The final gun sounded after Super Bowl XXVII, and Troy Aikman's life changed forever. As he raced off the Rose Bowl field on a jet stream of emotion, he looked into a TV camera and began screaming at the top of his lungs, over and over, "I'm going to Disneyland!" and then, "I'm going to Disney World!" Having just learned that he had been named the game's Most Valuable Player for his near-perfect quarter-backing in the Dallas Cowboys' 52-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills, Aikman was going places, all right. He just didn't realize yet how many places—and how quickly. When you're 26, you're a bachelor with movie-star good looks and a name straight out of Hollywood, and you're the Super Bowl MVP, well, your world is going to start spinning.
First Aikman spoke to hundreds of reporters at a postgame press conference, and then he was off to shower and dress for several TV interviews on the Rose Bowl field. And as he scurried back from the shower toward his locker wrapped in a towel, Aikman had no clue that he was already the object of a heated tug-of-war among the three network morning shows.
"Troy's doing the Today show tomorrow morning," announced Dave Pelletier, the Cowboys' assistant p.r. director.
"Uh-oh. That's a problem," replied Leigh Steinberg, Aikman's agent. "Our office agreed a couple days ago that he'd do Good Morning America."
February 15, 1993
Moments later Rich Dalrymple, Dallas's p.r. director, appeared on the scene. "I've just told the CBS people that Troy would do CBS This Morning," Dalrymple proclaimed. "They want him exclusive or not at all."
So what was Aikman to do? The one thing he would not do was sleep. First he held a victory celebration with a few close friends in his hotel room—hamburgers and beer from room service. Then he stopped by the Cowboys' lavish party at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, but his presence caused such a commotion that he bolted soon after. At 3:30 a.m. he began taping interviews for CBS This Morning and Good Morning America. At 4:09 a.m. he went on Today, live.
"They keep talking about the game being last night, but it was just hours ago," Aikman said during a break in the action, looking puzzled. "This is so surreal."
After several more radio and TV interviews, with Dallas stations, Aikman finally, at about 6:30 a.m., squeezed in a 90-minute nap. Then it was off for Round 2 of the post-Super Bowl media blitz. Aikman attended the MVP press conference, at which he was awarded the keys to a 1993 Buick, which he said he would give to one of his sisters. ("How do I get it back to Dallas?" he whispered to Dalrymple. "Do I have to drive it home?")
Only moments after Aikman had stood at a podium promising reporters that he wouldn't let any off-season endorsement opportunities interfere with football, Steinberg began talking about using Aikman's MVP status as a launching pad to superstardom, predicting that Aikman would soon have an off-the-field income "in the seven-figure range, on up."
"In a country so focused on celebrity, Troy's winning the Super Bowl and being the MVP allows him to cross over from the narrow realm of football to become a household name," says Steinberg. "He's a marketing dream—a handsome, blue-eyed blond with a storybook name."
At around 11 a.m. Aikman returned to his hotel room, hoping to get some sleep. No such luck. For five hours he was bombarded by phone calls from nearly 40 radio talk shows around the country, each insisting that he go on live as a guest at that very instant. "I'd pick up the phone, do the interview, put it down, and it would ring again," Aikman says. "I was all by myself in the room. I didn't know where to go. I didn't have a car, and there were people lingering in the hotel, wanting autographs. I felt trapped."
At 3:30 p.m. he dashed off in a stretch limousine to the NBC studios in Burbank, where he was a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. As Aikman nibbled on cake in the green room, members of Leno's staff trickled in one by one, asking him to autograph footballs, caps, posters and programs. Finally Aikman pretended to be heading off to makeup—"I need a touch up," he said, rolling his eyes—but retreated instead to his dressing room. Even there, though, he couldn't find peace and quiet, because in the next dressing room political commentator John McLaughlin was madly rehearsing his lines. Leno stopped by to introduce himself, and Aikman told him, "I just want to be natural. I just want to be myself."
Aikman held his own on the show with his tales of zealous fans, though he left the jokes to Leno ("Fifty-two to 17? Fifty-two to 17? I mean, is that a football score or is Woody Allen dating again?"). After the show, as Aikman left his dressing room carrying an enormous cellophane-wrapped fruit basket, he was blinded by the glare of a spotlight from a TV camera and engulfed by autograph hounds. Always the gentleman, he graciously obliged both interviewers and fans. Then he stepped out into the cool Southern California evening, climbed into a limo and sped away.
Aikman's Super Bowl numbers—22 of 30 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns—crowned an immaculate postseason performance: In three games he threw 89 passes without an interception (breaking Joe Montana's 1989 NFL record of 83), and eight went for TDs. His postseason quarterback rating was 116.7.
"I have a real hard time classifying anything as my biggest moment, my favorite color or whatever," Aikman says. "I'd have to say, though, that the Super Bowl was my greatest moment in sports, and it was also my most emotional moment. I tried all week to downplay the importance of the game, and I felt a real sense of peace during the week. And then they announced my name and I ran out onto the field at the Rose Bowl, and there was a tremendous rush, unlike anything I've ever known. I tried to tell myself to calm down, to just relax and play my game. But I was hyperventilating until the second quarter. I couldn't enjoy the fact that it was the Super Bowl. If you knew the outcome beforehand, then you could take time to register the surroundings, to think about the moment and to enjoy the experience. But that's not the way it works."
There wasn't much time to savor the victory afterward, either. After surviving the whirlwind in Los Angeles, Aikman flew to Honolulu to prepare for the Pro Bowl, and he immediately discovered that there was no escaping the business demands. "Everybody wants to talk to you," he says. "Everybody wants to touch you. It's exhausting."
Instead of basking in the Hawaiian sun, Aikman was endlessly rearranging his datebook on the screen of his laptop computer. Faxes flooded the Dallas offices of Aikman Enterprises; there were inquiries about speaking engagements at high school graduations as well as requests for appearances at card shows, fund-raisers, automobile dealerships and shopping malls. In a matter of days his calendar was jammed; he had few free weekends—much less weekdays—left in February and March.
Of course, when Aikman did walk on the beach in Waikiki last week, he was mobbed. "I can't imagine it ever getting any worse than it is in Dallas, but I won't know until I start traveling around the country," he says. "Not that it's bad in Dallas. It just gets to the point where I don't go out because I'm always recognized. If I'm not prepared to deal with it, I don't go out. But there are times I don't want to order in pizza anymore, when I want to go to the grocery store or I feel like a quiet meal in a restaurant. It's a constant battle.
"I've guarded my private life ever since I got to Dallas. I've been real aware of the public. If I were a nine-to-five working individual, I'd get tired of seeing me on TV all the time. Hey, I'm no different from them. I turn a lot of things down. I hope to be in Dallas for a long time, and I don't want to wear out my welcome."
But in the time since the Cowboys won the Super Bowl, Aikman has had to consider the consequences of grabbing for the brass ring. As the business opportunities have begun to pile up, he has had to weigh their benefits against the inevitable necessity of having to be more open with clients and the public.
"As a kid I used to practice my signature, working on the way I wanted to sign my autograph," he says. "I'd say to myself, 'One day I'll be somebody. They'll want my autograph. They'll want me to do Gatorade commercials.' And now a side of me finds the idea of doing commercials very interesting. But there's a contradiction because I enjoy my free time. I have tremendous loyalty to my friends, and I enjoy being around them. It's who you get to share life with, not the actual experiences, that makes living so worthwhile.
"You know, I wish there was a switch that I could flip, where no one knows me. And then, when I'm ready to make a splash, I'd flip the switch and say, 'Hey, I'm ready now.' Unfortunately that doesn't happen."
Not that he's complaining, mind you. After standing where he stood not long ago, he's grateful just to be in one piece. Aikman, the No. 1 pick in the 1989 NFL draft, signed a six-year, $11.2 million contract and then absorbed a physical and emotional beating as the Cowboys went 1-15 in his first season as a pro. There was the unexpected pressure of having to outperform another highly touted rookie quarterback, Steve Walsh, who had played under Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami and who had been selected by the Cowboys in the NFL supplemental draft.
Then, after being sidelined for five games with a broken finger in the middle of that season, Aikman came back against the Phoenix Cardinals and threw for an NFL rookie-record 379 yards, including a go-ahead touchdown with 1:43 left. On that play, however, he was knocked unconscious for several minutes; he was helped from the field with blood dripping from his ear. With 58 seconds remaining, the Cardinals roared back to win on a long TD pass, and on the sideline a groggy Aikman thought to himself, We will not win another game this year. He was right.
"When things were the bleakest, we would have long discussions so he could vent his frustrations," says Steinberg. "I'd listen and then say, 'Troy, do you want a trade? What do you want me to do about this?' And he'd say, 'Nothing. Just give me the ball.' "
But, says Aikman, "if I'd had to go through another year like that, I would have played out my contract and been done with football forever. I was so badly beaten up that I couldn't understand how some of my teammates had lasted 10 years in the NFL. I knew I'd never make it that long. There was nothing fun about football. It was time for a gut check."
The early stages of his second season were not much better, although some of the pressure was eliminated when Walsh was traded to the New Orleans Saints in late September. The night before a game against the Los Angeles Rams in Anaheim, Aikman walked into Steinberg's office ready to explode with frustration.
"Troy," Steinberg said, "where do you want to be?"
"Dallas," Aikman replied.
"Do you think Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones are bright?"
"Yes," Aikman said.
"Do you think they're ambitious?"
"Do you think they'll allow these circumstances to continue for a long time?"
The next day the Cowboys beat the Rams 24-21 in a game that is often cited as the turning point in Dallas's rise back to the top of the NFL. The Cowboys went on to win four in a row, and then Aikman was sidelined for the season after he separated his shoulder against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 23. Dallas lost its final two games to finish 7-9 and barely miss the playoffs. Then last year Aikman and the Cowboys had a breakthrough season, going 11-5 and advancing to the second round of the postseason.
"I can now truly say that every quarterback in this league has something that is not right with his situation," Aikman says. "Steve Young has to battle the legend of Joe Montana. I have to face Roger Staubach's accomplishments. We all think our individual isolated cases are the worst, that everybody else has so much.
"My lows have always been lower than my highs have been high," says Aikman. "I've gone through tough times. But everybody has. People have this misconception that everything has been handed to me on a silver spoon. Nothing is given to anybody in life."
For Troy, who is the youngest of Ken and Charlyn Aikman's three children, the struggle began at the very beginning. He had a deformity of both his feet, what his mother refers to as "one-third club feet." From the time he was eight months old until he started walking, at 14 months, his legs were in casts up to his knees. Then, until he was three, Troy wore orthopedic shoes that looked as if each were on the wrong foot; at night his mother had to strap the heels of the shoes together to keep his feet straight.
Ken worked in the pipeline construction business and moved the family from Cerritos, Calif., to Henryetta, Okla. (pop. 6,000) in 1979. The Aikmans lived on a 172-acre ranch and raised cattle, pigs and chickens. "That is, until the pigs ate the chickens," Charlyn says with a chuckle. "We were city farmers." Troy, who was about to enter the eighth grade, was in culture shock. He could no longer ride his bike to a mall or to a McDonald's because Henryetta had neither. "We had no neighbors," Troy says. "I didn't like Oklahoma at all."
But he eventually grew fond of Henryetta and now calls it home, despite his having left there after only five years to attend the University of Oklahoma (he subsequently transferred to UCLA). The media have repeatedly portrayed Aikman as a laid-back country boy. "Sometimes they paint me to be a true-to-life cowboy," Aikman says. "I can't even ride a horse."
He did, however, absorb the down-to-earth values of small-town America. "I've never tried to be anything I'm not," Aikman says. "I understand my place in the world and where football fits. Everybody searches for inner peace. Some arc able to have it, some aren't. People criticize me for not being emotional, for not smiling enough. If someone sees me smiling, I'm happy. If not, I don't feel like it. Like smiling for pictures with fans—I can't turn it on and off. I'm very content with who I am and what I am. I'm not trying to be something people want me to be."