NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Revisit Dallas Cowboy Star's Scary 1994 Concussion – ‘Where Am I? … Did We Win?’

John Fuller
Quarterback Troy Aikman during his Cowboys days. A 1994 concussion is featured in a PBS Frontline documentary.

An explosive PBS documentary recently investigated concussions in the NFL -- and it featured former Dallas Cowboys star Troy Aikman.

The Frontline program, "League of Denial,"reported on a concussion that the Cowboys quarterback suffered in 1994, as well as a scary exchangethat he had with his agent following the incident. Aikman experienced significant memory issues. He sat in a darkened hospital room in North Texas, unable to stare at light.

During the 1994 NFC championship game, Aikman took a knee to the head. Leigh Steinberg, who represented Aikman in the early 1990s, recalled the aftermath:

Frontline Narrator: Aikman’s concussion was bad enough that he could not return to the game. Aikman was taken to a local hospital. Agent Leigh Steinberg:I went to visit Troy, who was sitting in a darkened hospital room all alone. Steve Fainaru, co-author of “League of Denial:” The room is dark because Aikman can’t even stand looking into the light. It’s— you know, it’s this sort of surreal scene where the city is celebrating and the quarterback who won the game is in the hospital with his agent. Leigh Steinberg: He looked at me and he said, “Leigh, where am I?” And I said, “Well, you’re in the hospital.” And he said, “Well, why am I here?” And I said, “Because you suffered a concussion today.” And he said, “Well, who did we play?” And I said, “The 49ers.” And he said, “Did we win?” “Yes, you won.” “Did I play well?” “Yes, you played well.” “Did— what does that— and so what’s that mean?” “It means you’re going to the Super Bowl.” Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-author of “League of Denial:” Five minutes later, they’re sitting there, they’re continuing to hang out, and Aikman suddenly turns to Steinberg and says, “What am I doing here?” And the next thing you know, they are reliving this conversation they’d had five minutes earlier. Leigh Steinberg: For a minute, I thought he was joking. And I went through the same sequence of answers again. And his face brightened and we celebrated again. Maybe 10 minutes passed, and he looked at me with the same puzzled expression and asked the same sequence of questions. It terrified me to see how tender the bond was between sentient consciousness and potential dementia and confusion was.

Here's the Frontline clip that features the Aikman concussion:

Head injuries "concerning," Aikman says

Aikman mentioned concussions during his emotional retirement speech in 2001:

“I have been playing this game since I was 7 years old and to all of a sudden recognize that you’re not going to do it anymore is hard,” Aikman said. “I know it’s the right thing.  I know it’s the right thing for me because of my health, concussions, my back problems that I’ve had. It took its toll and I know that to try to go out there and play another year was going to be a tough thing to do.”

Aikman is now a Fox sports announcer. While Aikman admits concussions benched him from many games, he says that his back problems led him off the field, he told KDFW-TV (Channel 4) after the PBS documentary aired.

"A lot of people believe that I retired from the game of football because of concussions - that is not accurate," Aikman said. "I really retired primarily because of a degenerative back condition that I had."

The Aikman concussion was discussed on KERA’s “Think” with guest Steve Fainaru, who was featured in the Frontline documentary. Fainaru is an ESPN investigative reporter who has written a new book on concussions, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.”

Steinberg, the agent, has a revelation during his meeting with Aikman, Fainaru told KERA.

“He knows that there’s this growing problem in the NFL,” Fainaru told KERA. “He sees the people he loves and represents, and who he’s made a lot of money off of, are facing a detachment from reality because of the game that they’re playing. And he sets out to try to persuade the NFL that this a real and important issue.”

Following the PBS documentary, Aikman said that he’d play in the NFL again, he told The Sporting News.

"I haven't had any symptoms since retiring from the game,” Aikman said. “I've gone and I've seen specialists. I've been tested extensively and everything has checked out just fine…. As I sit here today, no I wouldn't change anything."

Aikman told The Sporting News that if he had a son, he “wouldn’t necessarily discourage him from playing football,” but wouldn’t necessarily encourage him, either.

Aikman said he doesn’t sense a reduction in head injuries, which he calls "concerning."

He added: “When you have information like was presented in ‘League of Denial,' it’s cause for concern. It’s cause for questioning and I think parents have to look at what’s in the best interest of their kids. And how it affects football at the grass roots moving forward, time will tell.”

Watch the Frontline trailer:

Watch the Frontline special:

There's been a lot of reactionto the Frontline documentary.

And what are NFL players saying about “League of Denial?”

Texas football and concussions

Texas has adopted one of the strictest limits on high school contact and tackling at practices. The University Interscholastic League, the association that sets rules for high school sports in Texas, limited full contact during practice to 90 minutes a week. KERA’s Lauren Silverman visited a DeSoto High football practice and says she saw no head-to-head action or players falling to the ground after a tackle.

NPR has more on how high schools are struggling to tackle safety on the football field.

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.