By Bill Mayer
Sunday, July 17, 2005
Broadcaster Troy Aikman has traveled light years from that demeaning 1984 afternoon in Lawrence when he wound up in the Oklahoma football dressing room battered “like a whipped pup,” as coach Barry Switzer described him.
From that humbling start as a college quarterback, Aikman ascended to All-America, hall of fame and Super Bowl MVP stature. He led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships, and his 90 wins in the 1990s are the most by a QB in any NFL decade.
Aikman has been in the news of late because he’s landed some plum commentator slots in the new pro ball television lineup. Smooth and knowledgeable, he’s as good a “throat” as you’ll find.
It was Oct. 27, 1984, and Oklahoma came to Memorial Stadium. Starting quarterback Danny Bradley was injured so Switzer had to go with Aikman, a freshman from Henryetta, Okla.
Coach Mike Gottfried’s Jayhawks took full advantage of the opportunity and posted a stunning 28-11 victory (witnessed by only 29,500, by the way).
To Aikman’s credit, he didn’t dodge any questions about his inability to make the favored Sooners perk. Though weary, his poise shone through; he calmly and patiently answered question after question. Switzer said he could not have been prouder of his kid even if he was manhandled by KU “like a whipped pup.”
The 1985 season was worse.
In 1984, Aikman had been invited to a summer camp at OU. Switzer liked him and offered him a scholarship forthwith. Came that rude awakening in late October at Kansas. Aikman broke his ankle in the fourth game of his sophomore (’85) season. Jamelle Holieway jumped in at quarterback and led OU to the national championship.
With Holieway established, Aikman, who was a far better passer than a wishbone runner-passer, chose to shift to UCLA. Ex-Kansas assistant Terry Donahue had a Bruin passing attack much more to Troy’s liking.
Aikman sat out 1986, then took over as the QB for 1987. He finished his UCLA career with a 20-4 record and a victory over Arkansas in the 1989 Cotton Bowl.
The youngest of three children, Aikman lived in Cerritos, Calif., until age 12, when his family moved to Henryetta. He was all-state in football and baseball. As a UCLA senior, he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State won.
Came draft time in February of 1989 and the once-proud Dallas Cowboys were in sad shape after a 3-13 record in ’88. Owner Jerry Jones did the unthinkable by firing legendary coach Tom Landry and bringing in from Miami U. the onetime Oklahoma State coach, Jimmy Johnson. It was against Johnson’s Miami team that Aikman had suffered his leg fracture in 1985. Johnson quickly grabbed him in the draft.
In 1990, Aikman led the Cowboys to the brink of the NFL playoffs. With two weeks to play, he suffered a season-ending injury and even the presence of Florida’s Emmitt Smith, couldn’t get the Cowboys over the hump. But the glib, handsome Aikman had established himself and the endorsements and commercials began to fall in line even before he sparked the club to three Super Bowl victories, 1993, 1994 and 1996.
The massive egos of owner Jones and coach Johnson overflowed and in 1995, Jones fired Johnson and brought in the flamboyant Switzer. Switzer was coach for the 1996 Super Bowl team hubbed by the quarterback he had recruited at Oklahoma. Switzer had the first losing record of his career in 1997 and that combined with his off-the-field woes led him to quit in early 1998.
Even superstars have down times, and Aikman was due for more. Dallas was in turmoil, pass protection began to vanish and, on Dec. 10, 2000, linebacker Lavar Arrington of the Washington Redskins slammed into Aikman so hard Troy’s head bounced off the turf, really. It was the 10th concussion of his career; the Cowboys finished 5-11.
Aikman, a risk because of his concussions, was waived a day before he was due a $7 million, 7-year contract extension. He thought he could still play but found no takers and, wisely, retired April 9, 2001. He’s made a lot of good decisions but avoidance of that 11th concussion has to be one of his best. He could have wound up as bad off as Muhammad Ali, or worse, because of all those cranial conks.
As a broadcaster, Aikman has traveled and excelled in top company and has won an Emmy nomination.
One of the great joys of this business is encountering somebody like that “whipped pup” here in 1984 and watching him (or her) overcome adversity time and again and clamber from the ash heap to the penthouse.
There’s a common belief that media guys prefer to exploit and enhance the “bad news” rather than writing uplifting stories about people like Troy Aikman.
Not this rabbit. I was vaccinated and hooked by early movies. I absolutely love happy endings. It’s even greater when you’re blessed with chances to write some.