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Aikman known as leader and winner

DALLAS -- Coming out of high school, Troy Aikman wasn't sure
he was good enough to be a college quarterback. He did know he
wanted to win a national championship, so he headed to Oklahoma
with a backup plan.

"If I can't do it at quarterback at least I could do it at
another position, whether that was playing safety or tight end or
whatever it may be," Aikman said.

Soon after arriving on campus, Aikman overcame his doubts. He
ended up leaving the run-oriented Sooners to develop as a passer at
UCLA _ and eventually blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks
in pro football history.

Aikman's status will be cemented Saturday when he is inducted
into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All sorts of accomplishments
and accolades will be mentioned, but that anecdote about his
mind-set when he headed to OU is worth remembering, because that
same team-first attitude was such a defining part of his 12 years
with the Dallas Cowboys.

"I feel Troy is one of the best things to ever happen to the
Cowboys," said Roger Staubach, a Hall of Famer who heard the same
thing said about himself after leading Dallas to two Super Bowl
titles in the 1970s. "He probably threw the football as well as
anyone ever in the NFL. He always produced when the guys needed him
the most. He's a winner."

Blessed with a tremendous arm, Aikman showed it off only as much
as necessary. Instead of eye-popping statistics, his legacy is
built on leadership and winning, from three Super Bowl titles in
four years _ the first team to do that _ to 90 victories in the
1990s, the most by any quarterback in any decade.

"Troy was very confident in his ability," said Jimmy Johnson,
whose first big move in the NFL was making Aikman the No. 1 pick of
the 1989 draft. "That carried over to the rest of the players."

Aikman's path to stardom seems almost out of a storybook. Hailed
as the savior of a proud franchise that had fallen on hard times,
he teamed with Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin to get the Cowboys to
the Super Bowl in 1992, then kept them atop the league for three
more years.

If only it had been that simple.

Aikman lost every game he played as a rookie, taking such a
pounding in his 11 starts that he missed the other five, including
Dallas' only victory.

"I was 22 years old, so I could absorb some of the hits. But
the mental anguish was the most trying," Aikman said. "I didn't
think so at the time, but ... that experience in '89 was a very
positive thing for me because I never lost sight of how difficult
it was to win in the National Football League."

The Cowboys finally began clicking in 1991, losing in the second
round of the playoffs. The difference: new offensive coordinator
Norv Turner.

Aikman credits Turner for getting the most out of the team's
great talent, plus also being the friend and mentor the quarterback
needed. In return, Aikman picked Turner to be his presenter during
Saturday's ceremony.

"The first day I saw him throw, I remember thinking, `Gosh,
there aren't many guys like this,"' said Turner, now the offensive
coordinator for San Francisco.

"They talk about others who had a quick release, but I don't
know anyone who was quicker. They talk about guys with great
accuracy, but I couldn't name another who was more accurate. And
talk about a great arm _ he could make all the throws. I'm not sure
many have had the entire combination Troy had."

In 1992, Aikman threw the third-most touchdown passes in the NFL
and was fourth in yards. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl and Aikman
was the MVP of the big game.

Aikman never again finished in the top seven in either category,
only scraping the bottom of the top 10 a few times. It didn't
matter to him because the team kept winning, with another Super
Bowl victory in '93, reaching the conference finals in '94, then
another title in '95.

"In a lot of games, Troy would put up decent numbers in the
first half, then we'd stop throwing, start running, play defense
and win," Johnson said. "In the playoffs, it was important that
Troy put up numbers because we were playing better teams. And when
he was needed, Troy delivered."

Consider these stats from the 11 playoff games over the 1992-95
seasons: 228-of-334 for 2,915 yards, with 22 touchdowns and eight
interceptions. The completion rate (68 percent) and yards per game
(265) are both well above his career regular-season averages.

The 10-1 record is pretty good, too.

Back pain and concussions eventually caught up to Aikman, as did
the team's declining record. He retired after the 2000 season.

Throughout his career, Aikman also understood that as
quarterback of the Cowboys he was responsible for more than handing
off and throwing passes.

He was the team's spokesman, in good times and bad _ and there
were plenty of both. Perhaps the biggest statement he made was
simply showing up at Irvin's 1996 drug trial.

Aikman, Irvin and Smith were dubbed "The Triplets," a nickname
Aikman still cherishes. They went into the team's Ring of Honor
together last season and ultimately may be together in Canton.
Smith, the career rushing leader, seems a lock; Irvin is 0-for-2 in
elections.

"Our relationship is very strong. It was when we played, it
still is to this day," Aikman said.

Aikman said the bond came from their shared goal of winning. Now
an analyst for Fox, he often hears players talk about being
team-first, but he doubts many are as sincere as the Triplets were.

That means even more to Aikman as he prepares to formally become
a Hall of Famer.

"After a career of really putting team accomplishment ahead of
personal achievement, I'm being bestowed with one of the greatest
individual honors you could ever be given," he said. "I'm very
proud of that. And I think in there somewhere is a lesson for young
kids."