FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Jason Witten has practiced in front of thousands of Dallas Cowboys fans during training camp plenty of times in his 15 seasons.
Just never a few paces and a left turn from the locker in his home away from home — team headquarters, with the 12,000-seat stadium that serves as an indoor practice field for America’s Team at its posh year-old facility.
The same could be said for the 16 members of the team’s ring of honor who attended a ceremony a few hours before the Cowboys opened practice to the public at their home base for what is believed to be the first time Monday.
Dallas has held camp practices at its stadium about 35 miles to the southwest, and the Alamodome in San Antonio. The Cowboys have trained in California off and on (mostly on) since soon after their inception in 1960, including about four weeks in Oxnard this year.
While the crowd of 6,052 wasn’t quite as big as expected for this kind of first for a storied franchise, it was notable nonetheless.
“It really was a function that we dreamed out when we were putting The Star together,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones told The Associated Press, using the team’s name for its sprawling complex in Frisco, 30 miles north of Dallas.
“That this would be an excellent experience that so many fans in the Dallas area haven’t gotten to be part of, the training camp. We didn’t have the facilities for it.”
That was the case in the early days of the Cowboys, when they trained at a no-frills facility in Dallas until the mid-1980s. And it was still the case at the Valley Ranch complex in Irving, which was also home to Texas Stadium. Jones built $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where they team moved in 2009.
The Cowboys moved into their new practice place after training camp last year, and knew it was just a matter of time before they’d be holding full-scale camp workouts in front of the home folks.
“I think it’s the neat thing about this, it sounds like that’s what it’ll be like as it moves forward,” said Witten, who rivaled quarterback Dak Prescott for the loudest ovation when he emerged from the walkway leading to the field Monday. “And it’s great for the fans to get a glimpse of that.”
On that question of the future, Jones reiterated his commitment to California, and there’s little question he enjoys the visibility just a few dozen miles north of Hollywood. The Cowboys are committed to Oxnard next year, followed by a two-year option.
The local option is a good one for Carrie Himel, a 38-year-old realtor from Frisco who made plans to attend the practice soon after she heard about it.
“Because it’s the first training camp right here in our city and it’s freaking awesome that it’s right here in our backyard,” she said. “You don’t have to go to California. It’s right here. So why not?”
Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, was among the ring of honor recipients who were recognized at the opening of a display of the 21-member group in a plaza near the indoor stadium. He said the upcoming practice would be just like ones the 48-year-old remembered from San Antonio and Oxnard.
“The only difference is now they host it in their own facility, which is great,” said Smith, who was joined by his fellow three-time Super Bowl-winning “Triplets,” quarterback Troy Aikman and receiver Michael Irvin. “I think it’s pretty unique. It’s pretty special. They have the best facility in all of sports, so why not just do it here.”
Like Himel, 50-year-old Mark Gatica of Fort Worth has never been to Cowboys camp anywhere else. And he’s a lifelong fan who could have gone in Wichita Falls, about two hours northwest of the Dallas area.
“Probably because it was outdoors,” Gatica said with a smile on a mild-for-Texas day of 93 degrees. “Indoors, the nice A/C and everything. It’s really nice.”
The practice was routine, with the typical cheers for catches by Dez Bryant and chants supporting new star running back Ezekiel Elliott, facing a six-game suspension to start his second season. Fans bought concessions and milled about on the concourse during the workout.
Admission was free, but tickets were required. After the lower-than-expected turnout, the Cowboys announced that tickets won’t be required for the remaining practices: three this week and two next week before the team officially breaks camp.
“It was super fun,” Himel said. “It’s so awesome being this close to players. It feels like they’re right there.”
And it felt like a first for her and others.
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