For 15 years, Betsy was always there for the 11-time Pro Bowl veteran. He rarely went anywhere on a football field without her. Oh, there was one practice back in 2017, but Witten couldn’t stand the separation.
Betsy protected Witten as best she could, although there was that broken jaw as a rookie that caused him to miss the only game of his career. And everybody remembers that one time in 2007 when she was temporarily lost in Philadelphia. Over the years, Betsy went in for some work with a little add here and there to keep her up to date.
Betsy was Witten’s helmet. An AiR Advantage model by Schutt, which was discontinued by the manufacturer in 2009. The NFL has a policy that requires all players to wear helmets that have been certified by the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association (NAERA). And NAERA won’t certify the helmet because it is more than 10 years old.
Antonio Brown‘s threat to retire because he cannot wear his AiR Advantage has brought helmet talk to the forefront. Witten was paying attention to how that case was resolved, but, of course, he never thought about not playing because he could no longer wear Betsy.
“It’s been a long time coming, so I knew like anybody, the rules are the rules so you’ve got to evolve with them,” Witten said. “There’s a lot of things you’d like to change, but at the same time you’ve got to evolve. It’s been a pretty easy transition. As much as I loved that helmet, I knew some things were out of my control and that was one of them.”
Actually, there have been two Betsys. Betsy I got a crack in it by the ear hole. Nobody can remember exactly when or even how, but Betsy II, the same make and model with the same tight fit, came on board for Witten’s past four or five years.
As Witten returns to the field after one year away from the Cowboys, Betsy I remains on the desk of equipment manager Bucky Buchanan at The Star in Frisco, Texas, while Betsy II is on the desk of assistant equipment manager Dylan Keane.
If Brown could have continued to wear his helmet, then Witten very well could have asked Keane to grab Betsy II from his desk.
“I probably still haven’t given up hope it’s really gone,” Witten said before the Brown ruling. “Somewhere in the back of my mind I can envision if things weren’t going as I liked, Betsy will be able to be popped back on. Nah, I knew early on. [Equipment director Mike McCord] and Bucky told me. Plus, I got a letter from the league my helmet wasn’t going to be allowed.”
“Betsy’s been a part of my life for 15 years,” Witten said. “That’s a tough transition.”
When Witten arrived in Dallas in 2003, Buchanan and McCord went about fitting their new tight end for new equipment. At the University of Tennessee, Witten wore an Adams’ helmet but that wasn’t an option for the Cowboys.
“We put him in a Riddell and he just never settled in on it because you do the fitting, but you have to put air in the bladder to make it really tight,” Buchanan said. “That was about the time the Air Advantage was coming out, so we experimented with it and he loved it. Never came out of it after that.”
The side pads, crown pads and frontal pads on the AiR Advantage had three different thicknesses. Over the years as the pads compressed, they needed to be replaced. One issue was Schutt stopped making the helmet altogether, so Buchanan had to look around for different pads. The person who reconditions the Cowboys’ helmets let him know about a place to find extra pieces.
“It’s like you’re working on your Model T and you’re trying to find parts for it,” Buchanan said.
Witten and Buchanan can’t recall how Betsy got her name.
“I think they wanted me to try another helmet and I said to Bucky, ‘Make sure you bring the old one,’ and he said, ‘Oh, she’ll be there,” Witten said. “It’s like the old reliable. That’s Betsy.”
Said Buchanan, “Him being an old country boy and me being a redneck, we just kind of relate, I guess. That shows my age how we just nickname stuff.”
Witten, during his first tenure with the Cowboys, once had his head scanned for a helmet fitting. He tried a Riddell Precision Fit for a day. It might not have lasted through individual drills before he called for Betsy II.
When he arrived at The Star for his first day of work in March after ending his retirement, he walked into the equipment room and said, “Let’s look at my options.”
Witten researched a helmet from Vicis and settled on it from the start. He said the new helmet has fared well in practice and his vision has not been impaired. He will get a chance to see how it works in the Cowboys’ preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday at a place Betsy I and II knew well: Aloha Stadium, the home of the Pro Bowl.
“This thing is like a Ferrari and Betsy was like an El Camino,” Witten joked. “I think it was a little easier process than they thought, but I still think they’re saying, ‘Let’s see it in a real game before we get ahead of ourselves.’ For me, look, there’s a lot of things going on in my mind when I go play, but you can control what you can control. It was communicated to me that this is for health and safety. I was well aware of it. Doesn’t mean there’s not some emotional stress.”
There will only be one Betsy. Well, two Betsys.
Does the new helmet have a name?
“No,” Witten said. “Hasn’t deserved one yet.”