Troy Aikman: Anatomy of a Super Hero
Try as he might to be just a hardworking television broadcaster, he will always carry the weight of those three rings.
It’s two hours before kickoff, and Troy Aikman is standing on the turf at Cowboys Stadium, halfway between the sideline and the famous blue star at midfield. He does this before every game he broadcasts, not just the ones played in places where he’s treated like a demigod.
“Some of the best stuff I get is on the field before the game,” he says. He is in a dark blue suit, and he is a giant, tall and broad-shouldered, with a head like a carnival caricature. “You talk to them on Friday or you talk to them on Saturday, but, you know, you’re able to get more detailed information as to how it relates to that game when you see them on the field.”
At the moment, the person he’s getting more detailed information from is Sean Payton, head coach of the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. As players from both teams warm up in shorts and long-sleeved tees around them, Aikman talks to Payton and legendary former Cowboys personnel man Gil Brandt, who now works for NFL.com. Exactly what their conversation is about, I don’t know, because Payton didn’t exactly welcome me into the trust tree when he saw me at Aikman’s elbow, pad and pen in hand. So I’m a few feet away, and that’s when I notice it.
It’s not an accident, because nothing at Cowboys Stadium is an accident, and Jerry Jones has the debt service to prove it. Above the FOX on NFL broadcast booth on the 50-yard line of the visitors’ side, a couple of levels up but perfectly centered, is the 8 TROY AIKMAN 1989-2000 of the team’s Ring of Honor.
The symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, but we’re not in English class here, and, anyway, subtlety has never been Jones’ strong suit. When Aikman comes to Cowboys Stadium—and he does at least a few times every season, in his role as analyst for FOX’s No. 1 NFL announcing team—his past literally hangs over his head. This is where Aikman will be when he calls his third Super Bowl this month, with his longtime partner Joe Buck. Metaphorically, this is where he will be forever.
It’s a blessing and curse, to be immortal. Troy Aikman will always be remembered. But also? He’ll never get to move on.
This means that, no matter where Troy Aikman goes, he is the all-time quarterback. Even when his boss is around.
It’s the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. FOX’s NFL production crew has taken over a conference room at the Four Seasons in Las Colinas, to prepare for the next day’s Cowboys-Saints broadcast. The scene says cram session—a stack of media guides for both teams stacked haphazardly in the center of the main table, a random assortment of snacks (chips and guacamole, Nutri-Grain bars, a few dozen sodas) on a buffet to the side—but this late in the season, the meeting is little more than a series of motions to go through. If they haven’t figured out how to put on a game by now, after 12 weeks and nine seasons together, another hour or two isn’t going to help much.
Mostly, the production meeting is on the books so everyone, especially Aikman (and Buck, usually, but he’s not here tonight), can get familiar with the video and graphics packages that will be used during the game. Its other purpose is to help coordinating producer Richie Zyontz write the script for the game, figure out the story lines before they emerge, maybe let Aikman try out some of his material. That’s what is happening as we all wait for the rest of the crew to return from Cowboys Stadium. Zyontz and FOX Sports president Eric Shanks sit on one side of the table. Aikman is on the other, along with FOX PR man Dan Bell, sitting on a corner, head bent over his laptop as he types up his notes for tomorrow’s game.
Zyontz runs the crew and, as head of the network’s sports division, Shanks runs Zyontz. But neither one of them is in charge here. Everything happens at Aikman’s pace. He dives in and out of the conversation, involved only when he wants to be. If his gaze shifts to his computer or the video monitor at the head of the table, it’s as though he disappears; no one will directly address him.
It’s okay now. Aikman is looking up from his laptop.
“How do you watch tape, Troy?” Shanks asks. “What do you look for?” It’s almost like I’m feeding Shanks questions.
Aikman says that he starts with the center and guards and works his way out. This is something John Madden taught him when he was starting out as an analyst. “If you think about it, there’s 22 players on the field, and there’s a lot of things you could look at at the snap. As a quarterback, I’ve always looked at the game from the outside in. I’ve always looked at the big picture, the perimeter players, because as a quarterback, that’s what you’ve got to see. Interior players, they tend to look at the inside first and then they kind of broaden.” Right now, he says, he is specifically looking at Dallas’ guards. “They’ve been struggling lately.”
Zyontz takes the opening and pries it apart a bit farther, asking him about previous Thanksgiving games he played in. We are deep inside Aikman’s comfort zone now. He ignores his notes for a few minutes and just tells stories. About Randy Moss’ first game against Dallas in 1998, when the receiver caught three passes, all for long touchdowns. About Jason Garrett’s most famous game with the team, in 1994, when the current Cowboys coach led the team to a record 36 points in the second half, and how it might never have happened if Rodney Peete had been healthy enough to step in at halftime. Aikman is good on the air, but he’s never this good. There is a casual authority that never makes it past his studied insight.
It doesn’t last. When Zyontz asks why Tony Romo never spoke up for Wade Phillips before he was ultimately fired as coach, Aikman is back to being the version of himself that Cowboys fans are familiar with, the good soldier who is open with his opinions only to a point. Aikman’s answer is genuine but it feels rehearsed, just as it will tomorrow when Zyontz speaks into his earpiece and prompts him to relay it to the viewers. Aikman returns to his notes; story time is over.
Throughout the meeting, there is a trace of awkwardness, a formality that is weird for a crew that has been together for so long. It’s not just that Aikman is the only person in the room who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (and the College Football Hall of Fame and, as of August 2010, the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame). Zyontz (at CBS) and Shanks (at FOX) both broke into the business working for Madden, who is only the most famous NFL analyst ever, and they are both used to being around famous athletes.
Aikman is different. He doesn’t have a presence so much as he embodies an idea of a presence, a sort of engineered personality that feels as though it comes from another set of notes on his laptop. He has a bubble around him that isn’t borne out of celebrity itself but instead an awareness of it, and a protocol governing how to act in the face of it. Just as he did in his playing days, Aikman always has a game plan, a script. Life doesn’t work that way, and so it is awkward. He has been all-caps, boldfaced TROY AIKMAN for so long that he doesn’t seem to have much regular Troy Aikman left. But he still tries.
This means you write the most memorable thank-you notes ever. Your thank-you notes go 22-of-30 for 273 yards and four TDs. You write Hall of Fame thank-you notes.
Joe Buck, to the Dallas Morning News’ Barry Horn, in February 2006: “At Christmas, our entire crew exchange gifts, and the only one to have handwritten thank-you notes for everyone the next week is always Aikman. He is quick to compliment and share credit.”
Buck to me, on Thanksgiving 2010: “It’s almost like there are 34 hours in his day, because he seems to accomplish more than anybody I know—certainly more than I do. I mean, I’m looking for the next place I can lie down and take a nap. And he’ll write you a handwritten thank-you note if you give him almost a throwaway Christmas gift. He’s a thoughtful person. I don’t know that people know that about him.”
The point of this isn’t just that Buck recycles the same not terribly memorable anecdote about Aikman. It’s that someone who calls Aikman one of his closest friends doesn’t seem to have much to say about the man. What it says is that Buck isn’t really friends with Aikman; he’s friends with that idea of Aikman that I saw in the conference room at the Four Seasons. Buck is friends with a set of notes. He has not made it past the bubble. He knows TROY, not Troy.
Only three people know what it’s like to actually be Troy Aikman, and one of them is dead.
Now, with Don Meredith’s death in December, there is Roger Staubach and there is Aikman, and that is it as far as legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks go. So only Staubach knows you never stop being the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. You are not allowed to.
Staubach knows—and Meredith knew—that it is a job title you carry with you the rest of your life, like President of the United States but with a more demanding constituency. You lose part of yourself when you get that job, and if you are any good at it—and Troy Aikman was very good—you never get it back. (And it almost never happened. Until the last day of the 1988 regular season, Aikman thought he would wind up with the Green Bay Packers.)
Put it like this. Say Aikman spends the rest of his post-Cowboys life developing a cheap, renewable source of energy that also, as it turns out, actively reduces global warming. Essentially, through this discovery, Aikman transforms every vehicle on the planet into a tree. This saves the world. In this scenario, when Aikman dies, the first bullet point in his obituary will still be the three Super Bowls he won as the Cowboys’ signal caller.
Is that far-fetched? Of course it is. Aikman got his degree from UCLA in sociology. It’s much more likely that, if he were to make a scientific breakthrough, it would be in that field. Okay, okay, fine. You want a real example. There is one. Look at Meredith.
When he died, Meredith hadn’t played for the Cowboys in more than four decades and, for much of that time, had distanced himself from the organization. In the interim, he became famous the world over for his work on ABC’s Monday Night Football, verbally sparring with Howard Cosell, singing Willie Nelson songs on the air. Aikman may do the same job now, but he never did it like Dandy Don. He was pure personality; Aikman, on the other hand, knows what it’s like to work against zone coverage. Meredith had a solid career with the Cowboys, leading the team to two NFL championship games. As part of Monday Night Football, however, he changed how people watch sports, forever. He didn’t save the world, no, but given the way most Americans live their lives, he did something even more important.
Yet no matter what Meredith did with the rest of his life—Monday Night Football, the movies and TV shows and commercials—the first proper noun in every obituary in every newspaper and magazine was “Dallas Cowboys.” It is one of the most iconic jobs in sports, right there alongside shortstop for the New York Yankees and guard for the Los Angeles Lakers—as much an idea as an occupation, the central role in backyard exploits from sea to shining sea.
It is not something that can be easily set aside.
This means that people will always laugh at Troy Aikman’s jokes.
There is a chance that Aikman possesses a comedic mind so sharp it deserves its own late-night infomercial, where a yelling man will demonstrate how it easily cuts through a Coke can and then slices up a tomato as smooth and thin as can be. It’s possible that his humorous insights into the human condition, into the very heart of ourselves, are so advanced that they will only truly be understood years from now, like light traveling from a distant star through space into our night sky.
All of this is possible. But more likely? Troy Aikman just isn’t that funny.
It’s strange because, see, the one thing about Aikman that everyone says—okay, apart from his relentlessness, at least as it relates to how he prepared as a player and now as a broadcaster, but that’s sort of a given, or at least not much of a shock—is “how funny he is.” Everyone ascribes this quality to him. Everyone. They do it now, and they’ve done it since Aikman made the transition from NFL quarterback to NFL analyst in 2000. “You know,” they say, sort of conspiratorially, as if they are ready to drop the act, finally let the world really get to know the man they only think they have figured out after his two decades and change in the spotlight, “Troy is one of the funniest people I know.”
Aikman is different. He doesn't have a presence so much as he embodies an idea of a presence. A sort of engineered personality that feels as though it comes from another set of notes on his laptop.
At some point, no one has to say that kind of thing anymore. If you are really good at—I don’t know—karate, after a decade everyone will sort of know where they stand with you and the karate situation. It’s not something that has to be pointed out, and not repeatedly. It’s one thing when his former backup and longtime CBS sports anchor Babe Laufenberg said, near the beginning of Aikman’s broadcasting career, “I laugh as much with him as I do with anyone.” (He prefaced the statement, naturally, with “people may find this hard to believe.”) It’s another when, eight years later, Joe Buck says much the same thing.
“Nobody would believe that, but it’s true,” Buck says, a couple of hours before kickoff on Thanksgiving, standing in the booth. “I’m friends with a lot of funny people, and he’s one of the most naturally funny guys you’ll ever come across. Slowly but surely, that’s starting to come out on the air.”
Perfectly on cue, Aikman says, to no one in particular, “They couldn’t get any bigger screen than this?” He is gesturing to Cowboys Stadium’s 160-by-72-foot high-definition TV, which is, at this point, almost two seasons old. A brave move, as even a veteran comic would have trouble finding unexplored territory here. “I need to put my glasses on.”
And everyone in the room roars with laughter.
Let me be clear: this is not Aikman’s fault. I don’t know if he thinks he’s funny. I’d guess he doesn’t. But I do know that, if he does, it’s because he’s Troy Aikman, and he can’t really help that people laugh at Troy Aikman’s jokes. It hardly matters that he stopped playing a decade ago.
I will give you another example. On the last day of November, Aikman is at a studio on Chemical Street, posing for photos to accompany this story. He is being fussed over—his chambray shirt adjusted so that just enough of his white undershirt is showing—and he is, gently, being ordered around: turn this way, look that way, put your arms here, put your hands there, raise your chin, lower it, smile, don’t. After maybe 20 minutes of this, the photographer, Randal Ford, pauses for a moment, to sort of let everyone catch a breath before pushing on to the finish line. Ford knows his way around iconic cowboys, of one kind or another, having previously shot Tommy Lee Jones and Kinky Friedman, among others.
“You sick of me yet?” Ford asks with a smile.
“I think we about got it,” Aikman says, deadpan.
It’s a line meant to return Ford’s smile, nothing more. Instead, the cavernous room echoes with laughter long after it’s been earned, the nine or 10 people in the room guffawing over this shrug of a joke. The reaction is probably funnier than what caused it, the kind of stilted overreaction maybe found in an online video clip starring Zach Galifianakis. Aikman isn’t especially surprised by all this because, probably since he can remember, at least since he was the starting quarterback for the Henryetta Fighting Hens, he’s been the kind of guy who can say something that isn’t a joke, isn’t exactly funny, but gets a big laugh from everyone within earshot.
He works hard to be that guy.
This means troy aikman doesn’t play golf. Even though he thinks he does.
The photo shoot is over. Aikman is back in his normal clothes—which aren’t so different from what he wore during the shoot that you’d actually notice the change—and he doesn’t have makeup on anymore. He is a regular person again, or as much as he ever is. And now Aikman is leaning lightly against a wall, answering questions. He has been in this situation before. It’s a postgame interview.
We are talking about his routine during the football season, how he prepares for a game, how much time he puts in, how long it took him to arrive at the best way to do it. Aikman says he hasn’t figured it out, not yet. That, yeah, he does have a routine, but it is always a bit in flux. He has been married for 10 years to the former Rhonda Worthey, who worked as a publicist for the Cowboys. Besides Rachel, Worthey’s daughter from a previous relationship who is at Baylor now, Aikman has two young daughters, Jordan, 9, and Alexa, 8. Some years he is in town more often than others. At various times, he tries to have a life outside of the game. This means adjustments. Of course. He is a man with a job and a family and this is what happens. It is the sort of change captured only with a time-lapse camera, gradual and subtle.
There was one bigger change, brought on by Aikman’s attempt to deny his essential nature. He is someone who is always prepared and, as a consequence, is always preparing. Aikman doesn’t do anything halfway, especially when it comes to football. Even when he tries to do something casually—like in 1998, when he called games for NFL Europe with his friend Brad Sham, a couple of weeks of vacation dressed up to look like a job—he can’t help himself. He ended up bugging Sham for tips, studying, trying to get an edge—because that is who Troy Aikman is. He is a worker.
“We sit there in meetings and he’s got his laptop open and he types faster than I can write,” Buck says. “I’m waiting for the panel to pop off his neck and see the wires hanging out, because I’m not sure he’s human.”
Which brings us back to golf.
“I wasn’t golfing at all during the football season,” Aikman says. “I never did as a player, and then I wasn’t as a broadcaster. I remember thinking—this was about three years ago—I thought, ‘Man, if I can’t find time to get out one day during the week and golf, I’m doing something wrong. I’ve got to make better use of my time.’ So I just said I’m going to go, and I started playing one day a week. I made a point of getting out.”
Which is perfect, it really is, because of course Troy Aikman would have to make a plan to relax, would actually have to prepare to have fun. So he became a regular at Preston Trail Golf Club in Plano. But it didn’t last. “Last year, we had a real bad fall here in Dallas. It rained the whole time. So I didn’t get out and play at all. And this year I’ve had a lot of other things going on that have kept me from being able to play.”
Uh-huh. In other words: Troy Aikman doesn’t play golf, even though he thinks he does.
It’s not hard to imagine that there will be another excuse next year, and then something else the year after that, and then the subject will quietly be retired, except when Aikman trots out that anecdote to prove that life after football is different. Except: he hasn’t experienced life after football. He has less of a chance of getting concussed now, but Aikman is still hip-deep in football, same as he ever was, same as he’ll always be until he has no connection with the game anymore, an idea that seems far enough in the distance that it shares space with flying cars and robot-based civilizations.
Does this sound like someone who is spending less time with football?
“Sometimes I’ll be laying there in bed on Saturday night, and I’ll start thinking about the game, and I’ll be wondering, you know, how long the kicker’s longest field goal is,” Aikman says. He laughs a bit, sheepish and knowing. “It’s not really something I have to know. Joe will have that information. But it impacts me, then, as to what they’ve got to do on that drive to get to that position. So there’s always more you can know. You never know enough about every single guy. It’s kind of an endless process of gathering information.”
So, yeah, Troy Aikman doesn’t play golf.
Being Troy Aikman means that, when you show up to Cowboys Stadium on the first bitterly cold day of the year, you park your car wherever you want to. You’ve earned it. You give up enough of yourself to be this person, this idea, and you enjoy the perks that come along with it.
“We get here and they say, ‘I think you guys are parking up top and they’re going to shuttle you down,’ and Troy goes, ‘No,’ ” Buck says. Aikman picked him up on the way in. Tonight, they and their crew will have Thanksgiving dinner together—chicken Parmesan and spaghetti and meatballs—as they always do. “So they say, ‘Where would you like to put it, Mr. Aikman?’ ‘Right here would be fine.’ ” He smirks as if to say, The balls on this guy.
Sure enough, there is Aikman’s black 750 BMW, down in the bowels of the stadium, not far from the video trucks we just left. Buck is headed up to the booth to join Aikman, who has already been up there for half an hour, coat on, tie firmly knotted, on the job. Which is why Buck is telling me this story, and not Aikman.
When we finally get up to the booth, and I see Aikman arranging his notes in front of his broadcast station, it strikes me that Aikman doesn’t have to do all of this. That maybe he shouldn’t. No, he will never stop being the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, but maybe he could have more fun, have a better life, if he were not doing this. He makes a good living, but between the money he made as a player and his various endorsement contracts, money is not a huge concern. And even if it were, he could stay home and just live off his three Super Bowl rings. (The only time he even wears any of the rings now is during games, and then it’s always the one for Super Bowl XXX. “It’s not my favorite ring. It’s just the biggest one,” he says. It shows up on TV. “If I wore my favorite one, I’d wear my first one. But it looks like a trinket compared to what these guys are getting now.”) He could make sure he sees Jordan and Alexa’s basketball games. They play on Saturdays now, which means half the time he’s on a plane for Philadelphia or New York or somewhere else besides in the bleachers. He could dine out on stories about Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin and the early 1990s Cowboys for the rest of his life. Post up at the bar at Al’s or Bob’s and be an escort to the good ol’ boys club.
What he does instead is get to games three hours early. He takes obsessive notes, then culls them and refines them until they are perfect. Then he prints them and highlights notes within the notes. Then he tapes them down himself. He makes corrections to graphics packages. He works up until the last possible second, trying to figure out everything he possibly can about the teams he’s covering. He can’t turn off what made him a Hall of Fame player. If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. Maybe one day, it will be something else. Aikman didn’t set out to do this. FOX made him an offer after the Cowboys cut him in 2000, based on his work with Sham on the NFL Europe broadcasts. He thought he might still play.
“The offer that FOX made to me I’d say definitely influenced my decision to ultimately retire,” Aikman says, when he’s finished with his notes and his pregame meal of sushi (from a platter brought especially for him, yet another perk). “Had that not been there, I might have been more inclined to keep playing another year or two. I saw it as a good opportunity. Matt Millen had just left to go to Detroit, so I had the opportunity to be in the No. 2 booth. But even then I wasn’t real sure how long I’d do it. I don’t know that when I got started I thought I’d still be doing it 10 years later. But I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t know how long I’ll do it. Not because I think I’ll be doing something else. I don’t know if I’ll do it 10 more years, or 15, or five—I just don’t know. But I’m enjoying it.”
He turns around, and though I can’t see it, I know he’s back inside his bubble, projecting the idea of Troy Aikman into world, ready for millions of people to laugh. They will always only know TROY. Never Troy.
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