FRISCO, Texas —
Jason Witten has left his mark on the Dallas Cowboys with the most games played in franchise history with 255. He may even leave his mark on pro football if his 16-year career is worthy enough to warrant enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
However, the 11-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro is establishing a legacy in college football with the Jason Witten Collegiate Player of the Year Award.
The award is one of a kind in that it is the first to focus on a player's leadership on and off the gridiron — two traits that Witten has embodied throughout his career with the Cowboys and at the University of Tennessee.
"It's not just about overcoming," Witten said of the three finalists. "It's about what they stand for, who they are on the team as leaders, but who they are in their communities. I'm honored to have my name on it and it's a special night for sure."
The 2019 finalists were Air Force's Isaiah Sanders, USC's Michael Pittman, Jr., and Tennessee's Trey Smith.
Even though Witten has his board of directors — including Witten's former college coach, Phil Fulmer, and former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, among others — determining who the three finalists are each year, Witten admits the process of selecting a winner is difficult.
"I think every year you go through it and it seems like it gets harder and harder," said Witten. "I think these kids and sports information departments and universities have so many deserving candidates of student-athletes that stand for all the things you want in this world. And, so, the board kind of whittles it down, we get it to three, and there are many more deserving.
"But it's really about honoring all three of them. It's really not one winner. It's great to visit with them, catch up with them."
Sanders played five games as quarterback for the Falcons in 2019. Off the field, Sanders, whose dad is a huge Cowboys fan, relished the night and meeting this millennium's Mr. Cowboy, was a finalist for the Wuerffel Trophy for his work in the community, chiefly with Undivided.
"I think as I went through the Rhodes Scholarship process and competed for that, one of the things I learned about myself was my personal mission statement is to leverage my God-given gifts and abilities, but it's about God's gift and glory and that's what I think is a better story," Sanders said. "There's a lot of things that I've been given in life that I know not everybody else has. How can I best use everything that I've been given and try to make a difference in someone else's life?"
Pittman struggled with stuttering, and used his triumph over the speech impediment to promote literacy among elementary students. Pittman was able to give back to the community while also earning All-PAC 12 honors with 101 catches for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns in his senior season at USC.
"It's just great to build up their confidence because it can feel crushing when somebody says something like when they're talking about the way that you talk because you can't really change that," said Pittman, who also sponsors a child in Indonesia through Compassion International.
"So, just kind of building up that confidence is the main goal."
The night's winner was Smith, who was extremely honored to be a finalist for an award named after a Tennessee Volunteers legend.
"He's obviously a Cowboy legend, excellent NFL career, knows what I'm going through," Smith said. "Just being able to share that connection, that brotherhood of being Volunteers is a big deal to me."
Smith overcame blood clots in his lung that canceled his sophomore season in 2018. In addition to working his way back to playing SEC football at a high level, Smith was the driving force behind a coat drive for the Knoxville Area Rescue Ministry and was also selected for the 2018 VOLeaders Class.
Smith walked home Tuesday night with the award and the world continues to be a better place with college athletes using their platform to give back, just as Witten has done his entire career.
"My kids are now getting older and sons and daughters need role models," said Witten. "I think those are great examples of what college athletes are all about, not only in what they overcome to get where they are, but really just thriving on and off the field.
"That's what it's really about."
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