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.
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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