Taking the next step: Jason Witten decides to go pro

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR CORRESPONDENT
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   KNOXVILLE--Bye, Bye Tennessee. Hello NFL!
   The suspense had been building over the past few weeks. The question: Was Jason Witten going pro or running through the tunnel of Neyland Stadium once again?
   That question was answered Monday afternoon at the Neyland-Thompson Athletic Center at the University of Tennessee.
   "I've talked with a lot of people, from general managers of football clubs or anybody I could get a hold of," Witten said. "Saying that, my family and I sat down and made a decision that is best for my future. That is to forgo my senior season and enter the 2003 NFL Draft."
   The Elizabethton native and Volunteer tight end based his decision on a lot of information that he had received over the past few weeks. His decision wasn't really determined until last night.
   "It's been tough," he said. "I really don't think I knew for sure until last night. I was in and out. It's amazing what emotions can do to you, it's so tough.
   "I want to give God all the glory. If it weren't for Him, I wouldn't be in this position today. These last few weeks have been hard on me, my family and close friends. I've been able to have a great season this year.
   "From the heart, Tennessee fans are the best in the country. I want to thank them for the opportunity they've allowed me to be in and the support they've given. I want them to know I gave all I had every play. That was special for me."
   Jason talked to several players throughout the whole decision making process, including quarterback Casey Clausen.
   "I talked to them a lot," he said. "I think Casey was a huge factor in my decision. He's a great friend to me. I've got a relationship with that guy nobody can ever take away. I wish him the best of luck."
   Clausen added: "I tried to just talk to him man-to-man, as a friend. I wasn't talking to him as a coach would, or a general manager would, or a player. I just told him to 'do what you want to do. If you want to stay, stay. If you want to leave, leave.'
   "I'm real happy for him and the opportunity he has. He's a top guy. It's tough to pass up and he's going to make the most of it."
   Jason's future in the NFL will not be guaranteed right away. First he will enter the combine in Indianapolis and take things from there.
   "I don't think I can be promised anything," Witten said. "But I've been told anywhere between 15 to 40 and I think it's pretty obvious that I can be the first tight end selected in the draft.
   Jason set two Tennessee tight end records this past season, including yards in a season and receptions in a season. He ranks fourth all-time on Tennessee's list for yardage by a tight end and second for touchdowns in a season.
   "I just felt like that was something I couldn't pass up," he said. "With all that goes on in college football, you play to be the first selected in your position, and that chance is all I can ask for.
   "(The combine) is going to be the next step. You've got to give up some time to train to be able to compete there. I know that I'm going to have to test out well. I'm healthy and just excited to start training and do nothing but football.
   Jason got a lot of support from the coaches at Tennessee. Although coach Phillip Fulmer and the staff couldn't make the conference, Jason was very appreciative.
   "He was so supportive," Jason said of Fulmer. "I can't thank him enough for the support he gave me. He just told me that he wished me the best of luck, and I told him I would always be a Tennessee Vol."
   "My blood will always bleed orange, I know that without a doubt," he said. "I'll be the biggest Tennessee fan there is next fall, I guarantee that. (Coach Fulmer) wishes that I would come back for the selfish reasons that we all have. He was very supportive. He told me that he was a Jason Witten fan now and wished me the best of luck."
   Jason had a lot of support from his family throughout the entire ordeal, but through it all, they left the burden on Jason.
   "As a ballplayer, you always dream of playing in the NFL," said Jason's older brother and Virginia Tech Hokie Shawn. "It's a big decision for him, he loves Tennessee and everything about it, but you've got to do what you've got to do."
   "He's a grown man now. He's stepping into new shoes and stepping into a new future in a situation where he can support himself and his family. That was what his main decision was."
   "It's been tough," said Witten's mother, Kim Barnett. "We've had both Shawn and Jason there, and had a lot of decisions to make. However, when it all came down, it was on Jason's shoulders. This is the path that Jason feels he needs to take and we're behind him a hundred percent."
   Jason's grandfather Dave Rider was proud of the moment, especially of his family as a whole.
   "I've been proud of these boys all of their life," an emotional Rider said. "You know I got three (grandsons), and it's not just the things they've done but the way they act."
   Said grandmother Deanna Rider: "Jason likes it so well here at Tennessee. He likes Coach Fulmer and everyone here. It was a big dream of his to play for this school to begin with, so he's fulfilled that dream."
   "I'm sure it's the dream of every boy to play in the NFL also, so that dream is about to come true. It's been hard, in fact, it's really been hard for all of us. We've all had our opinions, but when it came down to it, it was Jason's decision."
   Perhaps Jason said it best during his statement.
   "I came to Tennessee to grow as a person and as a man...," he said. "We've gone through some good times and some bad times but, overall, I couldn't have asked for a better place. I think I was in this situation for a reason, and I'm thankful."