Worn and drained, Dan Wittekind’s head droops a bit after practice. He looks much more subdued than I’ve ever seen him when we meet. We’re scheduled to chat for a bit following Wednesday’s practice; that practice broadly signifies a halfway point in the team’s first week of “pre-game” practices. Do they ever stop training? No. Many of the players stay on campus over the summer to do so, in fact. But there’s a game this Saturday, a big one, making each of these practices that much more significant.
Georgetown looms, and you can feel it in the air. Mugs are much sterner and more determined, even as the hoots connoting a good practice or a good hit grow louder. Wittekind isn’t saying much, though. He seems focused, stoic, uninterested in any of the noise, entirely dedicated to the game and the task. Turn off the music, line up, and let’s go.
“Dan?” safety Jack Griffith shouts over to him, “what, you get your bell rung?” Wittekind, shrugging it off, asserts, “I’m good.” Later, I ask Coach Jim Parady if he’s always so ascetic and focused. “Yeah,” he assures. “He’s that way.”
Dan has apparently been “that way” since he started playing. As he tells me, football came by way of a few factors: a family tradition and a knack for the game, both the physical and mental aspects. He and his two brothers all played, using the game as a proper means to exercise their competitive natures and size, though that came with some challenges.
“When I was younger, I was always over the weight limit to play in the youth league,” he says. He was unable to play until his freshman year of high school, a level at which the weight limit was nonexistent. Ryan Stover, Dan’s coach at Chester Academy High School, tells me that Dan’s brother Chris was so big that he’d have to play in a division above the one aligning with his grade level. “Dan, though, was even more enormous than Chris,” he said. “He was so much more physically imposing than everyone else.”
Continuing, Dan tells me that he “was just bigger than everyone else,” asserting a fact that you’d be hard-pressed to dispel. He’s often instinctively referred to as “Big Dan” by friends, teammates, and even coaches. Whether or not that’s a nickname he appreciates, I’m unsure. But it’s instinctive just as it is true. His roster profile says he’s 6’ 2” inches tall, though I’d be more inclined to pin him at two to three inches taller. He’s also a lean, yet imposing 299-pounds, likely making his duties as a lineman a bit more natural. From the beginning, Stover told me, “you knew that, for lack of a better word, when [Dan] was allowed to play, that he was going to be special.”
Wittekind grew up in Chester, New York, an “onion-farm town” with a population barely eclipsing 12,000. He graduated alongside 80 other students, yet had a town that would show up in masses for football games. Dan tells me, “It seemed like the whole town was there.”
It’s no Dillon, Texas, per se, not producing Oklahoma or Auburn level talent, but it produced headstrong, dedicated people. Dan, his former coach raves, is a prime example of just that. “He’s everything you’d want as a player, as a son, and as a friend.”
Parady echoes the coach that preceded him in Dan’s life: “You watch him work, you watch him carry himself… it’s just that’s the way we want to do things. That’s what we want every kid to be like.” When I talk to Parady, he beams as he mentions how passionate his second-year captain is, and not just about playing. “His thirst for the knowledge and learning the game has elevated his level of play just by understanding what comes next.”
Learning the game, Dan says, requires a developed understanding of it, not just the ability to play it. He watches “a lot of film,” so much that he says it twice, this time with emphasis. “A lot of film.”
Unlike others, he takes his film viewing home. He’s mentioned before that he doesn’t watch TV too often, unless it’s sports. But the film watching is what takes up a good deal of time and effort, both which Wittekind is willing to put forth. “I think that’s just almost more important than the physical aspect of football,” he explains. “Because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to be unsuccessful, whether you’re bigger, stronger, faster. I’ve spent a lot of time watching film; you can pick up on tendencies of other players, you can pick up a lot… [it’s] definitely the number one thing.” Parady says he misses the old days, when he’d find players in “the office” watching film after hours. “They [watch film] on their laptop… but you will see him…[he’s] in with coach Dembow on [his] own watching film more than the average student-athlete.”
Perhaps the film study is what pushed Dan over the edge in terms of accolades and teammate respect (he was named to the preseason All-PFL team this season, and was an honorable mention in each of the last two seasons.) He was also named a team captain for the second straight year after being chosen by his teammates.
“They get to choose the one person that they believe should be our captain,” Parady said. “The players chose him. That says it all on the respect level for him.”
It could also be his endurance, an undying persistence to play through whatever is thrown his way. He’s started in 33 straight games and played through injury, severity dismissed. Like last season, when he played with a torn labrum in his shoulder; back in high school, too.
Chester Academy, whilst small, had talent through. So much so that two state championships were no fluke, and a third in Dan’s career there wasn’t outside of the realms of possibility. How fitting it would have been for Wittekind – the local product, Division-I bound team leader – to cap his senior season off with a championship. That, in its own way, is very Friday Night Lights-esque. Cinematic, honestly. Which explains why it couldn’t happen, not in the real world.
During the second quarter of a playoff game that season, Dan tore his ACL. In response?
“He finished the game,” Stover told me. I laughed, not in dismay, but in the way that you might when you uncover something rather predictable. For days, I had chatted with people telling me all about Dan’s selflessness, competitive spirit and maturity (Stover would address Dan, a sophomore at the time, while he was addressing the seniors, asserting Stover’s feeling that Dan is “mature beyond his years.”) All of this seems cinematic in its own right. A player so determined to be victorious, refusing to let his teammates down, unrelenting and dedicated.
Stover continued on the injury front: “I am certain – this isn’t good, but it probably would’ve happened – that if we had had a game the next week, I know he would’ve given it a try to play the next week too.”
If the ACL-tear didn’t dampen Dan’s ability to play, it would damn well attempt to discourage him. Multiple teams pulled their offers, fearing freshly damaged goods coming into their program. Parady looks cross as we discuss this growing trend, where programs and people “go away on you.” Marist, he says, does things differently, trying “to recruit the kid that we think is the fit with the program… We’ve bought into the person, and if the person’s bought into us, we stay with them.”
It’s not hard to buy into Dan. When we discuss his future beyond football – he wishes to be a police officer, maybe a firefighter, and is considering the Army – he explains his desires simply and succinctly. “I don’t know… I like helping others. My cousin is in the NYPD, and I’ve kind of always looked up to him. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“That [profession] would make perfect sense,” Stover says, following the same chuckle I had earlier, exuding a sense of positive predictability. “It’s his selflessness, his team-oriented attitude, sacrifice, those are the same qualities that they look for in that industry, and they’re the ones he has possessed his entire life.”
As for football, Dan’s probably done. “My body is kind of telling me it’s time after this season,” he somewhat lamented. It’s not an easy transition, changing paths from constantly moving to moving on. But he simply can’t do it anymore. In the meantime, though? “I’m just gonna give it all I have.”
Parady summarized his player the best I had heard in three days of interviews. He smiled, pushed his sunglasses up, and sighed. “Dan’s an O-lineman. There’s not a lot of glitz and glamour,” he says. “He brings his lunch bucket to work every day, and let’s go.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that were entirely true.
Edited by Craig Conway & Lily Caffrey-Levine