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Volume 23 No. 8
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Closing Shot: A new star in Dallas

In 1989, the revamped Cowboys made Troy Aikman the No. 1 pick of an NFL draft that bears little resemblance to the media spectacle it has become in the intervening 30 years.
Troy Aikman joins Pete Rozelle at the last draft the former commissioner presided over.
Photo: ap images
Troy Aikman joins Pete Rozelle at the last draft the former commissioner presided over.
Photo: ap images
Troy Aikman joins Pete Rozelle at the last draft the former commissioner presided over.
Photo: ap images

Troy Aikman says the above photo of him and Pete Rozelle from the 1989 NFL draft is one of his favorites. Why? “Because of how much Pete meant to our league,” he says. “That first round of that year was the last time Pete Rozelle presided over the draft. I didn’t think a lot of it at the time but in hindsight it is pretty cool.”

Even the legendary Rozelle, whose 29-year tenure as NFL commissioner marked him as one of the true visionaries in sports, might have had a hard time imagining just how big the draft would become in the subsequent 30 years. More than a quarter of a million fans are expected in Nashville this week for the three-day event, the first two nights of which will be broadcast in prime time on ABC. 

The draft was certainly different in 1989, when it was held in New York’s Marriott Marquis and limited to two days, only the first of which was broadcast by ESPN. More notably, unlike today, the No. 1 pick was already signed. Aikman, a 6-foot-4 quarterback out of UCLA, had days earlier agreed to a then-record six-year, $11.2 million contract. He was also the only player at the draft, compared to the 23 expected to attend this week.

Aikman had flown to New York on the jet owned by new Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jones’ children, Stephen and Charlotte, and Aikman’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, were on board. They had dinner the night before and went to “Phantom of the Opera,” Aikman’s first Broadway show.

After the snapshot with Rozelle, Aikman did a few interviews and then went back to his room to watch the draft. He and the Jones family would leave that night and fly back to Dallas. Aikman had already set up residency there and obtained a Texas driver’s license, enabling him to avoid paying state taxes in California because Texas has no state income tax.

The Cowboys’ new star was certainly no stranger to his new city or his new coach. In fact, he had played his last college game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where he had been scouted by Cowboys head coach Tom Landry and general manager Tex Schramm. Weeks later, Jones bought the team and fired both Landry and Schramm, replacing the former with Jimmy Johnson from the University of Miami.

As it turns out, Aikman had twice rebuffed Johnson’s collegiate recruiting: once when Aikman enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, and a second time when he transferred to UCLA. “Here I am thinking, ‘Gosh, I have turned Jimmy down twice already.’”

Aikman and Johnson turned out to be a pretty effective duo, leading the Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl wins following the 1992 and ’93 seasons. Aikman has been back to the draft only once since then, last year as a commentator for Fox Sports, a role he had planned to reprise this year before the rights shifted to ABC.

That may be for the best. As Aikman said and as those involved with the draft know, “It’s a lot of work.”