wideouts. An early game goal-line stand that shifted momentum to the underdog team that had lost five of six to New York.
“That (stand was) something last year we couldn’t make,” Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee said. “We didn’t make those big plays last year. We did some good things last year, but that was a situation where we probably wouldn’t have made that last year. That’s something we’ve gotten better at: big plays in big situations.”
String together enough of those, and suddenly Dallas can change its culture of mediocrity. That is coach Jason Garrett’s greatest charge, especially as it relates to the Giants: Coming into Wednesday, Romo’s record against New York was 4-5. Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s record against Dallas was 12-8. The Cowboys’ record vs. the Giants in the previous nine games was 2-7.
The Cowboys often talk about how the margin of talent and success between them and the Giants is so slim. Here, they finally proved it.
They changed those numbers — the first step towards changing the culture.
“This is something I will remember,” said Witten, who borrowed and adapted those inspirational words from a training camp visit with the US Navy SEALs, a trip orchestrated with purpose by Garrett. “I think this is the way you’re supposed to play.”
Witten wasn’t quite a Navy SEAL. He wasn’t quite El Cid. But words led to his deeds. And his deeds inspired his teammates. And in the privacy of the Dallas locker room, just before Garrett was handed the game ball by Jones, the coach repeatedly praised his club’s “demeanor.”