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ARLINGTON, Texas — Troy Aikman has a secret.
He quickly scans the menu — his menu — while seated at the edge of a large, C-shaped corner booth in the back of his restaurant. He sees the imperfection and can’t help but come clean.
Even if it means exposing a lie living in plain sight.
“My wife’s artichoke dip is on here. But it’s not — it’s not really her dip,” he says, revealing the truth about the dish labeled, “Capa’s Artichoke Dip,” which, at the time of this late November lunch meeting, is advertised as a “secret family recipe.”
He explains that his wife’s appetizer dish had to be replaced with a modified version at the last minute because the restaurant’s chef had issues producing it in bulk due to its mayonnaise-heavy content.
“The menus had already been printed,” Aikman says with a smile on this early Monday afternoon, in a near-empty Troy’s at Texas Live! “We get all these rave reviews about her artichoke dip, and we don’t know if they’re just saying it because we like her recipe better than the one that’s being served. We don’t know if people are just saying that because they think it’s hers or if they really do like it.”
Here Aikman sits, a three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, a long-time member of Fox’s top NFL broadcasting team, a successful businessman. And even he can’t abide an innocent mistake, a single detail missed. It is how he approached all those seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. And it’s how he approaches every TV broadcast.
Aikman’s shoulders suddenly relax, an indication that he’s somewhat comfortable discussing his personal and professional life with someone he has known for less than 10 minutes. But soon his smile fades into the creases of his face.
“This’ll change when we redo the menus,” he says in a serious tone, scanning the dip description once more. “We’re not going to leave her name on it.”
There is a part of Aikman you know. But there are other sides to him you don’t. And it’s by design.
“[Tony] Romo asked me for some advice back when he first became the quarterback in Dallas and he was dating someone,” Aikman said, adding “it wasn’t Jessica [Simpson].”
“He asked me whether or not I thought he should go public with that. But I just said, ‘You’re going to be the quarterback here for a long time. They don’t have to know everything about you the first week. It’s OK to withhold a little bit. It’s not important to me that everyone knows everything about me or that I reveal all that I am or have.’ … I’m very content with who I am, and what I am, and what I have and where I am in life.”
He was the calm in the midst of chaos, the force that easily could tame a team decorated with alpha dogs.
The 1990s Cowboys were littered with larger-than-life personalities, stars who commanded attention as often as others demanded the ball. Guys like Deion Sanders. Charles Haley. Michael Irvin. Emmitt Smith. Nate Newton. “Our huddle was nonsense,” former Cowboys fullback and fellow Fox broadcaster Daryl Johnston said with a laugh. “It was complete chaos inside our huddle with Michael and Nate and Emmitt and everybody, saying this is what we should be doing, this is not working.”
Those brief moments of anarchy — which usually occurred when Aikman had to step out of the huddle and cover the earholes of his helmet to better hear the communication — were always short-lived.
“The moment Troy reentered the huddle, you could hear a pin drop,” said Johnston, who recently was named general manager of the San Antonio Commanders of the Alliance of American Football.
Teammates praised Jimmy Johnson for assembling a roster comprised of premier players, but they stressed it was Aikman’s team. He was the glue that held it all together. The ultra-competitive perfectionist who brought a “lunch-pail” work ethic, a laser-like focus and a disciplined routine to everything he did.
Even with some of the game’s greatest stars surrounding him on the field, he was demanding and rigid. He would bark and practice would start over again. He would chew out the offense, Irvin and Smith included.
“I remember the guys in the secondary were like, ‘Man, he just talks bad to you guys,’” former Cowboys safety and current ESPN analyst Darren Woodson said with chuckles. “And they weren’t saying anything. Michael Irvin and Emmitt and all those guys on the offense, they would not confront Troy.
“When we were on that practice field, and it was time to get to work, it went one way. No. 8 was the guy.”
Those Dallas locker rooms were fraught with friction and in-fighting. But Aikman’s vocal leadership helped steer the team in the right direction. Woodson said: “If we were playing now with social media the way it is, we wouldn’t have been able to field a team. I’m serious. But Troy was always the constant. Consistent. He held everybody accountable. He was the ultimate leader for that group at that time.”
Players, like Woodson, saw their quarterback arrive every day at 6:30 a.m. and adjusted their routines accordingly. They also respected his ability.
“We wanted Troy’s stamp of approval,” Johnston said.
“I used to call him ‘Cool Whip’ back in the day, cause he could whip the ball,” Woodson said of the former Super Bowl MVP and six-time Pro Bowl selection, who finished his career with 32,942 career passing yards and 165 career touchdowns. “We used to call him all kinds of names. ‘Cool Whip.’ ‘Eight Ball.’ You name it. He threw the perfect pass. He’s the best quarterback I’ve been around.
“You can’t tell me Tony Romo was a better quarterback than Troy. I don’t even think that’s a close comparison. Troy, with a wide-open offense, with his ability to deliver the football, at a young age, and be able to lead the way he did, he would put up astronomical numbers.”
As the face of the organization, Aikman understood he couldn’t be overly emotional. He had to be measured and calculated, the calming voice speaking for an entire locker room. After losses, he’d vent privately to teammates in an effort to work through frustration before he had to face the cameras. Then, he’d turn to Cowboys public relations mainstay Richard Dalrymple and simply say, “I’m ready.”
“He wouldn’t give anybody anything that they could use to create an issue with us,” Johnston said. “I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for that. The funny thing is, people are kinda like, ‘Wow, he’s a lot better than I thought he was [on air].’ Well, no. We all knew he was that good. He just wouldn’t allow you to see that because he was putting the team first as the voice of the Dallas Cowboys.”
Aikman is suddenly suspicious.
“Who told you about that?” he asked, somewhat taken aback that one of his longest-held secrets is now in the public domain.
While stopped at a gas station near the facility during the ’90s, Aikman noticed Cowboys facility assistant Al Walker, a father of eight, pull up to the pump behind him. The sounds emanating from Walker’s beat-up truck made Aikman uneasy.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to start up again,” said the former quarterback. “This poor guy’s with his family and I’m a little worried about this truck that he’s driving.”
A partner in a Fort Worth, Texas, automobile dealership at the time, Aikman contacted the company about purchasing a used truck for Walker. “He walked into the complex and I just said, ‘Hey, I got, a little gift for you,’ and I toss him the keys,” Aikman said of Walker, who remains a fixture at the team’s facility to this day. “I said, ‘It’s out in the parking lot.’ And I went to work out.”
Twenty minutes later, Walker came barreling into the weight room.
“He damn near hurt me,” Aikman said, with a laugh. “He came in there and tackled me. He was so excited and happy.”
His smile fades again. Now, he’s the one pressing for details.
“Did you read that somewhere?” he asked. “I don’t think it was written anywhere. Not many people know about that. None of my teammates even know.”
Aikman’s commitment to helping others has been evident in his philanthropic endeavors over the years, including “Aikman’s End Zones” and his charitable contributions to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and United Way. But he always has steered clear of the spotlight.
Recently, he donated money to his daughters’ high school, which hoped to secure between $30 million to $60 million for a wellness center — but Aikman requested that his donation be an anonymous gift. And when the donor names were read aloud at the groundbreaking ceremony, Aikman’s daughters were mortified. “They came home like, ‘Dad, we didn’t give any money,’” Aikman recalled. “And I was thinking, ‘Well, man, I didn’t know that I got called out because I didn’t put our name on it. But that’s not why you do it.”
Aikman’s generosity extended to the Cowboys’ locker room, too.
On Christmas Day, whole lockers would be covered and stuffed with baskets and gifts, courtesy of the quarterback. “It was hysterical what he would buy the offensive linemen,” Johnston said. “The defensive guys would look across our locker room and go, ‘Whoa, why aren’t we getting anything?’ I don’t know how he got them in. I didn’t think Santa’s sleigh was that big.”
Aikman never expected to be here, still broadcasting NFL games after 18 years. He’s so removed from his playing days that regaling audiences with Cowboy tales is a chore he wants no part of.
“I’m tired of talking about 25 years ago, you know what I mean?” he said. “Do you want to keep talking about back when you were in high school or junior high?”
For all that he has accomplished on the field, Aikman has spent almost two decades focused on a goal of a different kind: Performing twice a week in front of an audience of millions with his broadcast partner of 17 years, Joe Buck.
It’s three days before the Cowboys host the New Orleans Saints on “Thursday Night Football” and Aikman’s pregame preparation is briefly interrupted by a lunch meeting. His NFL schedule is even more hectic now that the pair has to double up on games during weeks that Fox has the late Sunday afternoon doubleheader. But on this particular Monday he’s able to spare an 80-minute sit-down.
Aikman’s attention to detail is a sophisticated art form in its own right. During the week, he watches film cut-ups of specific players and offensive and defensive units, jotting down notes on 11-by-17-inch boards. Aikman commits one full day to studying one team, then another full day researching their opponent.
“It’s not, ‘I just read about the team for a couple hours and went to lunch,’” Buck said by phone from his St. Louis home. “He has to do enough work to make himself comfortable enough to go on air and, whatever that takes, he’s gonna put it in.”
Said Woodson: “I guarantee you, his preparation is probably exactly the same as it was when he was playing. You’re not going to outwork him. If he’s anything like he was as a player, you can absolutely forget it.”
Aikman headlines a long list of former Cowboys who currently serve as broadcasters, with Romo and Jason Witten being the two most recent ex-players to join their fraternity. According to Woodson, Aikman’s influence “paved the way” for many Dallas stars to make the jump to TV. “It starts with him,” the former safety added. “Troy’s been in the game for so long as a broadcaster, he’s become that voice that you’ve becoming familiar with.”
But in this arena, there is no scoreboard. At least, not the kind that Aikman is accustomed to. Broadcasting success is a sliding scale, a measurement that isn’t tethered to tangible benchmarks like touchdown passes or wins and losses. Instead, it’s rooted in the preferences of finicky fan bases that are convinced announcers are biased against their team.
Aikman is still chasing that ever-elusive Emmy — much to the surprise of those closest to him.
“Nothing has frustrated me more than that,” said Buck, who recently was told he and Aikman are the second-longest running NFL broadcast team behind John Madden and Pat Summerall. “He has as much pride in being the best announcer he can be as he had back in the day of being the best quarterback he could be.”
Buck likened the “nebulous voting process” to “a moving target,” quipping: “The Emmy process is not voted on by the High Council of Trent.”
Reminded of the seven Emmys he has displayed in his home office, he laughed. “I wasn’t looking at them until you [mentioned them],” Buck joked. “It’s incredible to win one. But it can’t be your only validation for the job you’re doing. I think the validation is in the longevity, especially in this world.”
A GM in waiting
Aikman knows something more lies ahead. He isn’t exactly sure what.
Nearing almost two decades in the broadcast booth, and only years removed from having his two teenage daughters and two stepsons away at college, Aikman senses a new chapter will soon unfold.
Maybe, he’ll just want to sit on a beach and enjoy however many days he has left, he jokes. Maybe, the “next frontier” won’t even be sports-related. Or, just maybe, Aikman will assume the role he has long coveted: NFL front-office executive.
He had first given thought to working for an organization after he retired in 2001 (an event spurred by the Cowboys’ decision to cut him before owing him millions). But at 34, he was a first-time father and knew the demands of an 18-hour gig would be too difficult to juggle. When he and his first wife, Rhonda Worthey, divorced, “everything was off the table” for Aikman, who made raising his girls his foremost priority.
But now that his children are older, he’s back to entertaining thoughts of having a “meaningful” role within a team.
He isn’t the first, nor will he be the last, player-turned broadcaster to eye a corner office. John Lynch was named San Francisco’s general manager in January 2017, despite his lack of front-office experience, and earlier this week, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock was officially introduced as Oakland’s new general manager.
Aikman certainly has ideas on how to fix his former team. In the midst of Dallas’ midseason struggles, the last great Cowboys quarterback publicly said that “a complete overhaul of the entire organization” would be needed if Dallas couldn’t resurrect its season. His defense of former teammate and close friend, coach Jason Garrett, was viewed as a shot at team owner Jerry Jones.
“This goes beyond coaching,” Aikman explained to Yahoo Sports about the then-struggling Cowboys. “You can’t just fire a coach and replace a coach and continue to have the same results for all these years … and say whatever it is that we’re doing is working because it’s not.”
Despite public pressure to fire Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, Jones kept the coaching staff intact. The end result? Dallas finished 10-6, won the NFC East division title and will host Seattle on Saturday in an NFC wild-card game.
Asked if he’d ever want to work for the Cowboys, the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 1989, Aikman scrunches up his face. “First, it won’t happen. Will not happen,” he said. “But would I take that call? Absolutely. I would certainly want to hear the conversation. I’m not saying I definitely would or will [join a front office], but if I were to do it, I’d want it to be in a meaningful capacity, where I could make a difference. And I believe I can. But I’m also not naive enough to think that I can just go right from the booth right into being a general manager.”
But he can’t lie either. Aikman thinks he’d be damn good at shaping a franchise. “There’s a notion, ‘That guy played, but he doesn’t know anything about running a football team,’” Aikman said, sarcastically. “Well, I know what a championship locker room looks like, what a championship team requires.
“I’ve never gotten into anything that I didn’t feel I’d be successful doing,” he matter-of-factly said, before fessing up. “Other than, you know, ‘Oklahoma Nights.’ Other than that project, most everything I’ve done has been pretty successful and so there’s no doubt in my mind that if that’s the route I went, that would be good at it. I’ve never doubted that and now it’s just a matter of whether or not the opportunity presents itself and if it does, if the time is right.”
Johnston is confident Aikman would be a natural in the position. “He could do this,” he said. “As soon as he lets it be known that he’s interested in doing this, people will find a way to get him into a situation that’s comfortable for him.
“He knows the game so well and everybody knows that from listening to him on Sundays and from watching him play. So if this is something that he wants to do it, it will happen. And it’ll be on his schedule, when he’s ready.”
David Lee Roth’s raspy vocals flood the speakers, suddenly filling the gourmet burger restaurant and beer hall with a jaunty, non-country music tune.
I’m just a gigolo
And everywhere I go
People know the part I’m playing …
Aikman’s shoulders stiffen again as the conversation detours toward his own musical pursuits. After more than a decade spent avoiding blindside pressures, a query about “Oklahoma Nights” catches the former football star.
“No, no,” Aikman replied, when asked if his signature song is on rotation at his eponymous eatery. “I haven’t played that since it came out.”
The country music single — recorded for a 1993 album, featuring Dallas teammates, called “Everybody Wants to Be a Cowboy” — had been something “fun to do,” a chance for the always reserved, ever-so-structured Aikman to venture outside of his comfort zone.
Musically-speaking, he’s a lost cause.
“He was trying to be a country music star, but that didn’t work out and we ripped him for it,” Woodson said, laughing. “Oh man, it was like the joke.”
Aikman long has wished to learn to master the guitar. But in a twist of irony, the same hands that helped shape his Hall of Fame career hinder him from properly strumming a guitar. He holds up his hand as proof. “I’ve got this finger that I had rebuilt, so I had a hard time getting on the initial chords,” he said. “So they said that might be a little problematic. And that’s all I needed to hear. I left it alone.”
The perfectionist in him can’t accept being average — at anything. That’s why he spent months perfecting a newly acquired golf game, going from “a 14 handicap, down to, like, a two,” Johnston said. “He’s one of those people that drives you crazy. That, if he’s not already good at everything, can become good at everything with just a little bit of work.”
“I was in the middle of my playing career, there was a bunch of teammates that were involved in it and I said, ‘What the heck, let’s just go do it and have some fun,’” Aikman said. “Now, if all the talent at Fox said, ‘Let’s go do this’ and [Terry] Bradshaw wanted to do it, then I’d say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
Aikman can also poke fun at himself. Be silly, even. But his infectious laugh and quick, dry wit is typically reserved for those in his inner circle. And that’s by design.
Not everyone is going to get “the full Troy,” Woodson said.
Said Buck: “I think that side has come out more and more as the years have gone on and I’m thankful for that. Because I think we all get a better picture of the depth of who he is.”
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