Hall recall: Troy Aikman


By Gil Brandt , NFL.com Senior Analyst
Special to Profootballhof.com

When you travel the country scouting players, what you learn to listen for is a buzz -- the growing sound of excitement and anticipation from coaches.

It's reserved exclusively for athletes who stand out above the others. In the Southwest in the early 1980s, the buzz was centered on a quarterback from Henryetta, Okla., who drove a pickup truck and was going to change Barry Switzer's ultra-successful wishbone offense into a pro-style offense.

Troy_AikmanMy first encounter with Troy Aikman was in the fall of 1984, when I was scouting Sooners seniors in Norman, Okla. I was watching film in offensive coordinator Mack Brown's office (who is now the Texas Longhorns head coach) when he said he wanted to bring someone in to meet me. He brought in a freshman quarterback who would make his first collegiate start that week in a road game against Kansas.

When I asked him where he was from, an 18-year-old Aikman nervously replied, "I'm from Henryetta. I played for the Henryetta Hens in high school."

It was an inauspicious beginning of a career for a future Hall of Famer; the Sooners lost 28-11 and an Aikman interception was returned for a touchdown. Unfortunately, the change to Oklahoma's offense never got on track. He broke his leg the following year and eventually transferred to UCLA.

The next time I would see Troy was in Miami at the annual Playboy All-America weekend in May 1988. He had been my choice as the team's quarterback and was anticipating a big senior season.

A round of golf on Saturday was part of the festivities. My foursome was an unbelievable preview of the top three picks of the 1989 NFL Draft -- Aikman, Tony Mandarich and a young running back from Oklahoma State. Barry Sanders had yet to start a game in college but showed a great deal of promise in backing up senior Thurman Thomas the year before in Stillwater.

It was Sanders' first round of golf ever, but not Aikman's. He never used a wood off the tee, opting instead for a 1-iron that he continually crushed down the fairways.

The first time I personally saw Aikman play in college was on a beautiful, sunny day in Seattle in early October 1988. I was scouting a Top 10 matchup between the Bruins and Huskies. Troy led his team to a 24-17 victory that day and eventually carried them into a New Year's Day game in (ironically) Dallas at the Cotton Bowl.

The Cowboys had the No. 1 pick in the 1989 draft and Coach Landry and I had made arrangements with UCLA head coach Terry Donahue to see them practice at Texas Stadium as they prepared to play Arkansas.

As we walked away from practice, Coach Landry leaned into me and said quietly, "I've seen enough. No more practices are necessary." That was Coach Landry's way of saying he will be our pick.

The Walter Camp All-American Weekend was in early February and I was able to continue my scouting of Aikman by spending three days with him in New Haven, Conn. He and I had a publicity photo taken together in front of an armored car used to pick up money for businesses -- foreshadowing, I assume, as late that spring, Aikman would sign for the largest contract in Dallas Cowboys history at the time.

The Cowboys were sold to Jerry Jones on Feb. 25, 1989, and Jimmy Johnson became the head coach. There were some questions if Aikman would still be our pick.

Troy_AikmanI accompanied the new head coach and some other staff members to Westwood in mid-March for a private workout before the draft. Afterward, when we were leaving, I remember asking Jimmy his thoughts.

"If we had him at Miami," he said, "We would have been 24-0 (in 1987-88) and won every game by 50 points."

I replied, "I rest my case."

Being the top pick doesn't guarantee success. Aikman had few bright moments during his first NFL season. Johnson had taken his college quarterback, Steve Walsh, in the supplemental draft and the two together in a training-camp battle for the starting position.

Aikman started the first 11 games and failed to win any of them. He completed 155 of 293 passes (52.9 percent) for nine touchdowns against 18 interceptions. Walsh led the team to its only victory, a stunning triumph against the a previously unbeaten Washington team that went on to win the Super Bowl.

Fortunately for Aikman, fate blew his way during his first offseason. Little-known quarterbacks coach Norv Turner was hired after others turned the position down for various reasons. He eventually was offered the position and totally retooled the Cowboys offense to play to Aikman's strengths -- uncanny accuracy and a cannon for a right arm.

What a difference a year makes. From that point forward, Aikman began taking the steps necessary to be one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. During his 12-year career, he led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span, brought his team from behind 16 times when trailing after three quarters, won 90 games in the 1990s (the most by any starting quarterback in any decade) and completed 70 percent of his passes (minimum 20 attempts) in 41 games.

Aikman trivia
What happened on the final day of the 1988 season that made it possible for the Cowboys to draft Aikman with the top overall pick?
Answer: Green Bay (4-12) won at Phoenix (7-9), and Dallas (3-13) lost at home to Philadelphia (10-6).

Who was the first-team all-Pac-10 quarterback in Aikman's last season at UCLA.
Answer: Southern California's Rodney Peete, whom Detroit drafted in Round 6. Peete and Aikman were teammates in 1994.

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