By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You fall from bed hours before work on a Sunday, hours before the dreadful 49ers will come calling on the even more dreadful Cowboys. You're too groggy for much more than basic motor functions--if that.
Slowly, you stumble toward the living room, much to the chagrin of your legs. As you fumble with the remote, cursing and trying in vain to zap the television alive, you yearn for that first cup of coffee. Everything is slower this early in the morning and you feel lost, like when you wake up with the blanket over your head and can't manage to paw it from your face fast enough.
Perhaps this is how Troy Aikman feels weeks after his latest headblow.
Just now, your TV awakens and ironically ponders the same thing. ESPN's investigative show Outside the Lines is on. The topic is athletes and concussions and, not surprisingly, Aikman is the focal point. The show flashes to footage of him on the sidelines staring blankly into a pen light while, in the background, Dallas is being mauled by Philly. Bob Ley, a portly man with large, fleshy cheeks and petrified Jimmy Johnsonesque hair, is the host, moderating a group of "expert panelists" ranging from former NFLers to doctors. Problem is, the experts can't seem to agree on anything. Not how many concussions are too many. Not the validity of "baseline testing," which is a means of comparing your noggin pre- and post-hit. Not the long-term ramifications or even the short-term effects.
Basically, the experts talk in circles, agreeing only that Aikman should hang 'em up. They do everything but challenge his competency. Sadly, this is as good as it will get for No. 8 today. Probably for some time to come, for that matter.
In just a short while, Aikman will return to Texas Stadium, return to the site of past glory--and agony. He will throw 26 passes, completing 15. He will throw one touchdown against one interception and amass 197 yards. He will look serviceable at times, but mostly he will be average in a loss uglier than I-35 during rush hour.
Then he will be booed. Loudly.
Afterward, he will shrug it off. He'll chalk it up to longevity--hard to be around for such an extended period without drawing someone's ire, right? The only thing missing will be some nervous laughter, because he'll know this is more than cursory criticism.
For the first time, you will feel real and justified sympathy for him. Because now the problems for Aikman stack high and neatly, like Legos. They are almost unavoidable given the radio nazis and attendant dolts clamoring for his fair-haired scalp. Half the mob wants Randall Cunningham because he's "better suited for this team"; the other half wants Randall Cunningham because "Troy should have retired after the last concussion."
The problem with mob justice, though, is that it rarely gets the right man. There are plenty of other, better issues to fuss over with these Boys--from the porous defense to the inept running game to the lack of a big-play wideout. Of course, sense and reason will have nothing to do with this. Quarterback controversy is simply sexier, more appealing. Besides, you could see this coming, you could see them heading toward Irving, torches burning brightly.
It was only a few weeks ago that he was victimized by the Eagles, an unrepentant lot who merrily pounded Aikman into the ground so that, by the end, when they peeled him from the field, it was hard to tell the muscular QB from the other turf markings.
It turned out Troy suffered his ninth concussion that day. And while this future Hall of Fame inductee sat idly on the sideline in the following weeks, a tempest was created. Everyone from the media--complete with apocalyptic pens and voices--to the fans droned on about how foolish Aikman was for not retiring immediately. They invoked the name of Steve Young, patron saint of the concussed and former San Fran signal caller who called it quits following a similar predicament last season. They said it was time to move on, that Aikman was being foolish, that enough was enough already.
Yesterday's hero had become today's heel.
Through it all, you wondered when we transitioned from glorifying a man's will, however asinine, to castigating it. Foolish or not, Aikman merely wanted what he's always wanted, what he's worked his entire life for--to play. If there was a possibility of mushifying his brain in the process, well, so be it. The repercussions were his to deal with, a responsibility he fully embraced.
But getting your wish doesn't always guarantee a fuzzy, Sunday-night movie ending. Quite the opposite in Aikman's experience, actually. The attack on him will become two-fold once he returns to the lineup later today. While half the vultures will attack an already-damaged noggin, the others will pick at what they perceive to be diminished skills.
That's just it. And, again, you pity the poor sap. Because concussion or no, good game or no, only the perception seems to matter here. Whether Cunningham is in truth a better QB than Aikman--and having watched them both for a long time, you seriously doubt it--is purely academic because damn if the Astroturf doesn't look greener over by the 37-year-old backup.