Aikman's competitive nature not just for Sundays
By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sportswriter
The measure of a man in the NFL comes on Sundays.
For Troy Aikman, it also came on Fridays.
The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback was so driven to win that the final serious practice of the week frustrated him as much as rival coach Buddy Ryan's blitz packages. Ex-Cowboys defensive coordinator Butch Davis said some drills that day reminded him of the Super Bowl.
``He used to get (ticked) off on Friday running the two-minute drill because everything was geared to the defense winning it,'' former Dallas offensive lineman Kevin Gogan said. ``Of course, they knew all our signals. So he'd get in the huddle and say, `I'm going to give this signal, but I really mean this.' He was so competitive he wanted to (mess with) those guys.''
Ex-fullback Daryl ``Moose'' Johnston said the nine-on-seven inside drill was just as infuriating for Aikman, even with Emmitt Smith on their side.
``There would be nine guys within six yards, they'd be walking up safeties, and he'd pull up and throw a play-action pass,'' Johnston said. ``They'd say, `This is a running drill,' and he'd say, `Yeah, but we're not getting anything out of this.' ''
There also were times during Aikman's 12 seasons when his coaches and teammates would admire the arm, the accuracy, the touch and the leadership that would help the Cowboys win three Super Bowls and make Aikman a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Aikman is one of six inductees getting ready for Saturday's 1 p.m. enshrinement ceremonies at Fawcett Stadium in Canton near the Hall.
``Sometimes in practice the ball wouldn't hit the ground the entire week,'' said Davis, a former Browns coach. ``Troy would go 18-for-18 in seven-on-seven, and if the ball hit the ground, somebody probably dropped it. And that didn't happen with Michael Irvin or Jay Novacek.''
No question, Aikman had help. His fellow ``Triplets'' -- Smith (1990) and Irvin (1988) -- also were first-round picks who might join him in the Hall of Fame. Smith, the NFL's all-time rushing leader, will be a first-ballot choice in 2010.
But Aikman didn't become a member of the 2006 class just because of the shrewd moves of team owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson, who both arrived in Dallas the same year as Aikman in 1989.
``As many people who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, nobody better typifies a pro quarterback,'' Davis said. ``He had the work ethic, toughness, charisma and performance. He was spectacular.''
Gogan went on to play with Dan Marino, Steve Young and Jeff Hostetler, and ranks Aikman's accuracy above all of them. Former Cowboys offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese said: ``Troy was the best quarterback I ever had and that includes Dan Fouts. Troy threw the ball better.''
Irvin will testify to that. He appreciated Aikman even more when he played with future Hall of Famer Brett Favre in the Pro Bowl.
``His ball goes whoosh and goes right on through,'' Irvin said of Favre. ``Troy's ball gets to me and says, `Here I am.' His ball whistles and stops right where it's supposed to and says, `Catch me, please.' ''
Growing up in Cerritos, Calif., Aikman dreamed of playing professional baseball until his father, a pipeline worker, moved the family to Henryetta, Okla., when he was 12.
``When I first moved to Henryetta, I was wondering what I had done to deserve such punishment,'' Aikman said. ``In California I could ride my bike anywhere I wanted to go. In Oklahoma we lived seven miles out of town on dirt roads with very few neighbors. It wasn't conducive for a young boy who all he ever wanted to do was play sports.''
Aikman credited the small-town life for shaping his values and beliefs. He nearly gave up football in the eighth grade, but playing in a football-crazy state landed him a football scholarship at Oklahoma.
Sooners coach Barry Switzer tried to adjust his wishbone offense to be more Aikman-friendly, but Aikman transferred to UCLA after the 1986 season. In his final game for the Sooners, Aikman broke his leg as No. 1 Oklahoma fell 28-16 to No. 2 Miami, which was coached by Johnson and included Irvin. Johnson lobbied to get Aikman a second time, having been first spurned when he was at Oklahoma State, but lost Aikman to Bruins coach Terry Donahue.
At UCLA, Aikman became the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 1987, won the Davey O'Brien national quarterback award and was a Heisman finalist in 1988. When he took over the Cowboys, Johnson had no doubt whom he wanted.
``I thought he was special before we got him,'' Johnson said. ``I said he'd rejected me twice, I was not going to get rejected a third time. Troy was always destined to do great things. The only thing I had to do was surround him with great talent.''
Johnson said what set Aikman apart was his work ethic.
``He worked in the weight room as hard as our offensive linemen,'' Johnson said.
But no amount of bench presses or film study could prepare Aikman for his rookie season, when the Cowboys went 1-15 and he didn't win a game. The only victory came after Aikman broke his finger and was replaced by ex-Hurricanes quarterback Steve Walsh, whom the Cowboys had taken in the supplemental draft. Aikman had plenty to deal with -- the physical pounding, the mental stress of losing and the challenge of Walsh.
``When we drafted Walsh, that bothered him and I liked that,'' Irvin said. ``Some people who got all that money would lose interest. Here you've got somebody who cares about it.''
Johnston said with a nearly all-Miami Hurricanes staff, he could see why Aikman might have worried.
``But even with Steve, who was a great leader and had great intangibles, it was night and day when Troy stepped on the field,'' Johnston said. ``As a leader in the huddle, he didn't have to say anything. It was an air he had about him. His strength was the innate confidence he had. He'd be a great general in the Army. You just wanted to follow him.''
Davis said 1-15 was ``the acid test'' for Aikman.
``The media was on him, the fans were on him, there were such high expectations of the first player taken in the draft,'' Davis said. ``But his toughness was exposed. He was so determined, so physically strong. He reminded us as a rookie of Terry Bradshaw taking a beating.''
Last month, Aikman called 1989 ``arguably the most difficult year I'd ever experienced in my life.''
``I was 22 so I could absorb some of the hits,'' he said. ``But the mental anguish was the most trying. You put in the time during the week and go through the physical punishment only to walk off the field all 11 times I played without having experienced what it was like to win.''
Aikman had also survived an 0-10 high school season at Henryetta, and he persevered. Walsh was traded to the New Orleans Saints in September, 1990. When Aikman's lineup was bolstered and the defensive unit built into the league's best in 1992, he would engineer Super Bowl victories following the '92, '93 and '95 seasons. He won the game's Most Valuable Player award in '93 and became the winningest quarterback of any decade in league history with 90 victories in the '90s.
But the game that is still talked about in Dallas is a 38-28 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship after the 1994 season. Larry Allen was playing one tackle spot despite a badly injured ankle, and the Niners jumped to a 21-0 lead with 7:33 left in the first quarter.
``He'd get hit and pop up every time,'' Johnston said of Aikman. ``We were close to digging out of that hole just because of him and it was amazing to see. The running backs coach called down and said, `You've got to stay in and help keep him on his feet.' I did it for a couple snaps and Troy said, `What are you doing?' He hated running backs staying in.''
Chalk it up as another of Aikman's pet peeves. Overprotective running backs and Fridays always got him down.