Jason Witten congratulates Jordan Clem on Saturday after awarding the youngster a trophy at the conclusion of camp. Photo by Kris Wilson.
ELIZABETHTON — When native son Jason Witten returns to Elizabethton for an appearance, it’s quite an event.
People from miles around turn out in large numbers, and parking spaces at Dave Rider Field are precious. That’s what star power does for a small town.
The Dallas Cowboys tight end put on his SCORE Foundation’s eighth annual football camp Saturday. It drew more than 1,200 participating youngsters and some 2,500 sun-splashed spectators.
Professional players on the staff with Witten, an All-Pro player in the NFL, were Johnson City’s Aubrayo Franklin (nose tackle, San Francisco 49ers), Bobby Carpenter (linebacker, recently traded by Dallas to the St. Louis Rams) and Ryan Fowler (linebacker, New York Jets).
Again, Witten’s special guest speaker was his coach at the University of Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer.
“I’m very proud to be at another of Jason’s camps,’’ Fulmer said. “I had a great pleasure in recruiting him to play for Tennessee and getting to know his family. Jason was blessed with size, speed and the ability to catch a football. But his character was the most important thing.
“It’s phenomenal to see all that Jason has done. He is a perfect example of a young man who’s been blessed in so many ways.
“You’re looking at a guy who absolutely will be in the NFL Hall of Fame someday. He is one of the best players ever at the tight end position and still has a lot of football left to play,’’ Fulmer added.
Working with youngsters — divided into age groups 7-12 and 13-18 — were several area coaches. One of the largest free football camps in America, Witten’s camp required morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate everybody.
“About 6,000 have participated through the years. I don’t think this camp can get any bigger,’’ Witten said, “but we’ll never turn anybody away. When you come out here and see the smiles on these kids’ faces, you realize what it’s all about. We want to encourage them.
“Athletics were always a big part of my life. I had dreams as a kid, but I had people there to guide me. A lot of these don’t.’’
Witten presented four SCORE Foundation scholarships to players from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
Rider, for whom the Elizabethton field was named, is the grandfather of brothers Jason, Ryan and Shawn Witten. He coached all three in high school. The brothers have been instrumental in conducting the camp, along with Jason’s wife, Michelle.