He looks as confident as ever striding into the room, and for a moment you think he might peel back his suit jacket and patterned, blue necktie to reveal a hidden No. 8 jersey. Could be that it's all some sick ruse, a poorly played joke for the media and friends who have gathered here at Texas Stadium. But that's just foolish thinking spurred by so many fond memories, a comforting notion quickly discarded.
This day has been in the making for more than a month now--longer, really--since the Dallas Cowboys cut Troy Aikman on March 7 for what they said were salary cap reasons. The money had something to do with it, naturally. Had he stayed, Aikman would have garnered a $7 million roster bonus and a hefty salary, but it was more about the regression of skills than anything else. He struggled last season, fought through bad throws and back problems, losing and injuries. It was unsettling, because he wasn't the strong, poised QB you'd come to know, the guy who did remarkable things on Sundays, the one whose strong arm inspired awed fans and whose crisp passes deflated opponents. By the end, after he'd sustained another concussion in a line of them so long it's hard to remember when or where they began, Aikman wasn't Aikman anymore. The boy who came to you in '89 from UCLA, fresh-faced and full of potential, had become a hardened veteran, used-up and done-in by vicious hits. Time did what so many cornerbacks and safeties couldn't: beat him.
So this day was coming. You could see it straight ahead. But it was off in the distance, not standing beside you demanding attention. Surely he had a few more years left, a few seasons to pad the stats and go out clawing back to the top instead of slipping into the pack. It would have been with another team, a foreign idea, but at least it would have been on his terms. Heroes don't compromise. At least, they shouldn't have to.
As Aikman sits down at a table in the Stadium Club, in front of a large glass window overlooking the field at Texas Stadium, the reality smacks everyone hard. This is it. The end of Troy Aikman, Quarterback.
"You watch and think your time will never come," he says. "Well, my time has come. Today, I announce my retirement from the National Football League and the Dallas Cowboys."
The only thing missing is an organ and some foreboding music.
"I know it's the right thing to do," he continues, staring out at a crowd filled with friends, teammates and other acquaintances. "I know because of health, the concussions, my back problems. It all took its toll. I knew it would be tough for me to go on this year. The competitor in me wanted to, but I can't. If I were single, maybe, but it's not just me. I'm OK with it, but I also know I can still play. All things considered, I know this is the right thing for me and my family."
Aikman reminisces for more than an hour. Using index cards to touch on topics, he nevertheless allows his emotions to guide his soliloquy. There were so many people, he says, and forgive him if he misses a few. He runs through a list, then another, and if he forgets anyone, no one notices. Everyone here is awed by the compassion he's showing, stunned by the sensitive side of an often stoic man.
He expends the most energy and tears exactly the way you'd expect, talking about the other two. Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. United, their team won three Super Bowls, three NFC championships and five consecutive NFC East titles. Much of Aikman's success, his gaudy accomplishments--90 wins in the '90s (the most in one decade by any quarterback), six Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl MVP--are byproducts of their relationship.
"We were always known as the triplets," Aikman says. His chiseled face is red and blotchy now, his hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame less imposing. "I was very proud they called us that. It meant a lot to me. The way they went about their business. I told Emmitt I'd love more than anything to be on the field when he breaks Walter Payton's [all-time career rushing] record. I wish I could be there for you, Emmitt.
"My family will tell you how I feel about Michael. I have a hard time bringing up his name without getting emotional. When Michael left this football team, a big part of us was lost."
Aikman probably knew then that it was over, though he wasn't quite ready to call it a career. He shopped around recently, as you know. That's when it all came undone a little bit, when he realized there was less of a market out there for a battered 34-year-old signal caller than he initially expected. It was difficult watching him go through that process, watching him get shunned or turned away by several would-be suitors--his only option a seat in some broadcast booth.
That's where he'll be next season, talking about a game instead of influencing it. Expect an official announcement soon, he says. Did it for his daughter Rachel, for his wife, Rhonda, and for the child they're expecting, he says.
What Aikman doesn't have to say is how tough this is for him. And for everyone else.
"I believe Troy has made our lives better and more meaningful," says Jerry Jones, seated to the right of a man who just a few years earlier was considered the franchise. "It's hard to put into words what a man who has won three Super Bowls means to us, whether you're a player or a journalist or a fan. He restored our faith that athletes can be heroes."
Even if you hated Troy Aikman, even if he caused you as much pain as he affected joy in the hearts of Pokes fans, you understood his greatness and respected his grit. You associated him with the Cowboys, with football, with loyalty, and so it stood to reason that his retirement would come on the heels of another Super Bowl victory, not a 5-11 blemish and a slew of injuries.
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There's no closure this way. There can't be for anyone, least of all you. Aikman was yours, as distinctly Dallas as Reunion Tower, and you were proud of him.
It's not right. The hero didn't get his final day, and he never will. To a certain extent, neither will you. All you get is this hollow feeling spawned from an idea of what should have been and a hatred for a reality that doesn't measure up.
When Jones and the brain trust unceremoniously kicked Aikman to the curb a month ago, Emmitt struggled to understand. "I would have written a happy ending," he said then. "You know, most stories about Cowboys have happy endings."
Most. That's the shame of a day like this.