Troy Aikman's concussion in the third quarter of the 1994 NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers is now just a footnote on the team's march to a second consecutive Super Bowl victory, which itself gets lost in telling of the mid-'90s golden age of America's Team.
Aikman's injury gets more prominent billing in League of Denial, the much-anticipated Frontline documentary probing the concussion crisis in the NFL. The film doesn't premiere until next Tuesday, but Frontline today unveiled a two-minute teaser featuring the Aikman story, as told by his agent, Leigh Steinberg.
The concussion itself was caused by a flying knee from 49ers defensive end Dennis Brown. Aikman was pulled from the game, replaced by backup Bernie Kosar and taken to a local hospital. Steinberg found him there, sitting in bed in a darkened room. The agent recalled:
He looked at me and he said, 'Leigh, where am I?' And I said, 'Well, you're in the hospital.' And he said, 'Well, why am I here?' And I said, 'because you suffered a concussion today.' And he said, 'Well, who did we play?' And I said, 'The 49ers.' And he said, 'Did we win?' 'Yes, you won.' 'Did I play well?' 'Yes, you played well.' 'And so what's that mean?' 'It means you're going to the Super Bowl.'
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Five minutes passed. Aikman again turned to Steinberg, confused, and asked, "What am I doing here?"
For a minute I thought he was joking, and I went through the same sequence of answers again, and his face brightened and we celebrated again. Maybe 10 minutes passed, and he looked at me with the same puzzled expression and asked the same sequence of questions. It terrified me to see how tender the bond was between sentient consciousness and potential dementia and confusion was.
The acute memory loss was temporary. Two weeks later, he led the team to a Super Bowl victory. He tacked on another two years later, and a few years later launched a successful broadcasting career. But what lasting damage did a career of hits like the one he suffered against San Francisco do to his brain? It's hard to say, at least for now.