Aikman's background doesn't suggest that he was fated for such peculiar problems. Although he spent his early childhood in Southern California, where anything is possible and perhaps expected, his formative years belong to Henryetta, Okla., a town of about 6,500 people off I-40 in the eastern part of the state. Troy was 12 when his family moved to a 172-acre parcel of land near Henryetta to fulfill his father's dream of operating a ranch. Before then Kenneth Aikman had worked as a construction foreman, putting in water and gas lines—"pipelinin'," the occupation is called. In California, Troy had dreamed of playing pro baseball. He had practiced signing his autograph, imagining lines of fans desperate to get it. But all that stopped when he got to Henryetta.
"We ended up seven miles out of town on dirt roads that were too rough to ride your bike on," he says. "It was tough. Even at that age I could see my athletic career falling apart."
Before school in the mornings Troy fed slop to the pigs. In the summer he hauled hay in the fields, often late into the night. His best class was typing, and there he had no peer. One year he won a typing contest at a place called Okmulgee State Tech, producing 75 words a minute. He was a good player on a mediocre football team—the Henryetta Fighting Hens, they were then called. (Now they're the Knights.) Fans of opposing teams tossed rubber chickens onto the field when the Hens ran out to battle.
Nonetheless, Troy was eager for fame to find him. By the time he was a junior, folks in Oklahoma recognized his name as belonging to the tall string bean of a kid with the amazing right arm. In 1984 Oklahoma University invited Troy to a summer football camp, and though the wishbone had long been the Sooners' offense of choice, a passing talent like Aikman's was too special for the coach—Switzer—to ignore.
"I remember an assistant comes to me and says he has this quarterback he wants me to meet," says Switzer. "I asked him, 'Is he black?' He answered, 'No, Barry, he's white. But he can run the option. He's got 4.6 speed, and he's got an arm.' I remember the first time I ever saw Troy. I walked out on the practice field, and he was standing facing south, his back to the scoreboard. I started walking toward him, and somebody threw him a football, and I stopped and watched him. He threw the ball back, and I said to myself, This kid is different. I watched him throw it five or six times, and then I said it again, Yeah, he's different. I offered him a scholarship on the spot, which I don't remember ever having done before with a quarterback. But then I'd never seen a kid who could throw the ball like he could. Troy was just advanced. His arm was as good when he was 16 or 17 as it is now."
Aikman signed with OU but lasted only two years there. As a sophomore he broke his ankle, and his replacement, Jamelle Holieway, went on to lead the Sooners to the national championship. Aikman could see his future in Norman: on the sidelines, watching, with a baseball cap on his head, a clipboard in hand. He also had trouble finding a home with the Sooners off the field. He lived in an athletic dormitory where criminal mischief seemed ever present: drug use, gunfire, sexual assaults. Switzer later would be forced to resign because of such problems. Life in that dorm was so dangerous, in fact, that Aikman wouldn't let his girlfriend visit him there. "A girl would come by, and next thing you know she's being thrown in a room, and there's 12 guys on top of her," he says. "I told my girlfriend, 'Call me if you're going to come by. I'll meet you in the parking lot.' " In the spring of his sophomore year he got smart and decided to transfer.
"I went to Barry's office to talk to him about leaving, and he was almost enthusiastic," Aikman says. "It wasn't like he was trying to talk me out of it. He didn't say, 'O.K., now we need to think this through.' He kind of got excited. I don't think he wanted me to leave, but I think deep down Barry felt bad that I was being wasted."
Aikman confessed to having no alternative school in mind, so Switzer opened a desk drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper listing the top college passing teams from the year before. He fired off names, and Aikman accepted or rejected them as possibilities. Switzer then picked up the phone and called some coaches—Terry Donahue, then at UCLA, among them. "I had to sell Terry on him," Switzer says. "He'd never heard of Troy. I said, 'Terry, this is a unique situation. Troy's a starter, a great kid and a great player. He will be your quarterback, and he will be drafted in the first round. He will play pro football.' Then I told Terry that if he didn't take him, Troy would end up at Stanford. I knew Terry didn't want that."
Aikman was ineligible to play for UCLA in 1986, but over the following two seasons he led the Bruins to a 20-4 record, their best in years. By then he was everybody's choice to be the first player taken in the 1989 draft, a pick that belonged to Dallas. As it happened, the Bruins accepted an invitation to play Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, and they practiced at Texas Stadium, home of the Cowboys. Among the regular visitors to those workouts were Cowboy coach Tom Landry, president and general manager Tex Schramm and personnel director Gil Brandt. They stood on the sidelines and watched, unnerving Aikman.
"I did not practice well," he says. "And Coach Donahue was worried about me. He'd pull me aside and say, Are you going to be all right?' Then one morning before I was leaving for practice Gil Brandt calls me in my hotel room. 'Troy,' he says, 'I just want to let you know that if you throw seven interceptions in this game, it doesn't matter, you're our guy.' "