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Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: '93 NFC Title Game A Distant Memory


FRISCO, Texas – Funny how life has a way of coming back at us.

Like this week when the focus of the AFC Championship Game between Buffalo and Kansas City has been on the concussion Patrick Mahomes suffered to knock him out of this past Sunday's divisional round playoff victory over Cleveland.

Would he or wouldn't he be cleared from concussion protocol in time to play in Sunday's AFC title game?

Mahomes on Friday said, yessiree, he's been cleared, making the required medically-supervised progress, which entails successfully undergoing strenuous physical activity for consecutive days without prolonged symptoms arising the next day, verified by team doctors and an NFL/NFLPA appointed neurologist.

In fact, Mahomes has been removed from the Kansas City official injury report, also meaning that injured toe hindering his ability to push off in the playoff victory over Cleveland must have improved, too.

All makes me think back 27 years ago, almost to the day, Jan. 23, 1994, when Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman suffered a concussion in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, one the Cowboys would win, 38-21, to advance to Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta scheduled for the following Sunday, Jan. 30.

That's right, no two weeks between games that year. Win on Sunday at Texas Stadium, depart on Monday for Atlanta.

Also made Aikman think back all those years on his weekly 96.7 "The Ticket" segment with Dunham & Miller this past Tuesday to when San Francisco defensive end Dennis Brown's knee collided with his helmet, knocking him into yesterday with yet another in a series of concussions he experienced during his 12-year NFL career.

"That was the worst one I had, in that game, the third quarter. I don't have any recollection of having played in that game," Aikman confessed.

Think about that. No recollection. Not back then. Still not today. That is how serious the concussion was, though back in those days concussions were minimized as getting dinged or knocked woozy. Woozy my eye.

"I spent the night in the hospital," Aikman says, having been taken directly to Baylor Medical Center Dallas for a CT scan and overnight observations. "I actually got discharged from the hospital at 7 in the morning, and I had just enough time to get home, get packed and get to the airport to get on the charter to head to Atlanta."

That much Aikman remembers coherently, of course playing in the Cowboys' 30-13 victory over Buffalo to claim back-to-back Super Bowl titles, both wins coming over those Bills, now trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since their four consecutive appearances from 1990-93, all losses.

When asked if he thought he'd have been allowed to play in that Super Bowl under today's NFL's safety protocols, Aikman said, "I can't imagine I would have been able to play."

This hit occurred on the second snap of the second half with the Cowboys already leading 28-7. In fact, the strong-willed Aikman waved off Cowboys trainer Kevin O'Neill as he was coming onto the field to check on the franchise quarterback. Aikman would take the next snap, handing off to Emmitt Smith on the third-down play.

The Niners soon would trim the lead to 28-14, and if you recall, this was the NFC title game that Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson predicted his team would win the Thursday night before the game in a radio interview with Randy Galloway, boldly saying, "We will win the football game." He then told Galloway, also a columnist with TheDallas Morning News at the time, "You can put that in three-inch letters," which, of course, you had better believe the DMN did.

"It will be a very, very tight football game for three quarters," Johnson would continue, "and then in the last (quarter) we will wear them out."

Johnson was prophetic. After Aikman had departed, backup Bernie Kosar would throw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Alvin Harper late in the third quarter to seal the victory.

As far as Aikman? Why, he didn't go into the locker until there was 5:40 left in the third quarter. You know, banking on some smelling salts, those ammonia capsules, clearing his head.

But as teammate Bill Bates was quoted after the game, "He tried to talk, but he was incoherent."

As for Jimmy, he would say then, "We thought he'd be out a few plays and clear his head, but the doctors decided not to take any chances with him."

For good reason. We found out after the game, when asked, that Aikman couldn't remember who had won the previous year's Super Bowl. Uh, of course the Cowboys did. Come on Troy. You were the game's MVP. Not a good sign.

Then came the last straw, a tad more difficult question than what doctors used to ask the "dinged" players: How many fingers am I holding up, yet the players knowing the perfunctory answer always was two. Aikman was asked where this year's Super Bowl was going to be played, another presumed gimme for sure.

Uh, a still dazed Aikman responded, "Henryetta," as in his Oklahoma hometown. Oooh, OK Troy, we'll just put your helmet away for today.

Still, after the game Cowboys medical internist, Dr. Pepi Zamorano would say, "He'll be ready for the Super Bowl. … I don't foresee a problem."

So there was Troy that Monday night upon arrival in Atlanta, meeting with the media and again on Tuesday for the NFL's Media Day. To me, his eyes still were a little glossed over.

"I wanted to call someone after I got to the hospital," Aikman would say that Monday night, "but I couldn't remember any telephone numbers. I couldn't remember my own phone number. And I couldn't remember my long distance calling card number even if I had a number I could remember to call."

Come Tuesday, Aikman said he took time to re-watch the NFC title game he had played in for just more than a half. Yet, he couldn't even recall completing 14 of 18 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns to stake the Cowboys to that lead.

"It was a weird experience," Aikman said back then of watching a game on tape that he couldn't remember. "I think the game is gone. The doctors indicated to me it's unlikely I'll be able to recall anything."

Good grief. By today's standards, chances are Aikman would not have been allowed to play another game seven days later.

He agreed, though going on to tell _Dunham & Miller_ this week that no matter how many concussions he might have suffered, "I never missed a game the following week after a concussion."

By Wednesday of that Super Bowl week, Aikman was back on the field practicing. There seemed to be little doubt throughout the week of his availability for Sunday's Super Bowl XXVIII.

And play Troy did, completing 19 of 27 passes for 207 yards, no touchdowns and one interception as the Cowboys broke open a game they trailed 13-6 at halftime by scoring 21 straight points to start the second half. The turning point came at the outset of the third quarter, Leon Lett forcing Bills' running back Thurman Thomas to fumble, which safety James Washington returned 46 yards for a touchdown. Washington already had forced a Thomas fumble in the first quarter, recovered by Darren Woodson, that led to an Eddie Murray field goal.

Then on the next Cowboys' possession, offensive coordinator Norv Turner decided it was time to run, Aikman handing the ball to Emmitt Smith on seven of eight plays – the first six consecutively – and on the seventh run Smith going 15 yards for the touchdown, giving the Cowboys a 20-13 lead. They would never look back, especially after Washington intercepted Jim Kelly on the first play of the fourth quarter, setting up Emmitt's 1-yard touchdown run.

While Emmitt was named the game's MVP – 30 carries 132 yards and two touchdowns – my vote if I had one would have gone to Washington with a team-leading 11 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble-recovery return for a touchdown.

As for Aikman, he was as efficient as ever, really never exhibiting any ill-effects from the concussion that these days likely would have kept him out of the game. And knowing what we now know about the lasting effects of concussions later in life, Aikman would not have stubbornly argued against such a decision.

Even the bullish Brett Favre, who took pride in starting 321 consecutive regular-season and playoff games, said in an interview this week while discussing Mahomes that when it comes to concussions, "You've got to be smart.

"When you're in the moment and you're young, you're bulletproof, man. I'm 51 years old and I'm wondering what tomorrow will bring because of concussions more than anything."

As for Mahomes, the Kansas City quarterback was listed as practicing on a limited basis Wednesday and Thursday before being cleared to play on Friday, making the five-step progress required to reach "full activity" and achieve clearance.

"There's been a bunch of testing, a bunch of different things to make sure that I'm good to go and there's no lingering effects or anything like that," Mahomes said after Friday's practice. "You want to be out there, but you have to go through the protocol and you have to do everything the right way. You have to look at it long term as much as you look at it short term."

That is good to hear, and definitely a further example of how concussions these days are being treated much more seriously than just passing out some ammonia capsules.

"It's really good, of course, that there is a third party to get involved and evaluate these players," Aikman said this week.

No kidding, especially coming from someone who had been knocked into Henryetta 27 years ago.

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