In the first three decades of the team’s existence, the Dallas Cowboys appeared in two NFL Championship games, five Super Bowls, and three straight NFC Championship games in the early eighties.
By the late 1980s, however, Dallas had fallen on hard times.
The lowest of the low came in 1989 when the franchise won just a single game.
That marked the Cowboys’ worst season since their zero-win inaugural year in 1960.
As bad as that season was for Dallas, the team was starting to rebound.
New owner Jerry Jones had hired coach Jimmy Johnson before ’89, and the team drafted UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman in the 1989 NFL Draft.
30 years ago today Troy Aikman was selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the first overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. pic.twitter.com/TslAkDpVBA
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) April 24, 2019
Aikman was part of a massive rebuilding effort that eventually led Dallas back to Super Bowl glory.
During his tenure with the Cowboys, Aikman broke several franchise records and became the team’s most celebrated quarterback since Roger Staubach.
Then, in 2006, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, making Aikman the third quarterback in the organization’s history to receive such an honor.
This is the story of Troy Aikman.
California Born, Oklahoma Raised
Troy Kenneth Aikman was born in West Covina, California on November 21, 1966.
Happy Birthday, NFL HOFer Troy Aikman, born November 21, 1966, in West Covina, California. pic.twitter.com/hQXx4jwlpe
— Doug Lambert (@lambert_doug) November 21, 2016
By the time he was in elementary school, Aikman looked the part of a Southern California kid.
He had blonde hair and blue eyes and participated in sports, specifically baseball, and he aspired to become a pro baseball player.
That’s why Aikman was devastated when his parents told him they were moving to rural Oklahoma when he was 12.
“If we had stayed in California, I’m sure I would have pursued a baseball career,” Aikman said. “I was pretty good, but who knows how far I would have gone.”
The Aikman family relocated to a large farm outside of Henryetta, Oklahoma, and that move thrust Troy into a different world.
“That was a lifestyle that was foreign to me,” Aikman said. “It helped teach me to embrace the difficult times. No one, I don’t care who it is, never goes through life and not have some setbacks.”
Before he enrolled at Henryetta High School, Aikman planned on only playing baseball, until his father intervened.
“I wasn’t going to play, but football was his favorite sport,” Aikman said. “If he hadn’t said anything, I’m convinced I wouldn’t have played football that year, probably would not have played football again.”
Aikman Stars for the Hens and Becomes a State Typing Champion
When he suited up for the Henryetta Hens football team as a quarterback, the coaches could see that Aikman’s talent was head and shoulders above the rest.
Since Henryetta was a small town with a small school, Aikman became the starter immediately.
“He started as a freshman, and the rest was history,” said Rick Enis, one of his coaches.
The Hens weren’t a great team, but Aikman was obviously talented. He had an arm that drew the interest of several college coaches.
“We could tell he was going to be something special; obviously, we didn’t know how far he would go,” said Dutch VanDenBorn, another Henryetta coach.
While he was in high school, Aikman played football and baseball for Henryetta.
Away from the playing fields, Aikman also found out he was a natural at typing.
Looking for an easy ‘A’ on his report card, Aikman and some friends decided to take an intro to typing class.
— Liz (@LizInFallsCity) November 29, 2018
He took to the daily tasks quickly and was frequently done with his work ahead of his classmates.
Aikman then took an advanced typing class and again excelled with the material.
Near the end of the year, there was a state typing competition, and Aikman’s sister was slated to be Henryetta’s representative.
She backed out before the competition, and Troy took her place.
He didn’t find out how well he did until the awards assembly.
“I thought I did pretty good. I didn’t think I did great,” Aikman recalled. “At the end of the day, when they had the assembly to hand out the awards, they announced the typing award and mentioned my name. Everyone knew already that I was an athlete,” he continued. “And for me to go down the aisle as the typing winner was not one of my proudest moments, although winning the award certainly meant a lot.”
Aikman Becomes a Sooner
In the spring of his senior year, Aikman was considering scholarship opportunities from several schools.
One of the offers was from head coach Barry Switzer of the Oklahoma Sooners.
The Sooners were known as a team that loved to run, and they ran a lot.
Troy Aikman was 75 yards away from being an all-time Sooners legend pic.twitter.com/28jPjKarO2
— Gamblin' Gauchos 🎙 (@GamblinGauchos) January 24, 2023
That was hard for Aikman to stomach because he thoroughly enjoyed passing the ball.
However, Switzer was a good salesman, as Aikman soon found out.
“I was told when I was coming out of high school there at Henryetta,” Aikman said, “that Barry Switzer was saying they were gonna stay in the I formation—Marcus Dupree was there at the time—and they were telling some other people they were gonna go back to the wishbone.”
Ultimately, Dupree ended up leaving Oklahoma during his sophomore year in 1983.
Without their star back, Switzer had to promise the moon to each of his recruits.
“So, they had half the class kind of thinking they were going be this pro-style passing attack,” Aikman said, “the other half of the class was kind of told they were going to run the football. Ultimately that is what they did.”
Aikman liked what he heard and became a new member of the Oklahoma Sooners.
Aikman Is Injured
During his freshman season in 1984, Aikman mainly rode the pine as a backup, getting just enough playing time to pass for 41 yards and three interceptions.
In 1985, Aikman became the starter for Oklahoma and found himself running the Wishbone offense, something he didn’t particularly care for.
“My sophomore year, when I was the starter, I was running the wishbone,” Aikman said, “so even though I was playing, I wasn’t enjoying the football side of it because I knew I was in an offense that wasn’t really a tailor fit for me.”
Switzer sprinkled in enough passing plays where Aikman threw for 442 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Troy Aikman running the option offense for Oklahoma in 1985 is still such an odd look to this day….
If he hadn't broken his leg…who knows how different his career would be…. pic.twitter.com/pVjXV6kYcT
— PolyesterPalace (@PolyesterPalace) March 1, 2023
Despite his disdain for the offense, Aikman led the Sooners to a 3-0 record to start the ’85 season, including a win over rival Texas.
Then, in the fourth game of the year against the Miami Hurricanes, Aikman was doing well, passing for 131 yards and a score.
Switzer sent out true freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway, who couldn’t salvage the afternoon. The Sooners lost, 27-14.
It just so happened that the Hurricanes were coached at the time by Jimmy Johnson, and one of their best players was receiver, Michael Irvin.
Both would be a significant part of Aikman’s future.
Just when things looked bad for Oklahoma due to the Miami loss, Holieway turned out to be a gifted athlete and led the Sooners to seven wins to close the year.
85: In 1985, OU lost Troy Aikman due to injury but got stellar play out of true freshman QB Jamelle Holieway. pic.twitter.com/YHzYCZCuGf
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) June 8, 2016
Then, in the Orange Bowl against top-ranked Penn State, Holieway led the team to a 25-10 win.
Miami lost the same day in the Sugar Bowl to the Tennessee Volunteers.
That gave Oklahoma the national title, the program’s sixth.
Aikman Transfers to UCLA
By early 1986, Aikman knew his days in Norman, Oklahoma, were numbered.
There was no doubt he was a talented quarterback. However, Holieway was a dual-threat star who could run Switzer’s Wishbone to perfection.
Given that information, Aikman had a heart-to-heart conversation with his coach.
“We were told that it was gonna be an open competition for the quarterback job,” Aikman said, “but I mean, come on. Jamelle had just taken them to the national title. So I knew there was no chance that I was gonna have any opportunity the following season.”
Switzer wanted to keep both quarterbacks and mentioned years later that he and his staff considered playing both quarterbacks during the 1986 season.
“I think as coaches, we would have implemented both of ’em,” Switzer said. “Played him and Jamelle both.”
Aikman, however, didn’t want to share time. He also wanted to go to a college program that passed the ball more often.
Switzer understood Aikman’s needs and called a close friend of his.
“He called Terry Donahue personally, along with a lot of other head coaches,” said Aikman in 2021. “I think deep down Barry kind of felt bad that it didn’t work out.”
Donahue was the coach of the UCLA Bruins. He loved the idea of Aikman returning to Southern California and leading his team.
— California Showcase (@CAShowcase13) December 22, 2012
Reflecting on his time with Aikman, Switzer has stated that he believes Aikman would have also delivered a national championship in 1985 if he had stayed healthy.
“We’d have won the national championship that same year,” Switzer said in 2020. “I’ve always said that. We’d have beaten the rest of the people on our schedule, with Aikman. Hell, we might have beaten Miami’s (butt) that day.”
Aikman Thrives as a Bruin
Due to NCAA transfer rules, Aikman had to sit out the 1986 season and learn the UCLA playbook.
In 1987, he became the starter and was surrounded by talented teammates, including running backs Eric Ball and Gaston Green and receiver Flipper Anderson.
That year, he was finally able to showcase his arm. Aikman passed for 2,527 yards, 17 touchdowns, and eight interceptions as the Bruins went 10-2 and beat Florida in the Aloha Bowl.
His efforts that season led Aikman to become the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year.
1️⃣9️⃣8️⃣8️⃣ All American QB Troy Aikman UCLA 🐻 pic.twitter.com/T2nXteitbI
— CFB Home (@CFBHome) March 18, 2021
As a senior in 1988, Aikman continued throwing early and often and passed for 2,771 yards, 24 touchdowns, and nine picks.
UCLA went 10-2 including a Cotton Bowl win over number eight Arkansas.
Aikman was named the Cotton Bowl co-MVP after passing for 172 yards.
During awards season, Aikman became a consensus All-American, won the Davey O’Brien Award, the UPI West Coast Player of the Year, and finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting behind Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders and USC’s Rodney Peete.
During his college career, Aikman passed for a total of 5,781 yards, 42 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions.
Voters inducted Troy Aikman into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Dallas Drafts Aikman
While Aikman and UCLA were in Dallas for the Cotton Bowl in early 1989, a contingent of Dallas Cowboys personnel was on hand to watch him.
The local media was already calling Aikman the “next quarterback of the Cowboys.” Even the great Tom Landry himself was present to watch him in action.
Coach Landry caused a stir when he came to watch Troy Aikman & UCLA practice at Texas Stadium in the run-up to The Cotton Bowl. BTW, Schramm, Brandt & Landry were all on record that they intended to draft Troy. #80sCowboys pic.twitter.com/FbgGsaSeHJ
— Dallas Cowboys Old School (@CowboysOld) August 18, 2021
Approximately six weeks later, however, Landry was no longer Dallas’s head coach.
In late February of that year, businessman Jerry Jones bought the franchise and promptly fired the iconic coach.
Jones’s next move was to hire his former Arkansas teammate and current Miami Hurricanes coach, Jimmy Johnson, as his new head coach.
Then, with the first overall selection in the 1989 NFL Draft, Jones picked Aikman.
Today in 1989, the Dallas Cowboys select Troy Aikman with the #1 overall draft pick in the NFL Draft. pic.twitter.com/IK2SLtYmqB
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) April 23, 2022
Receiver Michael Irvin was already in the building, having been selected by the Cowboys in 1988.
The 1989 draft also brought Dallas center Mark Stepnoski, fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston, and defensive end Tony Tolbert.
Dallas had running back Herschel Walker as well.
In October 1989, though, Jones traded Walker to Minnesota for a few Vikings players and a bevy of draft picks.
The Herschel Walker trade still blows my mind… pic.twitter.com/Lvm0AL9WyS
— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) January 7, 2021
Those picks couldn’t be used until 1990, and even with the influx of new talent, the team went 1-15, the worst record for Dallas since its inaugural year in 1960.
As a rookie, Aikman started 11 games, passed for 1,749 yards, nine touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. He also ran for his life, rushing for a career-high 302 yards.
He became part of the PFWA All-Rookie Team after the year.
Looking back at his rookie year, it didn’t help Aikman that Irvin missed most of the season due to Irvin’s ACL tear in Week 6.
However, “the Playmaker” returned from his injuries in Week 4 of the 1990 season, ready to connect again with Aikman.
In the 1990 Draft, the Cowboys used their extra picks from the Walker trade to select Florida running back Emmitt Smith as well as Hurricanes defensive tackle Jimmie Jones, and safety Kenneth Gant.
April 22, 1990:
With the 17th pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys select…
— ✭Cowboys News✭ (@DemBoyz_News) April 22, 2018
Dallas also signed former Cardinals tight end Jay Novacek to give Aikman more weapons.
In his second year as a pro, Aikman improved by passing for 2,579 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 18 picks.
Although Aikman’s interception total was an issue, he also often found himself on his backside as the victim of 39 sacks.
Still, the ’Boys won seven games in 1990.
The following year, Dallas had one of the best drafts in team history.
During the 1991 NFL Draft, the team selected defensive lineman Russell Maryland, receiver Alvin Harper, linebackers Dixon Edwards and Godfrey Myles, tackle Erik Williams, defensive tackle Leon Lett, and corner Larry Brown.
— Cowboys History (@CowboysHistory) June 10, 2014
With the benefit of Irvin, Harper, Novacek, and Smith, Aikman threw for 2,754 yards and 11 touchdowns and cut his interception total down to 10.
His play that year earned Aikman his first of six Pro Bowl trips. Dallas won 11 games as well, their most wins since a 12-4 season in 1983.
In the Wild Card round, the Cowboys beat Chicago before losing to Detroit, 38-6, in the Divisional round.
Dallas’s Turnaround is Complete
In just a few short years, Jones and Johnson had turned the fortunes of the Cowboys around in dramatic fashion.
Only three seasons after going 1-15, Dallas won 13 games in 1992 behind Aikman’s career-best 3,445 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.
The team beat Philadelphia and San Francisco in the playoffs for the right to square off against the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII.
#Cowboys legends Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach share a moment near the end of the 1992 NFC Championship at Candlestick.
30 Years Ago Today pic.twitter.com/9E7sirQ3rE
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 18, 2023
It was the franchise’s first title game appearance since 1978.
“I really believed that in some point in my career I would win a Super Bowl. But never imagined that it would happen just three years later from when we were just 1-15 and I as the starter was 0-11,” Aikman said in 2021.
As fate would have it, the Super Bowl would be played that year in the Rose Bowl, the same venue where Aikman played his UCLA games.
The Bills were a good team in 1992, but Dallas was better. By halftime, the score was already 28-10 in favor of the Cowboys.
It didn’t get any better for Buffalo as Dallas won its first world title in fourteen years with a resounding 52-17 victory.
Today in 1993, the Cowboys defeated the Bills in the Super Bowl for their 3rd title overall and first in 15 years.
Dallas 52 Buffalo 17
Location: Rose Bowl
MVP: Troy Aikman
National Anthem: Garth Brooks
Halftime Show: Michael Jackson pic.twitter.com/kpZsj6C0cT
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) January 31, 2021
Aikman’s day was nearly perfect as he passed for 273 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
His leadership and stellar play netted Aikman the game’s MVP award.
Dallas didn’t let up in 1993 and used their success the previous year to springboard into a new season.
Things didn’t start well for the franchise when Emmitt Smith held out the first two games of the year (including a Week 2 loss to Buffalo) and Dallas began 0-2.
The three best to ever do it! Triplets: Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, and Troy Aikman. pic.twitter.com/lNKvu5Hfll
— Cowboys History (@CowboysHistory) June 17, 2014
However, when he returned, “the Triplets” of Aikman, Smith, and Irvin caught fire.
“All three of us stepped up,” Smith said. “We all pushed one another. He (Aikman) probably was the laid-back one, but he was the stubborn one, too. His stubbornness was really his way of showing that losing was not an option.”
Aikman used that stubbornness to pass for 3,100 yards, 15 touchdowns, and six picks. He also led the NFL in completion percentage with 69.1.
Dallas took care of Green Bay in the Divisional round before eliminating San Francisco in the NFC Championship game for the second straight year.
Then, Dallas returned to the Super Bowl and met the same foe from the previous season.
“Now we’re playing Buffalo again, and it’s their fourth consecutive time to play in the Super Bowl,” Aikman said. “I remember thinking, man, at some point, Buffalo’s going to win this game and I just hope it’s not this year. You know?”
Initially, it looked like it was Buffalo’s year when the Bills took a 13-6 lead into halftime of Super Bowl XXVIII.
23 years ago today, Cowboys outscored Bills 24-0 in 2nd half to win Super Bowl XXVIII
Emmitt Smith- 132 yards, 2 TD
Troy Aikman: 207 yards pic.twitter.com/j4X9za643Y
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 30, 2017
The second half began, and it was all Dallas as Smith rushed for a pair of scores and the ’Boys won their second consecutive title, 30-13.
During the contest, Aikman passed for 207 yards and an interception.
Three in Four Years
In 1994, Dallas was looking to win a third straight title, and for most of the year, it looked like that dream would come true.
Before the season began, Jones fired Johnson and replaced him with Barry Switzer, Aikman’s former coach at Oklahoma.
Would Jerry Jones be perceived any differently today if Barry Switzer's Cowboys never won a Super Bowl? pic.twitter.com/BIleClEUOW
— Ryan Bush (@rcbushCowboys) June 18, 2014
The change did nothing to slow the organization’s expectations.
Aikman passed for more than 2,600 yards and 13 scores in ’94. The Cowboys went 12-4 and annihilated Green Bay, 35-9, in the Divisional round.
However, in their third straight NFC Championship game against the 49ers, San Francisco finally prevailed and advanced with a 38-28 triumph.
Despite the setback in ’94, Dallas wasn’t down for long.
In 1995, the team won 12 games on the strength of Aikman’s 3,304 yards, 16 touchdowns, and seven interceptions (and league-best 1.6 interception percentage).
“When he was good, and the offense was clicking and he had it humming, he was as good as I’ve ever seen,” said broadcaster Pat Summerall. “If I had to define him in a word, I’d say accuracy. Somewhere in there, I’d say intelligence.”
During the postseason, the Cowboys took care of Philadelphia and Green Bay before meeting the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX.
By halftime, Dallas was up 13-7 after an Aikman touchdown pass to Novacek.
“I remember being in that third Super Bowl and just saying to myself, ‘man, I’m going to remember every single minute of this week. Every single minute of this pregame and the entire game,’” Aikman said.
Despite scoring ten points in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were never in the contest and lost, 27-17.
1/28/96 – AZ hosted it's first #SuperBowl, XXX, at Sun Devil Stadium, a 27-17 Dallas Cowboys win. CB Larry Brown was MVP w/2 INTs in the second half. Troy Aikman: 15-23-209, 1 TD. Emmitt Smith: 18-49, 1 TD. DAL won $42,000 each. The win was the NFC's 12th straight. #ForksUp #ASU pic.twitter.com/dCQtFYQwuT
— Arizona Sports History (@AZSportsHistory) January 28, 2023
Aikman had his third Super Bowl title, and he had only just finished his seventh year in the NFL.
“I appreciate Troy Aikman because he resurrected the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, and he made it fun to watch them again,” said former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach.
Dallas Comes Up Short
For all intents and purposes, the Cowboys should have returned for a few more Super Bowls.
In 1996, Dallas went 10-6, beat Minnesota in the Wild Card round, and then lost to the Carolina Panthers in the Divisional round.
Aikman went to his sixth and final Pro Bowl that season after passing for 3,126 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions.
Today in 1996, Troy Aikman surpassed Roger Staubach's Dallas Cowboy record of 22,700 passing yards. pic.twitter.com/kUzxpkHGfN
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) December 15, 2015
The following year, he passed for over 3,200 yards and 19 touchdowns and received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his charity work.
Unfortunately, the award was the highlight of the year for Aikman as Dallas could only muster six wins in 1997, leading to Switzer’s firing.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Chan Gailey became the Cowboys’ new coach in 1998. He helped the ’Boys return to the playoffs in both 1998 and ’99.
Aikman had nearly 3,000 yards and 17 scores in ’99 but couldn’t help Dallas get past the Wild Card round either year.
Aikman Reluctantly Retires
In 2000, Jones hired yet another head coach, Dave Campo, to help return the franchise to the Promised Land.
By then, Michael Irvin and Daryl Johnston had retired due to injuries.
The offensive line still had Erik Williams, Larry Allen, and Flozell Adams. However, they couldn’t prevent Aikman from being sacked 13 times and losing playing time due to numerous concussions.
The end for Aikman arrived during a Week 15 game against the Washington Redskins.
At one point during the contest, Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington slammed into Aikman, giving the quarterback yet another concussion.
ON THIS DAY in 2000 — Dallas Cowboys defeated the Washington Redskins 32-12 at Texas Stadium … but at a cost
— 𝗧𝗥𝗢𝗬 𝗛𝗨𝗚𝗛𝗘𝗦 (@TommySledge) December 10, 2020
He missed the rest of the season, and the Cowboys ended 2000 with a 5-11 record.
During the offseason, Aikman was set to receive a seven-year contract extension worth $70 million in March of 2001. He fully intended to keep playing.
However, believing that he had to protect Aikman’s long-term health due to his many concussions, Jones waived his long-time quarterback.
Aikman wasn’t happy about the team releasing him. He began looking for another team to play for.
“We will wait and see if he clears waivers and proceed from there,” Aikman’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, said.
Initially, it looked like he would land in San Diego and play for Norv Turner, Dallas’s former offensive coordinator.
However, the Chargers signed Doug Flutie instead.
Aikman had opportunities to play for Philadelphia and Miami in 2002 and 2003, respectively. It was not meant to be, and he called it a career.
“Troy was probably one of the ones you thought was going to be here the longest,” said Daryl Johnston after Aikman’s retirement. “I know Emmitt Smith and Mark Stepnoski are still here, but his departure signals the end.”
During his career, Aikman passed for 32,942 yards, 165 touchdowns, 141 interceptions, and rushed for 1,016 yards and nine scores.
He also set 45 franchise passing records.
Aikman was a Rookie of the Year, six-time Pro Bowler, three-time Super Bowl winner, Super Bowl MVP, NFL Man of the Year, and NFL completion percentage leader once.
— #OnThisDay (@Iain_McDougall) August 5, 2015
He followed in the footsteps of former Dallas quarterbacks “Dandy” Don Meredith and Roger Staubach.
“(Aikman’s) leadership and focus are what made us the team we were in the 1990s,” Smith said after Aikman’s Hall of Fame selection was announced. “I am happy for him because I know that he put in the time and hard work during his career to get to this point.”
Second Career in Television
While Aikman was considering offers from the Eagles and Dolphins in the early 2000s, he was also working as a broadcaster for Fox Sports.
He was a natural for the position. The network paired him with Joe Buck, making them one of the best duos on television.
When he wasn’t working in television, Aikman also worked in radio, partnered with Staubach to dabble in NASCAR, and got involved in various children’s charities.
Aikman has called several Super Bowls. He even won an Emmy for his work in 2004.
In March of 2022, Aikman and Buck joined ESPN to call Monday Night Football games.
Troy Aikman’s deal with ESPN is reportedly for five years and could top Tony Romo’s $17.5 million per year contract with CBS, per @AndrewMarchand 💰
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 24, 2022
Aikman has been married twice and has two daughters from his first marriage.