If you live in Dallas or even slightly follow the Cowboys, you know that Jason Witten just retired. He’s a Hall of Fame tight end with more records and stats than I can possibly list (and, let’s be honest, I couldn’t list them if I wanted to because I’m hardly a football aficionado).
But it’s not his NFL accomplishments that struck me over the last few weeks as he announced his retirement. Instead, I was taken by the person behind the statistics. The humility and character he demonstrated throughout his career, and definitely in the last few weeks, have made me want to know more about his faith and how I can raise kids with Witten-like attributes.
He said something in his press conference that I can’t get out of my head:
“I was never the most talented, never the flashiest, I relied on grit. Other players may have been more talented, but I can assure you—no one was gonna outwork me.”
What a profound statement of determination and humility with a huge application for parenting our kids. Witten’s career was defined by it, and each of us has the life experience to confirm its truth: there will always be people around us who are more talented, smarter, better looking, more athletic, and more qualified. But what we underestimate is the great equalizer of hard work and effort, all of which is entirely within our control.
I talked about this in my last article, but when it comes to our kids, it’s easy to be discouraged when you see all the accolades and achievements showering other kids around us. If we aren’t careful, we can be left feeling like our kids are lesser because things don’t come naturally to them or they have to work harder than others. But Jason Witten would tell us that this reality should be a motivator, not a source of discouragement. Teach your kids to work hard and relentlessly pursue what matters, and they will be better for it.
This can be countercultural these days. Parenting kids in the 21st century seems to be focused on doing everything in our power to make our kids’ lives comfortable and easy. We hate to see them struggle when we can fix it. And when we can’t fix it, we start to worry our kids aren’t good enough and feel anxious about their future.
What’s missing in this modern-day parenting equation is the value of letting our kids work through their struggles, and, dare I say it, acknowledging that it’s okay if they have to work harder because they aren’t as talented as those around them. This may require some brave parenting, and definitely requires a lot of faith.
To have a Witten kind of kid, though, we have to teach them the value of hard work and perseverance—and often that starts by not fixing everything that is difficult in their lives. Witten has said that “without Jesus I’m nobody.” That’s the truth for every one of us. And the opposite is also true: with Jesus, we are all somebody. Somebody loved, worthy, and capable. We are enough in him—even when the world makes us feel not good enough.
You may be thinking, Sure, easy for Jason Witten to say—he’s an NFL talent with everything going for him. But remember that he grew up in a home plagued with domestic violence. At some point, his mom left his abusive father and moved Jason and his brothers to live with their grandparents. It was at that point Jason was taught about Jesus from his grandfather, learned football (again, from his grandfather), and met his future wife in high school.
This is not a guy who had everything handed to him on a silver platter. Although he came from rough beginnings, he was taught about the grace of the Lord and was forced to work hard for the things he cared about. And he had the gumption to get out there and do it. The result was a Hall of Fame talent, with Christlike humility that impacted everyone he came into contact with.
Have we given our kids the opportunity to experience the ups and downs of life so they have the experience that only Jesus can fill in their gaps? Or are we consumed with artificially making them feel good enough so they don’t learn the importance of working hard and relying on the Lord?
The Bible talks lots about working hard. This might be a good topical Bible study to do with your kids this summer.
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10–12)
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. (Psalm 128:2)
And Jason Witten’s favorite:
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. (Colossians 3:23)
I want us to be encouraged by the life of Jason Witten and the possibilities that our kids have when we lay down the right foundation. Let’s reframe life’s obstacles and even the perceived deficits our kids may have and look at them as an opportunity for our kids to reach the Lord’s greatest potential through hard work and straight-out want to. After all, the Lord created them in his image with a specific purpose and ministry for their lives. We just need to steer them towards Jesus, and, oftentimes, let them have the opportunity to show some hard work and gumption when things don’t come as easy as we would all like.
I’ll end with this: Jason Witten said in this same press conference that whenever young kids ask him how to grow up and play for the Cowboys, he always tells them the same thing: “The secret is in the dirt. I learned early in life through many challenges I could change my circumstances with hard work, but I would have to be willing to go out and earn it.”
We live in a culture that oftentimes views parenting as if the goal is to keep our kids in a sheltered environment where they won’t face disappointment or struggle. Taking Jason Witten’s advice, though, I’m thinking our kids will be better off if we give them the opportunity to spend a little time in the dirt.