Greater Good

Score One for the Kids

By Frank Geslani

Jason Wittenâs toughness is indisputable. The Dallas Cowboys tight end has proven his mettle on the football field time and again. Can anyone forget that bone-crushing tackle he took against the Eagles in 2007, the one that knocked his helmet clean off his head before running another 25 yards? For any die-hard Cowboys fan (or fair weather fan for that matter), it is a moment that ranks among the gutsiest in Cowboys history. And itâs classic Wittenâdetermined, focused, resilient. Wittenâs toughness on the field belies a softness off the field. You see it in Wittenâs eyes when he steps onto Dave Rider Field in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Itâs not just where he holds one of the largest free football camps in the country, attended by some 1,200 kids each year. Itâs home.

At age 11âPro Bowls and reception records a mere blur on the horizonâWitten, his mother and two brothers were busy picking up and leaving an abusive husband and father. They headed to Elizabethton to live with Dave Rider, Wittenâs grandfather.

Rider was Elizabethtonâs high school football coach. Naturally, he became the future Cowboyâs biggest early influence as a young player, but his role off the field was even more significant. âMy grandfather was a pivotal part of my life, because as a young male thatâs looking for direction, he was there to show it,â says Witten.

âHe had many questions,â recalls Rider. âHeâd ride to school with me in the morning, and I bet heâd ask you fifty questions, things about his mom and dad. He was confused. I tried just to talk to him about being a person that other people want to respect.â

Itâs always fascinating to see where people from broken-down situations end up, the choices they make. Witten is fully aware that without his grandfather, his choices may have been different. The man he is today could easily have drifted into darker, more destructive territory. Fortunately for fans of football and true-life success stories, he did not.

âI think about where I am today as a man, and a lot of that is because I saw how Rider treated other people, and just taught me so much and encouraged me to chase my dreams,â says Witten.

The kind of guidance that changed Wittenâs trajectory is at the heart of his most cherished service endeavor, Jason Wittenâs SCORE Foundation.

SCORE stands for Support, Community, Overcome, Rebuild and Educate.
Five years ago, the foundation launched the SCOREkeepers program, which places fulltime, trained male mentors in battered womenâs shelters. The SCORE Foundationâs end zoneâbreaking the cycle of domestic violence. Mentors display the kind of positive male behavior thatâs absent in these young lives.

âWhat we found is, in Texas, over half of these kids that come into this shelter, theyâre going to go on and do the same cycle because of what theyâve seen,â says Witten. âSo we put in these male mentors that are there every day when these kids get home from school. Theyâre there to be everything from just a voice to talk to about a relationship, to help with homework and to dream with.â

Jason Wittenâs SCORE Foundation, through grants from the Allstate Foundation, has placed SCOREkeepers in six shelters in Texas. Many of the children also take part in special events like Christmas parties, bowling outings and trips to Cowboys training camp. The Foundation has also called attention to domestic violence with a prevention program called âCoaching Boys Into Men.â It trains high school coaches to educate their players on the dangers of dating violence.

The foundation has also taken an active role in youth fitness. The launch of the year-long initiative Play.Move.SCORE at Boys & Girls Clubs in Dallas and Fort Worth has encouraged kids to be active and eat healthy. Witten and his wife Michelle, a trauma nurse, also funded a Jason Witten-themed emergency room at The Childrenâs hospital at Johnson City Medical Center.

The list of commendable conduct goes on, not to mention the fact that he still takes time to sign autographs for fans while heâs out having dinner with his family. Thatâs sportsmanship taken to a whole new levelâand it hasnât gone unnoticed.

In February, Witten was named the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
Thirty-Two nominees for the award receive a $1,000 donation. The three finalistsâWitten, Arizonaâs Larry Fitzgerald and Clevelandâs Joe Thomasâreceived an additional $5,000 donation in their name. As the winner, Witten gets an additional $20,000 donation. Witten was also honored with the 2013 Bart Starr Award which salutes one NFL player for outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.

For Wittenâs mother, Kim Barnett, the greatest rewards are more low key, but no less significant. âIâm just proud that heâs willing to help other women and children who are in the same situation that we were in,â says Barnett. âBut what makes me even more proud is the kind of man that heâs become, and the kind of father he is, and the kind of husband he is.â

The play clock keeps ticking for the devoted husband, father of three and busy spokesman. Instead of resting on his accumulating records and awards, Witten seems to be leveraging his recent wave of good PR into even more charitable deeds. The SCORE Foundation aims to expand its reach to more children and families.

To help make this possible, Witten is hosting the Cowboys Captainâs Dinner on July 16th at the Vaquero Club. Attendees get to kick off the Dallas Cowboys 2013 season by rubbing elbows with current and former team captains. Theyâll engage in a question and answer session and get a behind-the-scenes perspective on past Cowboys seasons.

âThe SCORE Foundation is all about being a shining light in a young kidâs life, not only through a camp or through an event, but putting programs in place so that they can have a Dave Rider in their life,â says Witten.

The Dave Rider in Wittenâs life is seeing all those hours answering questions in the car, all the football coaching, all the life coaching paying off in a big way. His positive influence had been paid forward many times over. âOh, I canât be any prouder. Itâs a real blessing for us all,â gushes Rider.

Since becoming a Cowboy in 2003, Witten was never content to sit on the sidelines as a role model. While excelling on the field has made him a respected athlete, his conduct in life has made him a beloved public figure. The 8-time Pro Bowler, the Cowboyâs all-time receptions record holder, the NFLâs single-season record holder for receptions by a tight end, and the very definition of ânice guyâ has ensured that his legacy will last long after his final play in uniform.

âI came from a small, broken-down, old town in east Tennessee. I came from a broken family,â Witten told the NFL Players Association in 2008. âI had that vision of wanting to get out and be successful. It wasnât always easy, but I overcame many obstacles.â

The Dallas Cowboys have produced more than its fair share of legendary players, but playing for a legendary team does not a legend make. But working hard, playing with integrity, living out your dreams and helping others attain theirs is what true heroes are made of.