By Charean Williams - cjwilliams@ star-telegram.com
Since John Garrett arrived as the Cowboys’ tight ends coach in 2007, he and Jason Witten have spent a lot of time together in the off-season.
Witten went to Valley Ranch four to five days a week, whether for organized team activities, weightlifting or to watch film. The two also share the same commitment to charitable works, bringing them together off the field, too.
But not this year.
Garrett has been banned by the NFL from communicating with Witten during the four-month lockout. In what Witten agreed was “weird,” he and Garrett have crossed paths only a couple of times this off-season. They have hardly said more than “hello.”
“It has been different,” Witten said. “We get along really well. We have a lot in common. Our wives are friends. It was awkward, because you’re both committed to something, and you work so hard at it every day and you go through ups and downs. So much of what I do football-wise is with him. It’s an ongoing process of every day trying to get better. When that’s taken away, it’s tough just because you do have a bond.”
It might be hard for coaches and players to truly be “friends” given their relationship in the workplace. But Witten and Garrett certainly are friendly. Witten likes playing for Garrett. Garrett likes coaching Witten.
They also share a bond with the One Heart Project, a non-profit charity.
One Heart was born out of the football game between Grapevine Faith and Gainesville State School in 2008. Faith coach Kris Hogan had encouraged his players, students and parents to send a message of hope to the opponents from the maximum security correction facility.
“Here’s the message I want you to send,” Hogan wrote before the now-famous game. “You’re just as valuable as any other person on the planet.”
Garrett hadn’t heard about the game until a few weeks afterward when he received an e-mail from a friend, who had attached a story about Faith’s 33-14 victory that was about more than a score.
Hogan’s act of compassion instantly gained Garrett’s respect, and Garrett immediately called Hogan for lunch.
Garrett was sold on the charity that had grown out of the game.
“The unique thing about it is it impacted the Faith Christian kids and their community as much as it did the Gainesville kids,” Garrett said. “Everybody recalibrated their perspective and how to look at things. Hope and encouragement are what every individual needs, especially the Gainesville kids. They need some reason to live and get back into society and be contributors and unearth all their talents. They seldom have the resources, but we can make an effort to provide those resources and an environment for them to succeed.”
Garrett and his wife, Honor, became part of the movement. They gave money and helped raise money for a movie based on the game.
The movie tentatively is scheduled for release next fall.
They also are involved in the One Heart Project initiatives, which provide at-risk and incarcerated youth a second chance. One Heart hopes to build re-entry facilities around the country -- with the first in DFW -- to serve as 6-12 month transition residences, complete with life-skills programs, GED assistance and hands-on job skill training to equip them for productive lives after their release.
“Many of us are one bad decision away from being just like them,” Garrett said. “When you look at it, these kids had hopes and dreams and visions of doing things. Because of what happened, or the situation they were born into, those have been curtailed. We just want to help them and give them the skills, the resources and the hope to be able to get back into society as contributing members.”
Witten and his wife, Michelle, saw a presentation at Garrett’s house, and they, too, were moved to help.
“It’s amazing when you think about how the whole thing started,” Witten said. “It turned into this. I know lives have already been changed, but it will be more so after these facilities are built, because this will give them another chance for whatever their goals are.”
The Cowboys are clear on what their goals are for 2011. They just have to be allowed to get back to work.
Witten, for one, can’t wait to walk back through the doors at Valley Ranch, where Garrett will be eagerly waiting for him.
“After the season we had, you’ve been so humbled,” Witten said. “Everybody in the group is so excited to redeem ourselves....We’re ready. Let’s go.”
By David Thomas - firstname.lastname@example.org
GRAPEVINE — Five seniors and a coach from the Grapevine Faith Christian baseball team were eating breakfast at Cracker Barrel on Monday when a middle-aged woman and her family walked up to their table.
The mother apologized to the coach for interrupting their conversation. She had noticed their school T-shirts and wanted to know whether they were from the Faith school she had read about providing fans and cheerleaders and support for the Gainesville State School team during football season.
“Yes, ma’am,” assistant coach Brandon Smeltzer answered.
“Keep it up,” she told the group. “That’s the way it should be.”
Oddly enough, Smeltzer had just been telling the players that there are always Gainesville State-like opportunities if the players will look for them. The opportunities, he said, might not be as obvious as the Gainesville State game, but there are plenty of people in need of a caring act.
It has been more than 2 1/2 months since the Faith Christian-Gainesville State game. Yet every day, whether it’s an e-mail, a phone call, a media request or a woman at Cracker Barrel, someone wants to talk about the school’s unforgettable gesture toward the prison school players with few fans and little hope — on and off the football field.
NFL commissioner: ‘A powerful message’
The field house phone still rings with calls from around the corner to Australia, expressing their support for Grapevine Faith’s actions that night. E-mails — about 400 so far — still pop up in administrators’ in-boxes, from someone saying they read about the game on the Internet and feel inspired to help others.
Athletic director and football coach Kris Hogan said that as school officials planned to host Gainesville State, he never considered that accounts of that night would spread outside of the campus. Now, he is receiving more media interview requests than he can accommodate.
Dana Stone, assistant to the athletic director, says she feels like a press secretary.
Hogan cannot remember once over the past two weeks when he was able to spend more than 10 uninterrupted minutes on a work project. Seemingly everyone wants to talk about the game.
And the game was in early November.
“At the beginning, I was really surprised because I feel like it shouldn’t be that big of a deal that Christians take action and do things like this,” Hogan said. “ I just don’t think it should be that big of a deal.”
Yet what happened on and around Grapevine Faith’s football field that night has become a big deal. The story even caught the attention of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was so moved while reading about that night that he invited Hogan and wife, Amy, to be his guests at the Super Bowl.
“Coach Hogan inspired an entire community in an extraordinary way and gave those young men on the Gainesville team a chance to believe in themselves,” Goodell said. “It’s a powerful message and shows how football can be such a positive force in shaping values and building communities.
“Coach Hogan is truly making a difference, and we wanted to salute him and help spread his story.”
Faith in action
When Hogan spoke about the football season at the school’s winter sports banquet, he talked for 20 minutes on “What Makes a Successful Season?”
He spoke for a full 15 minutes before getting to the football part. Only then did he talk about the Lions’ first season as the smallest school in the largest division of TAPPS football. About returning only four starters and still finishing 9-3.
About defeating the No. 1 team in the state and eventual state champion. And about losing by six points to the next No. 1-ranked team and, again, by six points — in four overtimes — to the eventual state runner-up.
What truly made 2008 a successful season, Hogan said, were four moments at which the football team and school put their faith into action.
Three came in the season’s first two weeks. Although they have not received the national attention of the Gainesville State game, they have made lasting impacts among those involved.
Two days after Grapevine Faith defeated Grace Prep in the season opener, Grace Prep player Shane Allen died in a car accident. Faith players asked coaches if they could go to the funeral. Hogan received an OK from the Grace Prep coach, and the players, wearing their jerseys with “Faith” on the front, attended the funeral to express their sorrow to Allen’s family, teammates and friends.
When John Curtis Christian School from near New Orleans came to play Euless Trinity at Texas Stadium on Labor Day, Faith let the team use a bus and its practice facilities.
When Hurricane Ike made landfall and prevented some of the players from returning to Louisiana, Grapevine Faith parents quickly raised money to cover the unplanned expenses and put together a cookout for John Curtis players and family members, with Faith players serving the guests.
The next week, in a home game against Fort Worth North Side, North Side’s Martin Rodriguez was injured near the Lions’ sideline. With an ambulance on the field, Faith players walked across the field, as a group, and prayed with North Side players. Faith’s cheerleaders then did the same with North Side’s cheerleaders.
A few Faith parents also went to the hospital to be with the player’s family, and at least one spent the night at the hospital with the family. Even when Rodriguez was transferred to a Dallas hospital, Faith families stayed with the family.
Rodriguez was diagnosed with a pinched spine and returned to play football a few weeks later. The images of Faith players kneeling on their opponent’s sideline remain with those from both schools.
The fourth moment, the Gainesville State game, is the one that has made an impact nationwide. Players, though, say the death of Allen has impacted them more. “It’s important to know that football is just a minor thing,” Grapevine Faith senior Nathan Alcantara said. “People are the most important thing.”
Grace Prep coach Dale Meinecke called Grapevine Faith’s support during his school’s tragedy “definitely unique.”
Meinecke saw Faith players, in their jerseys, lined up across the street from the church after Allen’s funeral. He also read about Faith’s game against Gainesville State.
“They showed that football is more than a game, that there are important things other than the outcome or the score,” Meinecke said. “It’s about people, it’s about relationships.”
Faith, hope and love
Hogan said there is energy and momentum on the campus of 635 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. The widespread affirmation concerning the Gainesville State game has been an inspiration.
“To see all that we’ve been taught over the years come up in real life, and more than that, see the impact it has had on people around us has definitely given me perspective,” senior Jordan Dunnington said. “That perspective makes me look beyond the immediate, to see how simply being a leader in action can have a ripple effect of impact on others.”
Alcantara was on the field for the Gainesville State game, and he also was at that breakfast table when the mother said his school’s actions represent the way things should be. Alcantara said that Faith’s coaches have taught players to focus “not just within our little world here at Faith,” but on others who need hope. “It’s important to reach out your hand,” Alcantara said, “and say, ‘There are people who care about you, there are people that love you, that want to help you out.’ “