Star-studded future
Hometown product, Witten, drafted by Cowboys in third round

By Wes Holtsclaw

   Emotions were running high for Jason Witten on Saturday.
   The junior tight end was poised to be the first selected at his position in the NFL Draft. However, it was an afternoon of patience for the household as the Elizabethton native steadily dropped down the board throughout the day.
   But with the negative animosity of the afternoon came a positive as Witten received that all-important phone call from a legendary coach and a legendary owner.
   Bill Parcells and Jerry Jones collectively came together on a decision as the Dallas Cowboys selected Witten with the fifth pick in the third round of the draft, making him a part of "America's Team."
   "I was looking at my phone all day, so to finally get that call was special," Witten said just moments after his selection. "(Coach Parcells) just said that they had me at a first-round grade, but things didn't work out and they had to go other routes."
   "They were really lucky to get me and he just told me not to care what pick I went, just to come in and try to get the starting job."
   Witten became the first Carter County native to be drafted by the National Football League.
   Elizabethton's Johnny Mills was drafted by the Chargers in the old American Football League, but never pursued a career with the game like Witten.
   The former Tennessee tight end was projected (to be picked) as high as 12th in the draft, and was expecting a selection between the 15th and 40th picks, but it was not to be.
   Three other tight ends slipped through to other squads as Witten's status kept dropping. It was an emotional and surprising time at the home as the family was filled with shock at the events of the evening.
   "It's been a long day so I'm going to enjoy it while I can," Witten said. "You can't help but wonder how and why things happened the way they did. I don't think I can pick a better team to go to than Dallas, so I'm going to take that and move on."
   Maybe it was a little ironic that the family had been fans of the squad that is recognized as one of the pure dynasties of the game with its five Super Bowl titles.
   After all, one of the greatest players to come through the franchise was a best friend of Jason's grandfather, Dave Rider, in college.
   Chuck Howley, a linebacker for the squad during the 1960s, was the only player to win a Super Bowl MVP award (Super Bowl V) from a losing team and is rated among one of the all-time greats in the franchise's history.
   "I'm tickled to death, and I am a Cowboy fan," said longtime Elizabethton coach Dave Rider. "One of my best friends in college, Chuck Howley, played 14 years for them and he's in the Ring of Honor there."
   "Coach Parcells, I've been a fan of his for years and he does a great job," he said. "It's a good place to go, they want to win and Jerry Jones is an owner that wants to win."
   Jason's mother, Kim Barnett, was especially proud of her son Saturday evening after their roller-coaster ride.
   "I think it's great because we've always been big Cowboy fans, so it's kind of unique," she said. "In the beginning we were really excited, and then as the day went on, it was pretty disappointing. He's got a lot to prove, but he's always earned what he got so this will just be a motivation for him."
   The selection adds to the Witten mystique that has intrigued this community since Jason and his brother Shawn attacked the Elizabethton High School gridiron.
   Both pursued Division one college football careers and have been successful in their own right.
   Jason was the go-to guy on the University of Tennessee football squad last season after some key injuries and gave the Volunteers solid numbers at his position.
   It was a dream come true for Witten, who will begin working his way to the top of the NFL ladder after his marriage to Elizabethton's Michelle Morley this summer.
   "It's special, but I think I'll be able to enjoy it a lot more in a couple of weeks," Jason said. "Looking back on it and being able to say that I'm in the NFL. I think that it's always been a dream and that was my biggest thing with coming out of school early."
   "Obviously, when you come out of school, you want to go in the first round or early second and not drop to the third," he said.
  "It happened and you can't look back on it now. I've just got to make the best of it."
   Witten set a school record at Tennessee for tight-end receptions (39) and reception yards (493) last season. His five touchdown receptions led the squad in 2002, and he was the only player to record a reception in all 13 games.
   He earned consensus first-team All-SEC and Academic All-SEC honors during his junior season.
   Soon the disappointment will fade away as the community and family will support Witten in his new role.
   Said Rider: "We're a little disappointed that he didn't go earlier, and we don't know what happened with everybody rating him first tight end in the draft."
   "But that's part of the NFL," he said. "Maybe that's the good Lord telling him 'you've got to work now and if you want anything in this life you've got to work for it.' Jason's the type of young man that will do it. I'm happy for him and it's a dream come true."