The Real Troy Aikman

The NFL’s most famous quarterback is not who you think he is. Just ask him.

December 1998By Comments

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IN HIS DREAM HE IS IN THE LOCKER ROOM, and he realizes he is all alone. From a distance he can hear the roar of the crowd filling Texas Stadium. The sound builds as it travels down the long tunnel and seeps in underneath the door. Sweat pours down his face. The game is about to begin.

He quickly laces up his pants, then struggles to pull his jersey over his shoulder pads. The crowd’s roar grows louder. Whistles are blowing. “Hurry,” he tells himself. “Hurry.” He finds his helmet. He pulls on his sweatbands around his wrists. All that’s left are his shoes.

But something is terribly wrong. He tries to put his right foot into his right shoe and his left foot into his left shoe, but they will not fit. He loosens his laces and jams his feet in again. Still, they will not fit.

His hands are trembling. A cry lodges in his throat. He cannot get his shoes on. The first quarter starts, then the second—and he remains hunched over on the locker room bench, trying to get his shoes on his feet. Tears sting his eyes. His breath comes in little gasps. The third quarter starts, then the fourth. Finally, the game ends.

And that is when Troy Aikman bolts upright in his bed.

THE MOST FAMOUS QUARTERBACK IN AMERICA FIXES HIS BLUE eyes directly on mine and says, “My life is not what you think it is.”

“It’s not?”

A thin smile crosses his face, and for several seconds he says nothing. He is dressed in a dark tailored suit as he sits behind his gigantic desk at Aikman Enterprises, a suite of offices a couple of blocks from the Dallas Cowboys training center. Scattered around the room are the accoutrements of one of the most successful careers in pro sports. On a credenza is the bronzed Davey O’Brien award given to him for the 1988 season, when he was named the best quarterback in college football. On a conference table is the most valuable player award he received after the 1993 Super Bowl. In cabinets and on bookshelves are more trophies, game balls given to him by Cowboys coaches, and old helmets he wore in important games.

“I don’t think I can fully explain what happens when you take on the role of quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys,” he finally says. “Sometimes, I can’t even explain it to myself.”

He is, according to a marketing survey conducted a few years ago, one of the five most recognizable athletes in the country. He will earn $6.2 million this year from the Cowboys, and he will make hundreds of thousands of dollars more endorsing products as varied as Coca-Cola and Brut cologne. In one Brut commercial Aikman plays a game of pickup football in a park with some friends, but instead of hitting the open receiver, he allows himself to be sacked by a young woman playing for the other team. After the tackle, he gets in the huddle and says, “Same play,” shooting a seductive glance at the woman and flashing his famous half-grin, in which the right side of his lips curls slightly upward. The commercial has aired nationwide for more than a year, and Brut executives have no plans to pull it. Why should they? With his clenched jaw, steely blue eyes, and blond hair glinting in the sunlight, 32-year-old Troy Aikman looks like a rugged Hollywood actor who has been hired to play a quarterback.

He receives more than 20,000 pieces of fan mail each year, some from people who’ve written him every month since he was drafted by the Cowboys nearly ten years ago. (His mother looks through all the letters and sorts out requests for him to appear in public, give speeches, sign autographs, play in charity golf tournaments, and invest in restaurants.) Fans swarm him nearly every time he appears in public. When he goes to dinner, women ask him to autograph their underwear or their breasts. They try to find out where he lives so that they can break into his home or jump his backyard fence and swim in his pool. Once, when he went to a country and western club to see the band Shenandoah, so many women began pushing their way toward him that he had to leave after thirty minutes. Country music singer Lorrie Morgan, who has dated Aikman, wrote in her autobiography that she wanted to marry him “more than anything in my life.”

He seems too perfect, too handsome, too heroic—which is why, perhaps, rumors about him abound. Depending on the week, he’s either (1) dating a famous actress or a country music star, (2) gay, or (3) asexual. He allegedly sleeps with a Bible at his bedside because of an overwhelming fear of death. It is said he is so obsessed with neatness that he arranges his clothes in the closet by color and style, refuses to leave a scrap of paper on the floor, and puts his toaster back in the kitchen cabinet when he’s done with it. He is reportedly so lonely that he looks for girlfriends in America Online’s chat rooms. He is supposedly looking for land to build a Graceland-style mansion so that he can hide from wide-eyed fans. True story: In September MSNBC went on full alert after its senior producers heard that Aikman had been killed in a car crash. The network was apparently ready to give him the Princess Di treatment.

What does it mean to be Troy Aikman? Does anyone really know? When he’s interviewed, he is always articulate, speaks in complete sentences, and never says “um” or “uh.” But he edits himself as he goes, avoiding controversy, stripping out personal color, striking anything that might be taken the wrong way. He is always cautious with writers who come around hoping to do what he calls “the real Troy Aikman story.” One time, many years ago, he reluctantly allowed a reporter to tail him. When another reporter later asked to do the same thing, Aikman told him to hang out with the first reporter.

It is an art, the way he withholds. He says he is not inclined to write an autobiography, regardless how much of an advance he might get, because publishers will want him to include “negative, tabloid information” about his more flamboyant teammates and coaches like Barry Switzer, whom he is said to despise for mishandling what could have been the greatest dynasty in NFL history. He does not whisper a word of public criticism about the Cowboys’ unpredictable owner, Jerry Jones, who told a national TV audience that Aikman “looks good in the shower.” What he plans to do, he says, is write inspirational books for children about his career—the kind of books about sports stars he once read as a boy. His first kids’ book, Things Change, which came out in 1995 and has sold 250,000 copies, exhorts his young readers to have “big dreams” and to turn “defeats into victory.” The recently published coffee-table book Aikman: Mind, Body, and Soul consists mostly of photographs and a few bland quotes. “Ultimately and optimally,” he says on one page, “you would like to be able to do what we’ve done in the past, to run the ball and throw it.”

“You know, I am not too open of a person,” Aikman tells me, giving me another unflinching look. “I don’t really understand why someone holding a notepad and pen thinks he can ask me anything and then is offended when I don’t answer.”

He has agreed to give me an hour. But perhaps because it’s a week when he is not playing, the hour turns into two hours. Then there are more conversations over the phone. Along the way, to my astonishment, he begins to talk about his dreams.

“IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND TROY, then you have to understand his need for excellence,” says Tom Whitenight, a college teammate who remains one of Aikman’s closest friends. “I know all great athletes are driven to succeed, but I promise you, Troy’s drive is… different.

“Different” hardly suffices. Yes, in many respects, Aikman acts like your typical American guy. When he gets up in the morning, he eats oatmeal. He listens to country music. He sends goofy e-mails to his buddies. He plays golf on his days off and drinks beer when he’s finished. He bought a recliner for his new house and plans to put it in front of his big-screen TV. He talks about getting married someday and having four children. And he has a gentle, caring side. He makes many unpublicized visits to sick kids, and last year he was named the NFL’s Man of the Year for his charitable work (the Troy Aikman Foundation builds high-tech interactive playrooms at children’s hospitals around the country).

But what the public rarely sees is the part of his personality that is so fiercely competitive that he sometimes bewilders other players and coaches. When it comes to football, his pursuit of perfection is almost pathological. During the season, he lives in a kind of self-imposed exile. He makes few public appearances. He does not carouse. Each night he reads his playbook, watches the first few minutes of Jay Leno, and then goes to bed. “You learn pretty quickly with Troy that it’s better to go out with him during the off-season,” says a Dallas model who has dated him. “Once the season begins, something happens. The nuts and bolts of his brain tighten down.”

Even at minor practices, he operates at full throttle, and he does not hide his disgust for teammates who make sloppy mental mistakes. A few years ago, when former Cowboys receiver Kevin Williams kept running the wrong pattern at a practice, Aikman threw down his helmet and cussed him out. When Williams ran the same wrong pattern during a game, Aikman went into another rage once he got to the sidelines, screaming and pointing his finger at him.

Aikman is so competitive that he once got into an argument with another close college friend, Doug Kline, over the rules the dealer must follow in a game of blackjack. Convinced he was right, Aikman threw his chips down and started calling casinos in Las Vegas. “I thought our friendship was about to come to an end,” Kline says. When the usually unflappable Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen once asked Aikman in a TV interview if he had played as hard as he could have against the San Francisco 49ers—thinking he was giving the quarterback a chance to rebut a column written by a Dallas sportswriter—Aikman turned and gave Hansen such a hostile look that Hansen began leaning backward, afraid he was going to get hit. “I felt the air go out of me,” Hansen recalls. “I saw that stare, and I thought, ‘Holy shit!’”

GROWING UP IN THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SUBURB OF CERRITOS, Aikman was so certain that he would become a professional baseball player that he began practicing his autograph when he was still in elementary school. But he was really a football prodigy: In the third grade he could accurately throw 30 yards, and by the ninth grade, he could stand flat-footed and throw 65 yards. What made him special, however, was his intensity. He played with such grim-faced concentration that a high school coach started calling him Iceman.

His schoolboy career took place in Henryetta, Oklahoma. After years as a welder and construction foreman, Kenneth Aikman bought a 172-acre farm near the tiny town and moved the family there in a kind of reverse Grapes of Wrath migration. The elder Aikman was a rough-hewn, hardworking man so physically tough that he did not take a break even after he cut off the tip of his finger while working one afternoon. As hard as he was on himself, he was doubly so on Troy and his two older sisters. “He would get angry with the kids over everything,” says someone close to the family. “Troy praises his father’s toughness now, but life at home was rarely pleasant for him.”

Kenneth Aikman was not the type to throw a football with his son or to engage him in long talks. In one of the few interviews he has given, he admitted to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1993 that he hadn’t shown Troy affection “more than maybe once or twice.” Instead, he put him to work on the farm, forcing him to carry buckets of slop for the pigs in the morning and haul hay into the fields after football practice. “Troy never got in trouble,” says Daren Lesley, his best friend from Henryetta. “He didn’t drink, and he didn’t stay out late.” Maybe he knew better than to rebel. “My father was not a man you wanted to mess with,” says Troy, who does not talk at length about him. (Kenneth Aikman is separated from Troy’s mother, Charlyn, a gentle, unpretentious woman who was the society editor for the Henryetta newspaper, the Daily Freelance.) But it is obvious that he had a great influence on his son’s football prowess. Troy admits that, in the eighth grade, he had no plans to play football until his father pulled up to the house one afternoon and told him tryouts were beginning. “Deep down,” Troy admits, “I wanted to prove that I was as tough as he was.”

After leading the embarrassingly named Henryetta Fighting Hens to the playoffs for the first time in years, Aikman caught the attention of Barry Switzer, then the head coach at the University of Oklahoma. In part because Switzer didn’t want Aikman to go to a rival school, he offered him a scholarship the day they met, promising to change OU’s famed wishbone offense to accommodate his cannon of an arm. But after Aikman broke his ankle during his sophomore year, Switzer reverted to the wishbone with another quarterback and won the national championship.

Essentially forgotten, Aikman transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles, where his big-city teammates teasingly called him Bocephus (the nickname of one of his favorite country singers, Hank Williams, Jr.). Yet he quickly proved himself to be the best passing quarterback in college football. His teammates were amazed by his emotional investment in every game: After UCLA was beaten by its archrival, Southern Cal, in the last game of his senior year, a distressed Aikman flew back to Oklahoma and hardly slept for two weeks.

When he came to the Cowboys in 1989 as a heralded first-round draft choice, he suffered through a miserable 1-11 season. But he developed a reputation around the league for having a kind of magnificent gory courage. He was once hit so hard in the head that he felt a ringing in his ears for days. When he broke one of his fingers in the middle of a game, he refused to go to the sidelines; instead, thinking it might be only jammed, he asked one of the offensive linemen to yank at it in the hope that the bone would pop back into place. He was indeed as tough as his father.

But Aikman didn’t become one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks until head coach Jimmy Johnson and his staff altered the Cowboys’ offense a couple of years later to showcase Aikman’s strengths. He was neither a great scrambler who could escape predicaments nor a long-ball artist who won games with glamorous sixty-yard bombs, but he could scan a defense, make quick reads, and then fire away with pinpoint precision. He brought to the field the intelligence to throw a ball exactly where it needed to be. “He can be so zeroed in it’s scary,” said Washington Redskins head coach Norv Turner, formerly a Cowboys assistant coach.

In 1993, at age 26, Aikman was named the Super Bowl’s most valuable player. Suddenly he was the embodiment of the American dream. When he appeared on the cover of GQ, the headline read “God’s Quarterback.” Several sportswriters began calling him the new Mickey Mantle. Mantle, too, had been raised in rural Oklahoma, the son of a tough blue-collar laborer. In the fifties the most glamorous job in sports was center fielder for the New York Yankees: Mantle’s position. In the nineties the most glamorous job in sports is quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys: Aikman’s position.

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AIKMAN IS LIKE MANTLE IN ANOTHER WAY. Just as Mantle sometimes scorned the constant adulation of the fans, Aikman is an elusive hero, difficult to understand, clearly driven by something other than fame. On the night of that first Super Bowl victory, he delayed attending a party with his teammates, instead ordering beer from room service and sitting alone in his hotel room for a couple of hours. “I kept thinking back to the time when I was a teenager—how I thought that all my problems in my life would be solved the moment I turned sixteen and was able to get a car,” he recalls. “Well, here I was at the top of professional football, and I found myself thinking, ‘Now what? Now what?’”

“Why would you feel that way?” I ask.

For several seconds, Aikman just stares at me. He appears dumbfounded that I would even ask such an absurd question. “Well, isn’t that what it’s all about?” he asks. “To keep raising the bar for yourself?”

It is precisely this attitude that makes Aikman such a fierce player—but it is also his curse, and he knows it. “I’ve always known that the lows have been lower for me than the highs have been high,” he confesses. After a loss, he does not answer the phone, even when close friends or family are calling to console him. He lies in bed and replays each offensive play in his mind. He has trouble falling asleep, and when he does, he is plagued by strange dreams.

I ask him about the meaning of his dream in which he misses the entire game because he cannot get his shoes on.

“To be honest, I don’t know what it means,” he says, “but I have it all the time.”

In a telephone conversation a few days later, I tell Aikman that I have learned that Mantle also had a reoccurring dream. He was also in his uniform, late for a game, racing in a taxi to get to Yankee Stadium. When he arrived at the ballpark, he could hear the announcer saying, “And now batting, number seven, Mickey Mantle.” But he could not find a way in. The front gate was locked. Mantle ran around the stadium, but all the other gates were locked too. He tried to get through a hole in the fence, but failed again. “Mantle started panicking,” I tell Aikman. “He had to get to the field. It was his turn to bat. His teammates were waiting for him. But all the gates were locked. And then Mantle wakes up.”

Aikman says nothing.

“A reporter asked Mantle what the dream meant,” I continue, “and he said it meant that he had not lived up to his potential and that he was desperate to get back to the field and show what he could do. He had that dream all his life, even after he retired.”

There is another long silence. “That’s interesting,” Aikman says, and then he says nothing more.

HE KNOWS HIS PLACE IN FOOTBALL history is assured. He won a second Super Bowl under Johnson and then a third under Switzer, who coached the Cowboys for four years after Johnson was fired for no particular reason other than a personality conflict with Jerry Jones. Although Aikman will not be led into any detailed discussion of his feelings about Switzer, his closest friends say he was so unhappy during that third Super Bowl season that he barely enjoyed it. He was dismayed that the easygoing Switzer allowed players to miss curfews and skip practices at training camp.

What’s more, Switzer and his loyalists had little love for Aikman, in large part because Aikman never would publicly endorse him as a good coach. Hoping to get even, one of Switzer’s assistants spread a baseless story to reporters that Aikman was a racist because he criticized his black teammates more than he did his white teammates. (Aikman’s black teammates quickly came to his defense.) Though they had not a shred of evidence, a couple of Switzer allies spread the Aikman-is-gay rumor to a writer doing a book on the Cowboys, which, when published, so devastated him that he talked to lawyers about filing a lawsuit. “Here was Troy, trying to present the right image, refusing to get involved with groupies, not playing the role of the big swinging stud like other players, smart enough to stay away from potential paternity lawsuits, and for his efforts, the poor guy gets called ‘gay,’” says Mickey Spagnola, a respected Dallas sportswriter who has covered the Cowboys for a decade. “And you know with that kind of vicious rumor, once it starts, it never ends.” (For his part, Aikman no longer discusses the subject, saying it’s pointless to rehash “a bunch of stupid gossip.”)

According to several sources, Aikman and Switzer barely spoke during the 1996 and 1997 seasons, as the Cowboys, still one of the most talented teams in the NFL, began to fall apart. The change in Aikman last season was startling. He became so disgusted during one mistake-ridden practice that he walked off the field. On the sidelines he often stood at a distance from his teammates, his body language suggesting total frustration. His completion percentage and quarterback rating were at their lowest marks since 1990. He became short with the media and with his fans, some of whom believed he should have been able to singlehandedly lift the team, even if Switzer was so ineffective as a coach that a New York Times writer described him as “a thick slab of tooled leather.”

By the end of the season, Aikman was considering retirement. A lot of people couldn’t comprehend why a quarterback at the height of his career would want to walk away from football. But they didn’t understand his need for excellence. They didn’t understand how the lows were so much lower than the highs were high. They didn’t understand that when they peered down at Aikman on the sidelines, with his stoic face and his steely blue eyes and hair that looked golden in the sunlight, they were looking at a young man close to despair. “Look,” he tells me, “the only way for me to enjoy the game is to be consumed by it, to compete at a level where I know, at the end of that game, that my teammates and I did our absolute best.” Ultimately he decided that he could not leave. He could not be stuck alone in the locker room. He had to get back on the field.

Earlier this year Switzer was fired, and a much different kind of coach was hired to replace him: Chan Gailey, a former assistant coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Aikman’s off-season had not exactly been pleasant: A mole on his left shoulder was found to be malignant (it was successfully removed), and part of the 12,000-square-foot, $3.2 million home that he was building in Plano went up in flames. In stories about the fire, the newspapers printed Aikman’s address, which led to hundreds of fans driving by the house; one woman slept outside in her car for a week. But at training camp Gailey set about changing the offense to give Aikman more weapons, to let him roll out more and fire farther downfield, and the quarterback seemed almost giddy. He was a new man.

He even found a new girlfriend. He has always been picky about women, many of whom he knew could never see past his riches or his fame. A friend once said that Aikman’s idea of the perfect woman was someone who looks like Cindy Crawford yet acts in a small-town way like his mother. By all accounts, his girlfriend—a woman who works in the Cowboys’ office—fits the description. When I saw him out one night with her at a restaurant, he held his arm around her as a nervous teenage boy would, sort of clutching at her to keep her from escaping.

In the first game of the season, Aikman connected for 22 of 32 passes against the Arizona Cardinals, throwing for 256 yards and two touchdowns. He was so excited that he leapt into the air and pumped his fists—a rare display of unrestrained jubilation. However, in the second game, against Denver, he broke his collarbone diving to pick up a couple of extra yards, and he was sidelined for more than a month.

Hardly a season goes by without Aikman experiencing a close-to-disastrous injury caused by his obsession to get something out of every play. He has had six concussions since he has been in the NFL. Because of his bad back, he can’t bend over and touch his toes. Arthritis in his neck makes it difficult for him to turn his head without also slightly turning his shoulders. He plays on knees that, according to one medical source, “would have ninety percent of the quarterbacks in this league sidelined.” He knows that the injuries have shortened his career and that one more could end it for good. He also knows that the star players who’ve surrounded him—Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Daryl Johnston—don’t have many years left, either. “The window is closing,” he says.

“He and his teammates have played so many great games together,” Charlyn Aikman says, “and I think Troy would love nothing more than for all of them to make one more great stand.”

In late October Aikman returned to the practice field. Over and over he worked on his five-step dropback, then his seven-step dropback—the same routines he had been practicing since his high school days in Henryetta. He made certain he planted his last step exactly right so that he could instantly reverse the movement of his body and fire one of his famous passes. One afternoon at practice, as a receiver broke toward midfield, an Aikman spiral whistled toward him from thirty yards away on a seemingly impossible flat arc, the football coming so fast that its nose didn’t drop. When it hit the receiver’s hands, the sound was like a rifle shot. “Oh, yeah,” said offensive lineman Nate Newton. “Troy’s psyched.” After each practice, Aikman would run three or four miles, lift weights, and watch game films. Then he’d head home, read his playbook, watch Leno’s monologue, and go to bed.

Finally, on November 2, he made his comeback against the Philadelphia Eagles, throwing two touchdown passes in a 34—0 victory. The window is still open, at least for now.

IN OUR LAST CONVERSATION, I CAN’T help but ask him if he is still having that same dream about the shoes.

“Yeah, sometimes I do,” he says. He pauses and then tells me that he is also having another dream, about playing again in the Super Bowl. “I see myself running out onto the field, where there’s all that color and pageantry. You know what it’s like. Those blimps above the stadium, the jet fighter planes flying past, a star like Garth Brooks singing the National Anthem.”

Aikman then tells me that he sees himself at the line of scrimmage, calling out signals, feeling the snap of leather against his hand, backpedaling as bodies crash into one another around him, helmets smashing, commotion everywhere. And then one of his receivers shakes free, and he cocks and fires.

Only later do I realize that the daydream doesn’t include Aikman being carried off on the shoulders of his teammates. He didn’t mention whether the Cowboys win or lose the game. All that matters was that he got back on the field.

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