Aikman gets a rubdown from Maurer and then hobbles into the deserted locker room and struggles to pull a cumbersome metal brace over his left knee. "I'm trying to get used to throwing with this thing on, because I guess I'm going to have to wear it when I play from now on," he says. At 28 Aikman has a realistic sense of his athletic mortality. Yesterday he told reporters that he is at least half finished with his career. Maybe more.
Before he goes to the practice field for some light throwing followed by a long series of shuttle runs, backward sprints and lateral-movement drills, he digs through a bag of footballs, looking for one that feels right. He rejects ball after ball. Anger clouds his face. "The league makes all these new rules to increase scoring," he says. "But then it brings in another rule that we have to use a new ball every game, and the balls have wax on them and are hard to grip. It's ridiculous."
Kickers are different. It's axiomatic. So it's no surprise that on his off day, rookie kicker Chris Boniol, a skinny, baby-faced kid from Louisiana Tech, goes out to the Grand Prairie Municipal Airport southwest of Dallas to take flying lessons.
Boniol is also a bit naive. Two days ago he bought a Labrador puppy, thinking it would make a nice companion. Today he gave it away. "It was peeing all over my apartment," he explains. "A dog needs a lot of attention, but I don't have time to be responsible for it right now." Roger.
He is also still amazed by certain perks of his profession. Clad in a new Nike sweat suit and unblemished Nike shoes, he says, "I can't believe that whenever I need new shoes or a pair I have doesn't feel perfect, I just make a call, and I've got new ones!"
The flying lessons are a luxury too. Boniol always wanted to learn, but he never wanted to ask his parents for money to pursue his dream. "Now I don't have much of a social life or a wife, and as of today I don't have any pets," he says. "So I can afford the lessons myself." As he touches down lightly and then guns the engine to lift the little Cessna back into the Cowboy-blue sky, Boniol seems to have no doubt that he'll return to kick again.
Tight end Jay Novacek was worried during the Thanksgiving Day game. He had injured his right shoulder, and on the sideline he was contemplating the damage. "But I got well quick when I remembered I had three days of hunting lined up," he says.
He walks now with his three dogs across a mesquite-dotted hill on a friend's cattle ranch 70 miles southwest of Dallas. Clad in camouflage pants, boots and a white Cowboy practice T-shirt with his number, 84, scrawled below the neck, he carries a 28-gauge shotgun in the crook of his arm as gently as he would a newborn baby. He has already shot a deer this morning, and now he is searching for bobwhite.
"Come here. Marlow." he says. He strokes the head of his gimpy 8-year-old yellow Lab. The fur above Marlow's eyes is tinted with the fading russet of the blood from this morning's kill. "Marlow's got bone chips in his left elbow," says Novacek kindly. "So do I." The dog has had surgery on the joint, and the repair work was only partially successful. "Me too," says the tight end, who has played in three straight Pro Bowls. "I can't straighten it"—his extended left arm traces a bent line—"but I can work a pump."
Novacek, who is from Gothenburg, Neb., would hunt every day if he could. He has shot almost every animal you can think of. "Deer, turkey, quail, black bear, nilgai antelope, aoudad, ducks, geese, pheasant, Hawaiian sheep, squirrel, crow, teal, rabbit, javelina, coyote, fox," he says. "It's what I know, what I did with my father." He prefers to hunt alone, with his dogs, in silent communion with the outdoors. All the Cowboys agree that if there is one Dallas player who could be released into the woods with only a pocketknife for survival and thrive, it is Novacek.