Tuesday, June 25, 2024 Jun 25, 2024
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The feud between Troy Aikman and Barry Switzer is worse than anyone suspected. Not even another Super Bowl could heal these wounds.

FOR ME, THE MADNESS BEGAN ABOUT AN HOUR AFTER the Dallas Cowboys beat Kansas City on Tbanks- giving last year. Heaven forbid it the Cowboys had lost: Troy Aikrnan might have punched me out instead of just cussing me out. As we stood in front of his locker, he was that upset and I was that confused. Could he have been so infuriated by a column I’d written asking why he left the 38-20 loss to San Francisco-with what turned out to be a bruised knee-and didn’t even return to the sideline? Even after the Cowboys had improved to 10-2, matching Kansas City for the NFL’s best record, Aikman stunned me by losing bis temper and his usual cool, charging that my sources were “a fucking joke,” Huh? Not until after the season did I begin to comprehend the tangled roots of Aikman’s rage. That’s when I got caught in the paranoia-plagued cross-fire of accusations and rumors flying back and forth between Aikman and Cowboys coach Barry Switzer. Earlier in die season I had agreed to write a book, which eventually became Hell-Bent: The Crazy Truth About the Win-or-Else Dallas Cowboys. This is the equally crazy story behind the story

When the season ended, I wasn’t sure Aikman, Switzer or owner Jerry Jones would agree to talk about the issues I wanted to write about in the book. Aikman initially declined my request to interview him. But in the next few weeks I talked so much to Aikman, Switzer, Jones and many others involved that I wanted to scream. A writers dream-unlimited access to his subjects-became a bad dream. They began calling me. I share this not to impress you, but to impress upon you the depth of suspicion and bitterness that privately tormented so many key figures I inside Americas most publicized team. That I-some guy who was writing 11 book-got pulled into the Aikman-Switzer cold war should indicate just how troubled their relationship was and is. How could any team so torn by such childish egos and mind-blowing mud-slinging have beaten anyone but themselves?

Post-season rumors fed off rumors: Aikman heard rumors that I was going to write such-and-such…Switzer heard rumors that Aikman told me such-and-such…Jones heard that I had heard that so-and-so had said such-and-such. Aikman and Switzer. who didn’t speak to each other the last two months of the season, were communicating through me. Jones, who readily admits “Troy and I are not close,” was monitoring and refereeing through me.

Grill the messenger.

The more I learned about what actually did happen during the ” season, the more I marveled at how the Cowboys won the NFL championship in spite of all that Aikman and Switzer did to tear each other down.

But not until a few days after the Super Bow! was I told by Channel 8 sportscaster Dale Hansen, a friend of Aikman’s, that “Troy thinks you’re Barry’s boy.” Aha, so that’s why Aikman let me have it on Thanksgiving: He believed I had become an ax-grinding membef of what he and his confidants call the “Oklahoma mafia”-Switzer and J Cowboys staffers who played or coached for Switzer at the University J of Oklahoma. Yes, the Aikman-Switzer relationship had degenerat- ed into camp-vs.-camp warfare, with allegations being lobbed back and forth like grenades. You know, everyday stuff such as…

The Switzer camp wondering-with good reason-if Aikman had in effect “tanked” two games the Cowboys lost to the Redskins, who were prohibitive underdogs. Aikman says the charge is ludicrous,

The Switzer camp suspecting Aikman called receiver Kevin Williams a “nigger” during the second Washington loss. False, says the quarterback.

The Switzer camp hearing the widespread rumor that Aikman is gay and complaining that the Dallas media has protected Aikman’s lucrative image by ignoring the story. “I am not gay,” says Aikman.

Sure, other Super Bow! quarterbacks haven’t gotten along with their head coach. Terry Bradshaw couldn’t stand Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh. Denver’s John Elway had no use for Dan Reeves. Yet did those coaches ever believe that their quarterbacks were gay, game-tanking racists who were trying to get them fired?

Try to follow this: Aikman suspected Switzer-with help from assistant coach John Blake, director of player programs Danny Bradley and team broadcaster Dean Blevins, all of whom played for Switzer at OU-was trying to damage Aikman’s macho image and his relationship with black teammates. Switzer suspected Aikman-with help from media friends Hansen, Randy Galloway and Brad Sham-was trying to get Switzer fired and former Cowboys assistant (now Washington Redskins coach) Norv Turner hired in Dallas

Even as I type these words in early July, a month or so after my book has gone to press, the season seems like one long, crazed Quentin Tarantino movie. Pulp Factions?

Yet, if possible, the plot thickened (or sickened) after Aikman and Switzer somehow won a Super Bowl together. Winning did not inspire any forgive-and-forget on the part of Aikman, the one Cowboy who has no respect for Switzer’s head-coaching ability. “Really, I’m not sure what it is he does as head coach,” Aikman told me. After the season Switzer’s emotions continued to swing wildly from torment (over his attempts, spurned by Aikman, to improve the relationship) to proud anger (over the lack of respect Aikman has shown him). “I don’t know what I did to that kid,” Switzer said of Aikman.

Their suspicions about each other escalated to “X-Files” paranoia as rumors about what I was writing spread like some alien plague through the media. Several hilariously false rumors were reported as fact on talk radio. As I heard about the rumors, I sometimes laughed out loud, sometimes grew angry about such irresponsible reporting and constantly was amused by how everyone involved with this Cowboys dynasty-including some media members-was so concerned about covering his backside.

Paranoia convinced several insiders that I was writing something about them that I wasn’t. Perhaps some should have been more worried about what I was writing.

An alternative tide for my book could be Operator, which is what some call the old kids’ game. Remember? You whisper a line to the first person in a circle, who whispers it to the second, and so on, until the final person says it out loud.

Inevitably, “the sky is blue” comes out “Bayless is writing that Jerry Jones killed Jimmy Hoffa. “

To my knowledge, Jones did not kill Jimmy Hoffa, though he probably wanted to kill Jimmy Johnson on occasion. In interviews for Hell-Bent, Jones was outrageously outspoken about ex-Cowboys coach Johnson. “When you have gangrene in the finger,” said Jones, “you cut it off. ” Yet the book (and the resulting rumors) swirl like an Oklahoma twister around an Aikrnan-Switzer relationship that’s as ill-fated as Jones-Johnson was. I’ll be surprised if Aikman and Switzer make it through more than one more season together-if that. Jones and Johnson split like atoms following a second straight championship season. Even if Switzer’s Cowboys win another Super Bowl, Aikman won’t be able to tolerate a fourth season with Switzer. Their philosophies are like day and night life. Their wounds are too deep. Look for Switzer to retire after the ’96 season, voluntarily or involuntarily.

YOU CAN IMAGINE MY SURPRISE THE EVENING OF FEB. 14 when, in the midst of writing Chapter 1, I grabbed the phone after one ring and heard, “Skip, this is Troy Aikman. ” A week earlier, I had cornered a reluctant Switzer for a couple of hours in his Valley Ranch office. I’ve known Switzer for 20 years and have always liked him-how could you not if you spend any time around him? Though he can be a moody, impatient, volatile interview subject, I’ve always found him to be as captivating as anyone I’ve ever sat with-if you ride out personality changes that resemble a TV weather radar map on fast forward. But I have never once socialized with Switzer. I defy anyone to read Hell-Bent and say I’m Switzer’s “boy.” Yes, I publicly applauded the choice when Switzer was hired-but only because I believed he had the people skills (and the lifelong luck) to win a Super Bowl with this Cowboys team.

Switzer slowly but surely won over almost all the other Cowboys stars- Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Charles Haley, Jay Novacek. But-here I was very wrong-his charm did not work on Aikrnan. When I spoke with Switzer about 10 days after the Cowboys won the Super Bowl, he and his loyalists were expecting Aikrnan to walk into Jones’ office and deliver a him-or-me ultimatum. Switzer was so on edge about Aikman that he wouldn’t discuss their relationship for the record.

That’s why I was so surprised to hear from Aikman. It wasn’t like Switzer had criticized him, then I had run panting to tell, say, Dale Hansen, who had put in an emergency call to Aikman, who had called me to respond to Switzer. No, Switzer had no-commented me on Aikman.

Yet, on the phone, Aikman said, “We need to talk. Somebody told me some things, and I have some things I need to tell you.”

To this day I’m mystified by who told Aikman what. One member of the Switzer camp had told me that Aikman, in a sideline blowup during the Dec. 3 loss to Washington at Texas Stadium, had called receiver Kevin Williams a “nigger.” And several Switzer loyalists had encouraged me to look into a rumor I’ve heard for four years-that Aikman is gay. But I had been careful not to talk to anyone beyond my agent and girlfriend about these developments and I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle either issue in my book- if at all.

I would soon wonder if my phone was tapped.

The following day, Aikman and I met at the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch complex and wound up sitting in the fourth row of the empty team-meeting room. At first it was awkward because I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be asking or answering questions. Then, Aikman interrupted my first forgettable question to say…

“I did not call Kevin Williams the n-word, and I am not gay.”

For an instant, I considered rising and saying, “Well, that about covers it.”

Instead, for the next couple of hours, Aikman and I shared versions of everything that had happened. Much of what I knew had come from friends of Aikman and Switzer, and Aikman continued to surprise me with details or perceptions of which I was not aware. He gave his side of why he couldn’t return to the first Washington loss and to the San Francisco loss. He provided his version of the tumultuous week following the second Washington loss, when he decided to quit speaking to Switzer. He even went into tormented detail about why he, as a bachelor star, has been unfairly subjected to so many Troy-is-gay rumors over the years. He said, ” Am I supposed to keep a girl around even if I don’t care anything about her?”

As Aikman talked, I couldn’t help thinking how much time I had wasted writing Chapter 1, Not only would I have to start over, but some of Aikman s contentions made Switzer and his supporters-especially John Blake, who had become the new University of Oklahoma coach- look so bad that I would have to give Switzer and Blake the opportunity to respond. This would take time, and I didn’t have much. In order to have hardcover books in bookstores by mid-August,my manuscript had to be delivered to my publisher, HarperCollins, no later than May 1. This barely allowed enough time for editing, rewriting, fact-checking, proofreading and a torturous word-for-word review by the publisher’s lawyer. I’ve fought this deadline on each of the three Cowboys books I’ve written, but for the first two (God’s Coach and The Boys) I was able to start writing much earlier. By the time I finally finished all the chain-reaction interviews for Hell-Bent, I left myself only about six weeks to write most of die book’s 300 pages. Talk about hell-bent.

A FEW DAYS AFTER I FIRST talked to Aikman, a friend called to tell me a talk-radio host was reporting that I was doing a “Troy is gay” book based on tell-all interviews with several of Aikman ’s exlovers. Yet all I knew for sure was that Switzer had been led to believe Aikman is gay, and that Aikman had summoned me to deny it. I defi-nitely knew of no ex-lovers, Where was this stuff coming from?

The talk-show host could not have gotten away with writing what he said on the air in a respectable newspaper or magazine. Talk radio has no editors, very little permanence, too little accountability. The fear of a lawsuit drops dramatically from the written to the spoken word.

Next, an editor I know from a respectable newspaper called me to ask if I were “outing” Aikman. If so, he said, he immediately wanted to assign a reporter to get Aikman’s reaction. Because the rumor about Aikman had been so widespread and persistent for several years, many editors probably had looked for a legitimate reason to report the story. Now, wild rumors about my book had become that reason.

Of course, I didn’t want Aikman thinking I was standing on street corners yelling, “Troy Aikman is gay! Read all about it in my book, which will be in bookstores in about five months! ” So I faxed him a note warning him the editor had called. I was not sure whether or not the editor would send a reporter to question Aikman.

I felt like I was in the middle of an epidemic of Mad Cowboys Disease.

Meanwhile, Michael Irvin was further complicating my life by making a mess of his. Even before Irvin was caught in the motel room with the drugs and the “self-employed models,” I had planned to write a section about the after-hours lifestyleof the Midnight Cowboy-behavior he had flaunted in topless bars around Dallas for years. Team officials had told me during the 1995 season that they suspected-or feared-Irvin had been using drugs. But, they said, he had not tested positive for cocaine or marijuana, and obviously his on-field performance hadn’t been affected, so they could only hope Irvin didn’t run afoul of the police-at least not until after the season. Fortunately for the Cowboys, Irvin didn’t turn 30 until a month or so after they had won the Super Bowl. That’s when, celebrating his birthday, he got caught at the motel.

None of this surprised Cowboys insiders. One reason I did not want Irvin to become a focal point of my book was that, even as his sordid story unfolded, Jerry Jones remained far less concerned about Irvin than he did Aikman-vs.-Switzer. All along Jones believed that Irvin, as a firsttime offender, would wind up with probation {after probably being convicted of only misdemeanor marijuana possession) and avoid suspension by National League commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Shocking word that Dallas police officer Johnnie Hernandez had tried to buy a “hit’1 on Irvin was good news at Valley Ranch: The credibility of another witness subpoenaed to testify against Irvin had gone down the toilet. When Jones called me the next day, it struck me as odd that he didn’t even bring up Irvin. No, Jones wanted to ask about a rumor he had beard about what was in my book.

Perhaps Jones-and his attorney, Don Godwin, who was representing Irvin- underestimated the potential impact of the testimony from Hernandez’ girlfriend, topless dancer Rachelle Smith. Even under cross-examination, she came across with stunning credibility as she told how Irvin strip-searched her before threatening her if she testified against him. One meeting with Irvin, she said, took place at the home of Cowboy receiver Kevin Williams. Jones had to wonder how many more Cowboys she might bring up as her cross-examination continued. Soon Monday morning, July 15, Irvin pleaded no contest to felony cocaine posses-sion, avoiding potential prosecution for witness tampering in exchange for four years’ probation and a $10,000 fine. But pleading no contest to a felony charge exposed Irvin to an NFL suspension of five games, perhaps proving that Jerry Jones can’t automatically buy Cowboys out of trouble in Dallas.

But in March, as my deadline bore down and I juggled discussions with Aikman, Switzer and Jones, I began to hear that my book had become the Michael Irvin story. What, Valley Rauncb? One talk-show host reported that the key source for my book was Dennis Pedini, who sold out his “friend” Irvin by providing KXAS-TV Channel 5 a videotape he secretly shot of Irvin talking about having used and wanting to use cocaine.

I’ve never talked to Dennis Pedini.

But the lunacy peaked with a call from a friend who writes for a highly respectable magazine. He said his editors were buzzing about the book I was writing and wanted him to write a story about it.

“I have to ask you,” he said. “Is it true you’re outing Emmitt Smith?”

Emmitt Smith?

Next, I figured, an editor from The National Enquirer would call to ask if I were writing a book that reveals Jerry Jones killed Nicole Brown Simpson.

TELLING SWITZER, JOHN BLAKE AND OTHERS IN THEIR CAMP what Aikman had told me was like tossing lit matches into their gas tanks. In some cases I tried to soften what Aikman said, because it would have been cruel to make Switzer and Blake wait four or five months to see how much I allowed Aikman to trash them. (I also dreaded Switzer’s explosions on the phone, which sometimes forced me to hold the receiver away from my ear.) On the other hand, I didn’t want them asking me in August why I didn’t get their side of one of the many stories Aikman and I discussed.

Switzer and Blake called back several times to clarify or expound on this or that. They made some good points. For instance, while Aikman condemned John Blake, who is black, for (Aikman believed) accusing the quarterback of being racist, Switzer insisted it was Danny Bradley who warned him of player unrest over Aikman’s sideline tongue-lashing of Kevin Williams.

Get me rewrite: Again and again I went back into chapters I thought I had finished and added or subtracted or modified details. I was writing so quickly and obsessively that I can barely remember writing.

But I definitely remember the last time Switzer called me. After four months of not speaking, he and Aikman finally had talked in Switzer’s office in mid-March. Try to follow this; Aikman had confronted Switzer with some things Aikman said I had told Aikman that Switzer had told me. I don’t know if Aikman had misunderstood what I had told him- or if he had heard only what he had wanted to hear-but I did not tell him what he told Switzer I told him.

I immediately called Aikman and told him that wasn’t what I had told him. Back and forth we went. Maybe I was losing my mind; Aikman definitely sounded like he was about to lose his. He said, “This thing (his relationship with Switzer) has eaten at me for two years.” He told me that he even had suggested to Switzer that I sit in with diem next time they talked so I could verify what had and had not been said to me.

Exasperated, I told Aikman, “Just tell me when and where, and I’m there. I would love that opportunity.”

I called back Switzer and repeated my offer to him. He sounded puzzled, then said Aikman hadn’t suggested to him that I sit in with them.

At that moment I officially decided I had done enough interviews.

TWO WEEKS LATER, HOWEVER, I DID AGREE TO DO ONE FINAL interview-which was more like a debriefing. Early on, I had interviewed Jerry Jones for about four straight hours in his office. But as the rumors spread about what I was writing, Jones called to ask if I would meet him. I did, at his new home in Highland Park.

For the first and probably last time, I spoke more words than Jones did in the couple of hours we talked. I told him just about everything I knew. His eyebrows indicated he hadn’t heard some of the Aikman-Switzer details, and he occasionally interrupted to comment or lend an owner’s perspective-which forced more rethinking and rewriting. Jones also figured in the final and most preposterous rumor inspired by Hell-Bent. On Friday afternoon, June 21, while I was on vacation, friends and colleagues left me several messages saying that KLIF talk-show host Mike Fisher was saying on the air that I had written in my book that Jerry Jones had bought Fisher a car. The truth: Fisher is mentioned once in Hell-Bent only because of a story he wrote in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that upset Aikman and Switzer for different reasons. That’s it. There isn’t so much as a hint in the book that Jones bought Fisher a car or a carport or a cardigan sweater or a carton of milk. I felt like I was in a cartoon,

In 25 years of sports writing, I’ve never experienced anything nearly as bizarre as what happened during-and after-the 1995 Cowboys season. Only now am I realizing I’ve never had more fun. How can I ever find a wilder story to tell? Together Aikman, Switzer and Jones are the three most fascinating people I’ve had the privilege of writing about.

As I wrote this story for D, I watched TV highlights of Emmitt Smith going for a ride in an F-16, “Got dog!” yelled Emmitt as the plane went straight up at stomach-in-throat G-force. Now Emmitt knows how I felt writing Hell-Bent.