What I Learned about Focus from Troy Aikman

by Beau Morgan

“Success demands singleness of purpose.” Vince Lombardi

Playing with the Dallas Cowboys at the end of their dynasty in the late 90s gave me an uncommon perspective.  Some of the greatest players in NFL history - Aikman, Emmitt, Irvin, Johnston, Larry Allen, Erik Williams, Novacek, Haley, Ken Norton Jr., Bates, Lett, Woodson, Deion - all in the same locker room. It was surreal. As a Dallas kid I had an Aikman poster above my bed. Now, I had a locker two doors down from him.

I learned much from these teammates, like seeing Emmitt Smith’s durability up close, watching Michael Irvin lead by example through his unmatched and relentless work ethic on the practice field, talking with Darryl Johnston and Jason Garrett about professionalism and their intelligent approach to the game, listening to Darren Woodson while he took the time to teach me nuances of playing DB while trying to make that difficult transition, and laughing with Deion Sanders who was always quite comfortable in his own skin. Yet, it was a subtle observation of Troy Aikman that still challenges me and my work routine on a daily basis.

During our first minicamp, at the first offensive meeting on a 90° day in May, I recall Troy taking notes.  It wasn’t the note-taking I found unusual.  It was the fact that he was taking notes on how the huddle was to be aligned - the spacing, the order, how the play was to be called, how to break the huddle, and other nuances that were to take place long before the snap.  These were details Aikman no doubt already knew well and probably had known well since his junior year in high school.  Details he had already heard from his coach Ernie Zampese many times before.  And while the eyes of most other players glazed over this obvious and pedantic information, I saw Troy’s eyes, fully engaged, totally locked in.  His pen wasn’t doodling, or sketching out a new business idea or playing tic-tac-toe. It was writing notes—copious, detailed notes.  And in the chair beside him, almost in sync, was Jason Garrett, doing exactly the same.

Some players probably considered Aikman aloof.  In the locker room, he was mostly reserved, even quiet. All business.  He would often walk by others while staring straight ahead, the polar opposite of a glad-hander or class clown.  Perhaps some of this is personality or the outflow of a naturally introverted nature. But when I began to put all the AIkman pieces together, especially that note taking from the first day, it made sense.  This guy wasn’t detached or unknowable. He was focused
Aikman understood the necessity of being in the here and now, and moreover, he knew what was most important to get out of it.  This is what he fixated on, nothing else. By keeping the allure of what might be or the disappointment of what might have been locked out his consciousness, he simply didn’t get distracted from the moment at hand.  Even if that moment was as mundane as how to align in a huddle during a relatively meaningless team meeting in the middle of the offseason.  
This focus certainly helped make him one of the greatest QBs of all time, but it also made him a leader. Without question, Aikman had the most presence of any of the greatest players on the team and aside from Larry Allen, he probably said the least. Although he was the most intimidating teammate to be around, Aikman was also the guy you never wanted to disappoint with your own efforts and the one whose opinion of you mattered the most.

His presence wasn’t put on.  It wasn’t manufactured or self-serving.  It wasn’t commanded because of what he said, because if he didn’t need to say it, he wouldn’t. Rather, it was earned. His presence wasn’t just the result of his position on the team either; it came from what he did on the field. It came from who he was off the field as well. And because of how he did it.  

Troy Aikman had a massive presence back then. He was supremely talented. He was tough, he had a strong arm and he performed with accuracy. He was even better under pressure. He had an extraordinary football IQ and a great supporting cast whom he led by example. Yet, the foundational contribution to his greatness as a QB, a leader, and even now as a top NFL broadcaster, is a simple, powerful, and persistent focus.

As much as any single game performance, any pinpoint pass or gutsy, last minute comeback, this glimpse of greatness during an otherwise forgettable team meeting made a greater single impression on me than anything else about him.