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Witten's football camp draws 1,865 young athletes

Bill Lane • Jun 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

ELIZABETHTON — Dallas Cowboys All-Pro tight end Jason Witten, a former University of Tennessee player, returned home Saturday for his SCORE Foundation Football Camp.

The seventh annual event, free for the 1,865 young campers who attended, has become one of the largest of its kind in the nation.

Another 3,500 people watched the activities from the grandstand at Dave Rider Field.

“I’m just in awe how much this has grown,’’ Witten said. “The first year we had 120 campers. To have this many kids on one field is amazing.

“I’m glad to be a part of the joy and happiness it brings. It’s something I take a great deal of pride in.’’

Saturday’s two sessions had 120 volunteers, including many area coaches. Former Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer, showing his loyalty to Witten, gave a rousing endorsement of the camp.

“In the three years Jason was at Tennessee, he made good decisions and chose his friends wisely,’’ Fulmer said. “I don’t recall ever having to call him into my office about a problem.’’

The theme of the day was the importance of education and teamwork.

Witten and Kingsport native Gerald Sensabaugh, the Cowboys’ new strong safety, appeared together locally for the first time since their high school days.

“I lost only two games on this field,’’ Witten said, “and one was to Gerald’s team (Dobyns-Bennett).

“I don’t think I realized how talented Gerald really is. He’s met every standard (to play in the NFL). His focus is in the right place. We’ve developed a close friendship.’’

Sensabaugh, one of four pro players participating in the camp, said he’s delighted to be with the Cowboys. He was a standout with the Jacksonville Jaguars before going to Dallas.

“Jerry Jones (Cowboys owner) has given me a great opportunity to play and I’m going to take it and run,’’ Sensabaugh said. “Dallas is a prestigious team with a great history. The city is really involved.

“Dallas gets to play a lot of televised games and it has a new stadium with video screens that go from one 20-yard line to the other. I can’t wait for the season to start.’’

The other two Cowboys attending were Bobby Carpenter and rookie DeAngelo Smith. Several present and former UT players also appeared.

Two rising senior players from this region were presented $5,000 scholarships by Witten’s foundation. These will be awarded annually to players in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

The first scholarships went to Elizabethton’s Zach Boles, 17, and Clintwood’s Nick Robinson, 17. They were selected from a list of 12 nominees judged on classroom work, leadership ability and overall character.

“Doing the scholarships is something I’ve always wanted to do,’’ Witten said. “Getting an opportunity to honor high school football players around this area for being the very best they can be is something I am very excited about.’’

Witten and his wife, Michelle, also were on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, where the emergency waiting room bears his name. Witten’s foundation funded the room with a generous grant to the hospital.

Michelle, an Elizabethton native, is an emergency room nurse at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital.

Last April, the Wittens returned to Elizabethton to dedicate the Jason Witten Learning Center at the Carter County Boys and Girls Club.

Witten and Sensabaugh will report next month to the Cowboys’ training camp in San Antonio.

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