Aikman talks a great game

Troy Aikman has spent a lifetime in the crosshairs of finger-pointers.

At Oklahoma, UCLA and with the Cowboys, the quarterback always seemed to be in people's sights.

In the wake of three Super Bowl championships and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the targeting has continued. But now, a new generation of fingers, who knew not Aikman the quarterback, are beginning to take aim.

Friends of Aikman's elementary school-aged daughters, Jordan and Ally, recognize him not as the passer but rather as a broadcaster and television pitchman.

Aikman understands. That, after all, is how he became aware of the first of the Cowboys' high-profile quarterbacks. Aikman was 2 years old when Don Meredith threw his last pass for the Cowboys in 1968. Dandy Don crept into a young Aikman's consciousness as a Monday Night Football personality who pitched iced tea on the side.

How many young fans today recognize John Madden as a Hall of Fame coach?

"Time moves on for all of us," Aikman said in a recent interview, breaking into a laugh that has become a familiar sound in Fox Sports' lead NFL television booth but rarely was heard in the Cowboys' locker room.

Aikman, 44, played a dozen seasons for the Cowboys before retiring in 2000 and surprised most by moving seamlessly to Fox. Sunday, he begins his 11th year with the network of the NFC. In the next few weeks, he is expected to sign his third contract with Fox. By the time it expires in 2013, he will be beyond the tipping point, having spent more time in an NFL booth than the Cowboys' pocket.

Television has allowed Aikman to come to terms with an important rule of celebrity.

"Broadcasting," he said, "keeps you relevant."

The booth has provided a comfortable haven for someone who thought his post-Cowboys career was destined exclusively for business boardrooms and golf courses. To say that Aikman's broadcasting career has blossomed far beyond just about everyone's perceptions would not be hyperbole.

As a player, he purposefully was pure vanilla in front of the locker room microphones and network cameras. He played that role to perfection. But no Hall of Fame quarterback has made as quick and as smooth a transition to NFL broadcasting's pinnacle.

The storied collection of signal-callers who tried game-calling includes the likes of Roger Staubach, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson, Dan Fouts, Bob Griese and Joe Namath. Some realized immediately the booth was not their calling. Others achieved success but their commentary fell short of their play.

And only one network executive saw Aikman coming. He encouraged Aikman to retire to the booth. In effect, he enticed Aikman away from the Cowboys.

"It's not like I had a lot of competition when it came to signing Troy," said Ed Goren, vice chairman of Fox Sports Media Group. "But I knew there was something there, something that would connect with people, something that would make Troy a welcome guest in people's homes."

Aikman tiptoed into broadcasting between the 1997 and 1998 NFL seasons. He did it as a favor for a friend. Goren invited Aikman to work an NFL Europe game in the spring. Aikman said he would if he could bring along Brad Sham to call play-by-play.

Goren, familiar with Sham's work on Cowboys radio broadcasts, didn't hesitate.

"I knew if I had nothing to say, Brad could do all the talking," said Aikman, whose primary motivation was getting Sham network exposure.

Goren was confident Aikman wouldn't come up empty.

"I knew Troy figured he was getting a free trip to Europe and was intent on bringing his golf clubs," Goren recalled. "But I also knew he would never tackle anything without being prepared, even an NFL Europe broadcast."

In the booth, Aikman discovered he was a man of many words.

"I learned that in a 31/2-hour broadcast, you don't run out of things to talk about," he said. "It was fun."

Aikman said he might have played for the Cowboys beyond the 2000 season had Fox not offered him a full-time schedule with the network's No. 2 broadcast team alongside Dick Stockton and Daryl Johnston.

When Matt Millen, chafing behind top analyst John Madden, left Fox's B team to run the Detroit Lions, Goren offered Aikman an opportunity to start one step from the top.

"Fox made it clear to me if I retired, I would go to the No. 2 booth," Aikman said. "Had it been to work the fifth game every Sunday, I never would have gone. I would have kept on playing."

Being a backup didn't last long. The next year, Aikman got the call that foreshadowed advancement. Madden phoned Aikman to say he was leaving Fox after eight seasons with the network for ABC's Monday Night Football.

Working swiftly to fill a giant void, Fox elevated Aikman, pulled Cris Collinsworth out of its studio and anointed Joe Buck to replace Pat Summerall. Pairing two analysts to replace Madden, Fox believed was the best way to keep comparisons at a minimum.

"Nobody should have to be the guy who replaces the guy, and John was the guy," Goren said. "Who could? We wanted to bring Troy along."

But nobody likes working in a three-man booth either. Analysts get precious seconds to talk. Sharing is not in their DNA. Play-by-play voices find it hard to orchestrate. Neither Aikman nor Collinsworth liked the arrangement. In 2005, Collinsworth eagerly left for NBC's Sunday Night Football a full season before it was launched.

"Troy was more than ready to finally replace John Madden," Goren said. "The stage was his."

In their six seasons as a twosome, Buck, like any top-notch play-by-play voice, has been instrumental in bringing out the best in his analyst. He allows Aikman a wide berth and is often rewarded with cogent, precise analysis.

"He works hard and prepares like he is trying to win a fourth Super Bowl," Buck said. "And that preparation is evident. Nothing is said without thinking it through. And that talent seems more and more rare."

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