No Rhinestone Cowboy : Aikman, the Blue-Collar Kid From Henryetta, Okla., Is in the Spotlight Today, but It Won’t Make Him Blink
Henryetta High, home of the Fighting Hens, is located at 1800 Troy Aikman Ave.
Look for the school, however, because there is no street sign.
“Keeps getting stolen,” said Rick Enis, school principal. “We’ve had it embedded in a brick column with eight to 10 bolts, the heads stripped to keep them from being pried out, but it’s gone.”
Kids will be kids.
“No, probably their parents,” Enis said. “I wouldn’t mind having it myself.”
Aikmania. Today, the Henryetta High booster club has rented the Oklahoma town’s Civic Center, where local youngsters will gather for free refreshments to watch, on a large-screen TV, one of their own play in the Super Bowl.
Mike Capps’ fast-food restaurant on Main Street, which doubles as the Troy Aikman Museum--complete with his PeeWee football uniform--will have one TV for customers and another for the cooks.
Stories will be told. “I remember when he was a sophomore,” Enis said, “and Troy’s in this typing contest at Okmulgee State Tech. Thirty-eight contestants, 37 of them are girls. And Troy wins.”
Aikmania. “Saw his first touchdown pass,” said John Walker, football coach at Henryetta. “I was a senior and he was a sophomore. There were less than two minutes remaining and he throws a 60-yard touchdown pass to Marty Tabor, and we beat Checotah High School, 14-6.”
Jeremy Dombek, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound senior and the first quarterback for the Hens since Aikman to
win a college scholarship, will hear it again and again today: Listen, son, that could be you some day.
The Huckleberry Restaurant, which normally uses its sign overlooking I-40 to advertise the luncheon buffet, has posted instead: “We’re behind you all the way, Troy.”
The last $10,000 needed to complete the $150,000 Troy Aikman Fitness Center for the benefit of the town’s youngsters will probably come rolling in now, while across the country, Alice Ghostley, one of the stars of “Designing Women,” will be telling anyone who will listen, “You know, Troy Aikman and I went to the same high school.”
The Henryetta Daily Free-Lance dedicated the entire newspaper to Aikman on Wednesday, announcing that Aikman had been chosen as “Henryettan of the Year.”
“I don’t know anybody in town who would say a harsh word about Troy,” Walker said, “and if we did find anybody, I don’t know if they’d get out of town alive.”
Hollywood hires guys like Troy Aikman to play Troy Aikman. John Wayne starring as John Wayne.
“He’s got that Oklahoma cool,” former NFL quarterback Dan Fouts said. “He reminds me of Mickey Mantle. He looks a little like him facially, and he’s unflappable.”
Five days this week, Aikman sat before reporters, answering their questions with the assurance of someone who has no need to impress.
“What I am is a direct result of how I was raised,” Aikman said. “I don’t understand why guys want to be controversial and in the press all the time. It’s just not my nature.”
Family and friends dominate his time.
“His father is a blue-collar guy, and he instilled that in Troy pretty early on,” said Babe Laufenberg, friend and former teammate. “It was a men-don’t-cry type of thing, and he’s got that in him.”
Aikman’s roots run deep, all the way back to Henryetta. He is small-town comfortable in a high-profile job. First chance to escape Dallas--as he did during the regular-season bye week--he was in the stands watching the Hens play.
“I got the chance to play in a pickup basketball game with him in Henryetta before the season,” Dombek said. “He was just a normal guy.”
Former Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach said recently a quarterback needs charisma to be effective. But Aikman’s appeal is understated.
“Troy is so quiet,” Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway said. “I’ve talked to him, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard him say anything.”
Turn off the lights, turn on the spotlight--Aikman doesn’t blink.
“Nothing fazes him,” teammate Daryl Johnston said. “The way he practices, the way he carries himself, the way he handles the media, the time he spends with charity--he handles it all so calmly.”
The cowboy boots and jeans fit Garth Brooks’ pal, who played Cowboy Joe in a video for Shenandoah, a musical group he came to enjoy while at Billy Bob’s in Ft. Worth.
“That’s probably the biggest misconception about Troy,” said Doug Kline, a teammate at UCLA and one of Aikman’s closest friends in Dallas. “He’s not just a drawled-out country boy who just got done feeding the cows, even though he still drives a pickup.
“This is a super-intelligent person who is just quiet until you get to know him. I’m from Colorado, Tom Whiteknight is from Kansas and Troy is from Oklahoma, and we were used to a slower pace, being from the Midwest. We hung together at UCLA, we all liked country music and now we’re all in Dallas together.
“Troy took Tom and his wife and me and my girlfriend to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii last year. He paid for the whole thing. He likes to have his buddies around him.”
When Aikman appears in Dallas, he draws a crowd.
“I was the envy of every woman in Dallas,” said Laufenberg, a backup quarterback to Aikman in 1989 and ’90. “For two years, I spent every Saturday night before our games in a hotel room with Troy Aikman. But let me tell you, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Laufenberg tells the jokes, and Aikman laughs. The extrovert and the introvert.
“It’s not easy being Troy Aikman,” Laufenberg said. “He’s uncomfortable the way people come after him.”
Said Aikman: “It’s gotten so that I go into restaurants and people chant my name, ‘Troy, Troy, Troy.’ ” So, he stays in more often, playing with a computer he recently acquired.
“A couple of weeks ago,” said Leigh Steinberg, Aikman’s agent, “he turned to me and asked, ‘You don’t think I’m turning into a computer nerd, do you?’ ”
The leader on the field is reserved, but firm in his resolve. Aikman will yell at his teammates for making mental mistakes, but backs away from any suggestion that this is his team.
“I think Troy has really played within himself this year,” Dallas Coach Jimmy Johnson said. “He understands that he has some outstanding players around him. It’s not that important to Troy that he goes out and throws for 350 yards. He just wants to win games.”
In the Cowboys’ last eight games, Aikman has thrown 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. His game has risen to match the significance of the moment. He has not thrown an interception in postseason play.
“Watch him practice,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “That’s the way he’s been playing the last month. He’s very sharp.”
Said Fouts: “It’s kind of like (Terry) Bradshaw’s deal. A team surrounds a quarterback with great players, and so the quarterback is in the right place at the right time and doing the right things.
“If you were going to predict that someone in the ‘90s was going to win a bunch of (Super Bowl) rings, you’d have to pick Troy Aikman. You look at the organization, what it’s doing, what he’s doing, and he’s only 26.”
Buffalo’s lament, should it lose yet another Super Bowl, might go like this: If UCLA had only stayed with Brendan McCracken.
McCracken is a leasing associate in the Los Angeles area for Maguire Thomas Partners, but when Aikman left the University of Oklahoma to transfer to UCLA, McCracken was preparing himself to become the Bruins’ next starting quarterback.
“Brendan was the guy,” said Rick Neuheisel, the Bruins’ quarterbacks coach. “Had Troy not decided to transfer, Brendan would have been very successful.”
McCracken had been in the Bruin system for three years. He was scrappy, a scrambler and popular with teammates. But he did not stand 6 feet 4, weigh 220 pounds and have Aikman’s powerful arm.
“I remember when Homer Smith was there as offensive coordinator and we’d be practicing,” McCracken said, “and when things wouldn’t go right, Homer would say, ‘We’re going to bring in this transfer from Miami who can run the 40 in 4.2 seconds and throw the ball 60 yards.’ He was kidding, always kidding.
“Then I remember him saying, ‘We’re going to bring in this 6-4 kid from Oklahoma who can throw the ball a mile,’ and we said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, Homer’s kidding again.’
“And then Troy shows up.”
McCracken kept at it, and UCLA Coach Terry Donahue waited until only a few days before his team’s opening game against San Diego State in 1987 to announce his starting quarterback.
“I knew it could go either way,” McCracken said. “After they picked Troy, it motivated me to work harder because sooner or later, I thought I’d have the opportunity to show my stuff.
“But as history will tell you, Troy went on to have an unbelievable year, and now he’s in the Super Bowl.”
When Aikman left Henryetta to play for the Sooners, he did so believing that coach Barry Switzer would change the offense to accommodate his passing. At least, that’s what he had been told.
“I guess I got suckered,” Aikman said.
After sitting out the first six games of his freshman year, he was pressed into duty against Kansas. The Sooners, ranked second in the country, lost to Kansas, and Aikman became an easy target for the critics.
“The fans and the media came down on me pretty hard,” he said. “When OU loses, the whole state goes into mourning.”
Aikman guided the Sooners to a 3-0 mark to begin his second year, but suffered a broken ankle during the fourth game, against Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes, and Oklahoma handed the ball to Jamelle Holieway.
The wishbone was in, and Aikman was out. If he had only stayed in Norman. . . .
“If I stayed, there was a good chance I’d have been riding the bench for my last two years,” he said. “I had to leave.”
Switzer called Donahue.
“We will see Aikman in the NFL,” Switzer said at the time. “We will not see Jamelle Holieway in the NFL, but Holieway fits our system better.”
Aikman, who had been born in West Covina and raised in Cerritos before moving to Henryetta when he was 12, was required to sit out a season after transferring to UCLA.
“Coach Donahue didn’t want Troy working with the scout team,” Neuheisel said, “so he called me and asked if I wanted to be a volunteer coach and just work with Troy. We created all sorts of little games, which we called trigger drills, to help him make reads and snap decisions.”
A talented quarterback in his own right for the Bruins, Neuheisel took one look at Aikman and said: “What a sight.”
Summing up his reaction, Neuheisel said: “I like to say he’s got everything I didn’t have--size, speed and a great arm. Put all that together and you have the makings of a great quarterback.”
Aikman started for the Bruins as a junior and senior and led them to a 20-4 record, including an 11-2 mark at the Rose Bowl, site of Super Bowl XXVII. However, he failed to defeat USC, and as a result never played in the Rose Bowl game.
“I think getting to the Super Bowl will finally put Troy’s mind at ease about not getting to the Rose Bowl,” Kline said. “He’s got a national championship ring for when he was at Oklahoma, but I don’t think it’s ever been on his finger.
“He wanted the Rose Bowl.”
Aikman completed 65% of his passes at UCLA and threw for 41 touchdowns. He guided the Bruins to Aloha Bowl and Cotton Bowl victories. He became the 18th quarterback in NFL history to be the first player taken in the draft, and signed for $11.037 million.
“He’s a hero now at UCLA,” Neuheisel said. “He’s endowed a scholarship, coaches at our summer camp and won’t accept any money for doing it. He’s very giving of himself and remembers exactly where he came from.”
Born, it would seem, to play in a Super Bowl.
“No, no,” Laufenberg said. “The Super Bowl was created for Joe Theismann. They could shut down the Rose Bowl and move this game to Henryetta tomorrow, and (Aikman) would walk the whole way just to play football.
“That’s why this team is going to be good for years to come. You won’t be reading the Troy Aikman book if he wins the Super Bowl. He’s just a guy who likes to play football, a guy who also likes to win.”
Said Aikman: “I think having won a Super Bowl puts you on a different level. I know for me, it’s extremely important to win this ballgame. It’s very similar to playing at UCLA and not going to the Rose Bowl.
“I saw where Jim Kelly said his career would be complete if it ended now and he had not won a Super Bowl. I don’t know that mine would be. The one thing disappointing I had coming out of college was not playing in the Rose Bowl. If I retired from football not having won a Super Bowl, I think I would have the same disappointment.”
The Cowboys went 1-15, including 0-11 with Troy Aikman as their starter, in 1989.
“My second year in the league, I said on my radio show that we would make the Super Bowl in five years,” Aikman said. “I was just trying to please some fans.
“Turns out we made it in four, though, so now I’m a prophet.”
Everyone in the Dallas organization is all smiles today, but back in 1989, the Cowboys were a mess.
New owner Jerry Jones had hired Johnson, and Johnson had selected Steve Walsh, his starting quarterback at the University of Miami, in the supplemental draft. Johnson had Aikman and Walsh. Aikman had a problem.
“Troy was our starting quarterback, but I’m sure he had some misgivings about Steve being there,” Johnson said, “thinking that Jimmy’s got his quarterback and so he’s going to lean toward him if there’s a problem.
“It wasn’t that way at all. I think because I did kind of pull back and really distance myself from both of them, it caused a bad relationship with Troy and myself.
“That has been rectified. After we made the trade (to send Walsh to the New Orleans Saints), then I was really able to kind of embrace Troy as my guy.”
Aikman found it difficult to trust Johnson, and at the same time he floundered under the direction of offensive coordinator Dave Shula. The Cowboys ranked 28th on offense, and Aikman needed help.
“Jimmy Johnson called me and asked my impressions of Norv Turner,” Fouts said. “He gave me Troy’s number and told me to call him and tell him the same things I had just told him. I talked to Troy, and he was starving to learn, starving for a system to fit what he can do.”
Turner, a disciple of Ram offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, the mastermind behind Air Coryell and Fouts’ success, accepted Johnson’s invitation to join the Cowboys.
“I’m more thoroughly coached,” Aikman said.
Without Turner, Aikman was 7-19 as a starter; with Turner, he has gone 22-8.
“We changed completely the style he was playing,” Turner said. “We sped up his drops and we shortened his drops. We tried to have him throw most things a lot quicker.”
Fouts has seen it all before. “That’s what we were doing, and I think this system fits him like a glove. I also think he’s throwing the deep ball better.
“He’s completing more. So many of the Cowboys’ long patterns are double moves--hook and go, slant and go. I think he has a better understanding of his receivers. After they make a move, it takes awhile for them to get back up to speed. If not aware of that, you throw to their normal speed and overthrow them.”
Laufenberg, who now works for radio station KVIL in Dallas, said: “The Cowboys don’t have speed receivers, so Troy just can’t lay it out there and let somebody go get it.
“There are 100 receivers who can outrun Michael Irvin. Dan Marino looked great on the deep ball when Mark Clayton and Mark Duper had speed. Neil Lomax looked good when he had Roy Green. A good long-ball thrower needs a guy who can go get it.
“Next to Joe Montana, this is the most accurate passer I have ever seen. And I don’t think he gets enough credit for his intelligence. If he ran like Bernie Kosar, he’d been known as a smart guy who reads defenses. But he’s such a physical specimen, so people don’t think of him in that light. He’s only in his fourth year in the league and you won’t see this guy making many mistakes.”
If Aikman leads the Cowboys to victory in Super Bowl XXVII, the sky might be the only limit to his income potential.
“Michael Jordan has been a dominant marketing star in basketball,” Steinberg said. “There hasn’t been a truly major football-dominant superstar since the days of Roger Staubach, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson.
“The Super Bowl is the most valuable single marketing tool there is in America. To be the quarterback, the MVP of the Super Bowl, for the Cowboys, and your name is Troy Aikman, well, there are all sorts of possibilities.”
Win or lose today: “Every kid in Henryetta,” said Walker, the football coach, “wants to be Troy Aikman.”