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Troy, Interrupted

In April, at an emotional press conference, quarterback Troy Aikman retired after 12 years of leading America’s team. Though he was one of the few good guys on the Cowboys when the team was riddled with drugs and bad press, Dallas fans never really embrac
By Dan Michalski |

Troy Aikman made a rare civilian appearance in November 1997 when he attended a Mavericks game. A courtside cameraman spotted the quarterback in the Reunion Arena crowd and splashed his mug on the Jumbotron. His famous slightly crooked half smile, beaming larger than life from all four sides of the scoreboard, quickly dropped to a poker face. The fans were booing.

Joe Montana never got booed.

The incident revealed more than just fans frustrated with a suspension- and injury-plagued Cowboys team en route to a pathetic 6-10 season. Here, the owner of three Super Bowl rings and 45 Cowboys passing records, the guy who kept squeaky clean during the teams’ more criminal days, the citizen who raises millions for charity, the athlete headed for the Hall of Fame and Ring of Honor, wasn’t even working that day. He was simply taking in a game, rooting for the home team like any other sports fan-until an assembled mass let him know that he could never be just a fan. He was Troy Aikman, after all. Not one of us.

In April of this year, Aikman retired from playing football in an emotional farewell press conference at Valley Ranch. This month he begins his second football career as a broadcast analyst for Fox Sports. But will viewers connect with him? After all, throughout his 12-year career as a player, Aikman was a character Dallas never found a way to truly love.

The Valley Ranch pressroom was buzzing with reporters and photographers in 1989 as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones presented his new quarterback to the world.

The story couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly: Troy Aikman, All-American farm boy from Henryetta, Okla., rises to quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys by way of UCLA-Hollywood!-after being named just months earlier most valuable player in-of all places!-the Cotton Bowl. He has perfect golden hair and a charmingly uncomfortable smile and couldn’t be more polite. Even his name has the perfect ring to it: Troy Aikman.

If all goes according to plan, he’ll lead his team to the Super Bowl and again be crowned MVP, with a Disneyland commercial and a parade to boot. That’s why Jerry Jones offered him the largest rookie contract in NFL history. Sports Illustrated put his image on the cover, tagging him “The Cowboys’ $11 Million Man.”

“I want to play the game because I have fun doing it,” Aikman said matter-of-factly to reporters at the press conference. “I certainly don’t want to look at it as a business-although it is.”

Before his contract expired, his salary would rank 31st among quarterbacks. In December 1993, just before the Cowboys whipped Buffalo in the Super Bowl for a second time, Aikman, in a game of phone tag with Jones and his agent Leigh Steinberg that lasted until 4 a.m., would sign an eight-year, $50 million deal. It would make him the highest paid player in the NFL, briefly.

Indeed, football was a business.

Throughout the span of Aikman’s career, the world of professional athletics was undergoing dramatic change. The best players were becoming bigger and wealthier stars than ever before, thanks in part to free agency and ESPN, not to mention Sega and Nintendo. It wasn’t the dollars that made Aikman’s contract unique, but its duration and the no-trade clause. “In an era where players seemed to move around, it gave continuity and a rooting focus for fans that wasn’t fleeting or ephemeral,” says Steinberg, remembering the night that made Dallas and Aikman inseparable.

But Aikman also belonged to the rest of the world because, as Steinberg contends, the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys is “the highest profile role in the world of football.” So began Aikman’s transition from sports celebrity to cultural icon. His merchandising sales would be surpassed only by the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and the Oakland Raiders. Troy Aikman was not just an athlete, but also a marketable brand name. Troy Aikman meant solid and reliable (Acme Bricks), extra healthy (MetRx), hard working (Chief Auto Parts), and fresh smelling (Brut).

For him, the business of playing football had become the business of being Troy Aikman.

Everybody seemed to want a piece of him. Fans and media swarmed him after games and practices. He patiently signed autographs and indulged the press by showing up early for scheduled interview sessions. He made television appearances, teaming up with Pat Summerall and Brad Sham for two separate pre-game shows.

But we rarely got a glimpse of the real Aikman. What we saw instead was Troy Aikman, spokesman for the Dallas Cowboys, spokesman for the NFL, spokesman for all that is wholesome, American, and fit for small kids wearing No. 8 on the back of their $80 replica Cowboy jerseys. He avoided unscheduled public interaction and the sound bites he delivered came out guarded, without strong opinion, void of any real personality. Think Al Gore.

Aikman had no problem connecting with receivers but when it came to connecting with the public, his performance was lackluster. “As quarterback of the Cowboys, Troy was in a very political position,” says agent Steinberg. “In the post-game interview mode, he was acutely aware of his role as team leader. There’s a level at which careless speech can put a quarterback in constant controversy. The more successful ones learn over time to project a certain middle-of-the road blandness in many public situations.”

Of course, lots of professional athletes, even if we include just the most famous names, have similar job pressures. But John Elway never got booed.

Neither did Michael Jordan.

Then again, Elway pulled off the fourth-quarter comebacks. Jordan (tongue out) sank the game-winning shots. Aikman’s success came from hammering an offensive machine down the field, methodically, robotically, by handing off and throwing short timing patterns over and over. His laser precision was memorable but hardly electrifying. At his best, Aikman’s football persona was all business.

He tried to reveal a bit of his private self in the 1998 coffee table book Aikman: Mind, Body, and Soul. The photos show Aikman lifting weights, throwing passes, and riding a motorcycle, with him offering such insights as, “There is nothing better than achieving a goal and sharing it with the guys with whom you’ve accomplished it.”

His 1995 children’s book Things Change probably revealed more about his psyche. “When I was younger, the freedom to sleep with my parents helped ease any nighttime fright,” he wrote. “I’d usually end up hogging the bed and covers.” He goes on to tell how a neighborhood bully threw a rock at his face, cracking a tooth, and how perhaps that made him change his smile.

But he doesn’t tell his young readers whether or not he cried.

Perhaps Dallas fans couldn’t love Aikman because he didn’t let us love him. Of course fans hardly gave him a reason to make himself more vulnerable. Though we rode the Super Bowl bandwagons, few of us were there to watch him get clobbered in his rookie 1-15 season. Half-capacity crowds filled Texas Stadium and at-home sports fans only slightly cared that games were being blacked out on TV. While he regularly got knocked for being unable to pull off the fourth-quarter comeback, few of us remember his Elway-esque 1990 season, when he accomplished the dramatic feat for six of the Cowboys’ seven victories.

Even during the good times-“In Dallas they love you, win or tie,” goes the Roger Staubach quip-it didn’t take long for fans to make public appearances difficult. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be Troy Aikman,” says friend and broadcaster Brad Sham. “The bigger the star is, it’s amazing how little personal space he has. He doesn’t get to sit on an airplane and take a nap or sit through a meal uninterrupted.”

Usually fans just wanted an autograph or to say hello, but on occasion, particularly among the women who bounced across his path in an attempt to woo the most eligible bachelor in Dallas, fans crossed obvious lines. One woman supposedly approached Aikman at a restaurant and licked his face. Another woman admits to rummaging through Mark Stepnoski’s trash in search of some clue as to how to win Aikman’s heart. “Can we have a picture? An autograph? Will you sign my butt please and sign my bra and Troy I want a picture and Troy Mr. Aikman and come to our party Troy is gay and here Troy please Troy Troy Troy we love you!”

Why should he talk to that?

As a perfectionist, Aikman is about hard work, discipline, and tireless preparation. That’s why he and Coach Jimmy Johnson bonded early on at a Cowboys Christmas party, the two discussing at length the Zen-like joy of a perfectly run practice. No wonder he became so tight-lipped during the tenure of Coach Barry Switzer.

We didn’t know at the time that Aikman was steamed about teammates going unpunished for missing meetings and curfews. He knew the business was winning, and initially the new coach’s “laid back” style was doing the trick. When the Cowboys went on to win the Super Bowl again in 1996-a victory over the Steelers that had il-luded Roger Staubach-Aikman had little to say. It was Switzer who grabbed the world’s attention, pronouncing amid a shower of champagne and Gatorade, “We did it our way, baby!” Dallas fans cheered in agreement.

If only Troy Aikman could let us know how much he hated hearing that.

It was becoming even more difficult to be the clean-cut hero in an ever more dirty game. Teammates were involved in drunken car wrecks, failed drug tests, DWIs, and accusations of sexual assault. In March 1996, Aikman heard that his good friend and favorite receiver Michael Irvin had been busted after the now-infamous cocaine-and-dildo motel party. For avoiding the felonious carousing, and not finding love among the silicon-infused groupies and husband seekers, the public (and some say Switzer) began spreading the unfounded rumor that Aikman was gay. Oh, and a racist, too.

By the mid-’90s, Aikman had decreased the time he spent with the media, giving up less and less in each interview. But on the field in the 1996 season, he finally began showing some personality-and we didn’t like it. Troy Aikman, it turned out, was a grump, especially when he was losing.

We saw growing frustration on his face with each incomplete pass. The captain of our ship had emotions after all, and he was increasingly short-fused with them.

Once, when Erik Williams stopped blocking before the whistle blew, Aikman threw the ball at his feet. He also chewed out receiver Kevin Williams, in practice and during a game. Aikman was calling a lot of timeouts in the first and third quarters. To fans it looked like he was simply grumbling about an untied shoe on the line or a defense that looked scary, and we knew that meant we were less likely to see a late-game comeback.

Like Aikman, fans grew testy. We took out our frustrations on him, and around the offices on Monday morning, we began to question his role on the team. We remembered going 0-2 during Emmitt Smith’s holdout in 1993 and 2-3 with Irvin doing time in street clothes. The Cowboys were 3-1 in games Aikman didn’t start, however, including the memorable Thanksgiving Day where third-stringer Jason Garrett commandeered the Cowboy offense to thrill us with a 42-31 come-from-behind-victory over Green Bay.

Through all this, Aikman eventually did find love. And characteristically he tried to keep us from meddling in it. He courted Rhonda Worthey-a cute-as-a-button blonde who had worked in the Cowboys PR office-before quietly getting married in April 2000. Only after John Madden let it slip to a reporter that he had get to Dallas for Aikman’s wedding did fans know it was happening. Female fans seeking a final glimpse of an unmarried Aikman were escorted away from the glass windows at Biernat’s, the site of the rehearsal dinner. Street barricades blocked those who flocked to his redbrick manor on a Plano cul-de-sac hoping to get a peek of the ceremony.

His friends say Aikman doesn’t want to cheapen special moments by including too many people. That’s why we didn’t hear about J.P. O’Neill, a 10-year-old Austin boy who was dying of cancer. Aikman met him in 1994 and promised to score a touchdown for him and send him the ball. But it was pre-season and starters were taking only one set of downs. Unsuccessful in the first game, Aikman made fans and coaches alike cringe during the next game, when he scrambled clumsily on a 3rd-and-15 play to score a “meaningless” touchdown. Few people knew O’Neill would receive this ball, which was tucked neatly into his casket after his death a few weeks later.

The boos returned sporadically during Aikman’s final seasons as a Cowboy. At one point, after sitting out two games with one of the 10 confirmed concussions of his career, fans brewed up an actual quarterback controversy, many cheering for former Philadelphia Eagle Randall Cunningham to replace Aikman. After suffering his last concussion in 2000, Aikman was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. When paramedics asked him where the upcoming Super Bowl was to be played, he mumbled, “Henryetta.”

The end came down to the business of football. On March 7, Jerry Jones waived Aikman, after 12 years as a Dallas Cowboy, to avoid paying out a $7 million bonus. Sporadically, throughout his rambling hour-plus farewell speech in April, the quarterback shed tears-salty drops of unscripted emotion fans had long waited to see.

Is it possible we may find him endearing yet?

Returning from a road game on the team plane in 1998, Aikman eavesdropped on a conversation between teammate Dale Hellestrae and Sham. The two were discussing broadcasting for NFL Europe when Aikman interjected, “That sounds like fun. I might want to do that.” The following spring, he sat in as an analyst for three games.

“He was spectacular,” says Sham, who worked two games with    him. “And part of that was no one expected anything.”

The possibility of a new challenge, a second career in broadcasting, made it easier for Aikman to retire. “He’s now unencumbered by being a big star who’s still playing,” says sports writer Skip Bayless, who chronicled the Aikman-era Cowboys in his 1996 book Hell-Bent. “If he can remove all that old Troy, be the real Troy, I think you’ll see a heck of a Troy.”

In a conference call with reporters in April, Aikman explained what his approach would be: “If we can go out there and do a game as if we’re in our living room, I think it gives us the opportunity to have something that’s pretty exciting.”

But being successful at broadcasting games requires being more candid and loose. “He will have to be more entertaining at times,” says sportscaster Babe Laufenberg, a friend and former teammate. “It will be a little bit of a transition from him, because for the last 12 years, every time he has opened his mouth with people around, he has been guarded.” But Laufenberg adds that the Aikman he knows from watching Monday Night Football in each other’s living rooms has a very engaging personality, able to trade barbs with the best of them. “People who don’t know him will say that guy is funnier than they thought he was,” says Laufenberg.

“Oh, I hope he fails because he’s with a competing network,” he adds, trying not to laugh. “But I know Troy will do well because he wants to do well.”

A Fox Sports source puts Aikman’s salary at $600,000 to $750,000 per year for three years. “Troy has put all the time and energy that he focused on football into this,” says Steinberg, who puts the terms at five years and about $1 million per year. “He has an incredible work ethic, and you can bet he will work overtime doing his homework.”

Aikman’s homework entails reviewing film from his NFL Europe broadcasts and the Baltimore Ravens pre-season, which he began working in August, and meeting with the more seasoned Fox broadcasters for pointers in shaping his on-air personality. “It just takes time,” says Artie Kempner, the Fox Sports director in charge of  Aikman’s broadcast-booth team. “And with Troy, I think you’ll see that presence come out sooner rather than later.”

Aikman declined an interview for this story, an assistant saying he’d declared a summer media moratorium so he could enjoy the few months he had out of any spotlight. At Fox, he will work in a three-man booth with veteran commentator Dick Stockton and Daryl Johnston, making them the number two team behind John Madden and Pat Summerall. The hope is that next to Johnston, his blocker and old pal, Aikman will feel more at ease and project some of that living-room charm that his friends so often talk about, and he’ll forget that the camera is connecting him with millions of people. According to Kempner, it will likely be well into the season before Aikman gets assigned a game at Texas Stadium. And that may be a good thing for those banking on his broadcast success.

Don Meredith, relentlessly booed by Dallas fans in his waning days at the helm of the Cowboy offense, returned to the city as part of a Monday Night Football broadcast team in 1970. The Cowboys were losing badly and the fans at the Cotton Bowl began chanting, “We want Meredith!” But the public serenade wasn’t enough to win back his heart, as he soon opted for a life as a recluse and is thought to be now living somewhere in New Mexico.

Laufenberg says, “I’m sure Troy thinks that in some respects Meredith has it right.”

Aikman looks tired at the Dallas All Sports Association’s awards banquet in June. Surrounded by a black-tie-optional crowd of about 1,000, he shares the head table in the Fairmont Hotel’s Regency ballroom with nearly two dozen other national sports personalities while waiting to receive the Big D Award, which honors the person who has “most enriched Dallas sports by their achievements.”

On the stage, everyone seems to be having a good time. Mark Cuban, Craig James, Daryl Johnston, Sean Bradley, Don Shula, Brett Hull, Gene Stallings, and Tatu crack jokes, laugh, and smile throughout the four-and-a-half hour event. Dirk Nowitzki gets the biggest laugh when he takes the microphone and says, in his thick German accent, “Hello. It’s me. In a suit.”

But Aikman sits slightly slouched, only occasionally cracking a smile between yawns, as he does when Emmitt Smith jokes to the audience that Aikman was keeping a clock on long, boring speeches.

When the event is finally over around 11:30 p.m., other stars mingle for photos and autographs, but Aikman makes a beeline to his wife Rhonda and, without a pause, the couple lock arms and begin their brisk escape. They look like the king and queen of the prom, except that Rhonda is seven months pregnant. As they leave, hundreds of eyes swivel toward them and kids appear out of nowhere, carrying balls and helmets and little scraps of paper found in the bottoms of their mothers’ purses. They follow him, trying-unsuccessfully-to grab his attention.

Outside the Fairmont in the valet parking line, Aikman projects an uninviting wall, an impenetrable zone, as he hovers near his pregnant wife, trying in vain not to stand out. Soon a few kids and a couple of grown-ups muster the courage to approach him for autographs. He signs them all, not begrudgingly, but not obligingly, either. He makes brief eye contact, says little, just sticks out his huge hand and goes through the motions of being Troy Aikman.

The valet arrives with his car, a Cowboy silver BMW 750 IL. Though it’s almost impossible to see through the heavily tinted windows, you can imagine the relief he must feel as the doors slam shut and it is just he, his wife, and the baby due in late August.

In this world he no longer has to be Troy Aikman and can instead be himself. He drives off, taking a right turn into the Dallas night, leaving behind a clutch of fans, this unrelenting swarm, all that has ever stood between him and the perfect life.

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