Aikman known as leader and winner

Troy Aikman heads into the Hall of Fame with a legacy built around leadership and winning.

Updated: August 4, 2006, 4:52 PM ET
Associated Press

DALLAS -- Coming out of high school, Troy Aikman wasn't sure he was good enough to be a college quarterback. He did know he wanted to win a national championship, so he headed to Oklahoma with a backup plan.

"If I can't do it at quarterback at least I could do it at another position, whether that was playing safety or tight end or whatever it may be," Aikman said.

Soon after arriving on campus, Aikman overcame his doubts. He ended up leaving the run-oriented Sooners to develop as a passer at UCLA _ and eventually blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in pro football history.

Aikman's status will be cemented Saturday when he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All sorts of accomplishments and accolades will be mentioned, but that anecdote about his mind-set when he headed to OU is worth remembering, because that same team-first attitude was such a defining part of his 12 years with the Dallas Cowboys.

"I feel Troy is one of the best things to ever happen to the Cowboys," said Roger Staubach, a Hall of Famer who heard the same thing said about himself after leading Dallas to two Super Bowl titles in the 1970s. "He probably threw the football as well as anyone ever in the NFL. He always produced when the guys needed him the most. He's a winner."

Blessed with a tremendous arm, Aikman showed it off only as much as necessary. Instead of eye-popping statistics, his legacy is built on leadership and winning, from three Super Bowl titles in four years _ the first team to do that _ to 90 victories in the 1990s, the most by any quarterback in any decade.

"Troy was very confident in his ability," said Jimmy Johnson, whose first big move in the NFL was making Aikman the No. 1 pick of the 1989 draft. "That carried over to the rest of the players."

Aikman's path to stardom seems almost out of a storybook. Hailed as the savior of a proud franchise that had fallen on hard times, he teamed with Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin to get the Cowboys to the Super Bowl in 1992, then kept them atop the league for three more years.

If only it had been that simple.

Aikman lost every game he played as a rookie, taking such a pounding in his 11 starts that he missed the other five, including Dallas' only victory.

"I was 22 years old, so I could absorb some of the hits. But the mental anguish was the most trying," Aikman said. "I didn't think so at the time, but ... that experience in '89 was a very positive thing for me because I never lost sight of how difficult it was to win in the National Football League."

The Cowboys finally began clicking in 1991, losing in the second round of the playoffs. The difference: new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

Aikman credits Turner for getting the most out of the team's great talent, plus also being the friend and mentor the quarterback needed. In return, Aikman picked Turner to be his presenter during Saturday's ceremony.

"The first day I saw him throw, I remember thinking, `Gosh, there aren't many guys like this,"' said Turner, now the offensive coordinator for San Francisco.

"They talk about others who had a quick release, but I don't know anyone who was quicker. They talk about guys with great accuracy, but I couldn't name another who was more accurate. And talk about a great arm _ he could make all the throws. I'm not sure many have had the entire combination Troy had."

In 1992, Aikman threw the third-most touchdown passes in the NFL and was fourth in yards. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl and Aikman was the MVP of the big game.

Aikman never again finished in the top seven in either category, only scraping the bottom of the top 10 a few times. It didn't matter to him because the team kept winning, with another Super Bowl victory in '93, reaching the conference finals in '94, then another title in '95.

"In a lot of games, Troy would put up decent numbers in the first half, then we'd stop throwing, start running, play defense and win," Johnson said. "In the playoffs, it was important that Troy put up numbers because we were playing better teams. And when he was needed, Troy delivered."

Consider these stats from the 11 playoff games over the 1992-95 seasons: 228-of-334 for 2,915 yards, with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The completion rate (68 percent) and yards per game (265) are both well above his career regular-season averages.

The 10-1 record is pretty good, too.

Back pain and concussions eventually caught up to Aikman, as did the team's declining record. He retired after the 2000 season.

Throughout his career, Aikman also understood that as quarterback of the Cowboys he was responsible for more than handing off and throwing passes.

He was the team's spokesman, in good times and bad _ and there were plenty of both. Perhaps the biggest statement he made was simply showing up at Irvin's 1996 drug trial.

Aikman, Irvin and Smith were dubbed "The Triplets," a nickname Aikman still cherishes. They went into the team's Ring of Honor together last season and ultimately may be together in Canton. Smith, the career rushing leader, seems a lock; Irvin is 0-for-2 in elections.

"Our relationship is very strong. It was when we played, it still is to this day," Aikman said.

Aikman said the bond came from their shared goal of winning. Now an analyst for Fox, he often hears players talk about being team-first, but he doubts many are as sincere as the Triplets were.

That means even more to Aikman as he prepares to formally become a Hall of Famer.

"After a career of really putting team accomplishment ahead of personal achievement, I'm being bestowed with one of the greatest individual honors you could ever be given," he said. "I'm very proud of that. And I think in there somewhere is a lesson for young kids."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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