IRVING, Texas - In the midst of a sea of Cowboys blue-and-white balloons, one of the greatest offensive threats in the modern NFL history stood tall and proud on the field at Texas Stadium Monday night.
Shoulder-to-shoulder, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith lived the dream of a Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor induction during halftime against the rival Washington Redskins.
Cowboys owner-general manager Jerry Jones introduced each player, his voice thick with emotion, and reminded the sold out crowd of the great accomplishments of each player, both individually and together as a unit.
Irvin spoke first, thanking the fans for their loyalty no matter what.
"I want to thank the fans for your support not through the good times that we shared on the football field, but for the last 17 years of my life you have supported me through all times," Irvin said.
Aikman was modest, acknowledging those players who played alongside him and contributed immeasurably to his successful career.
"I am humbled to be here tonight because there are so many former coaches and players that are so deserving to be here receiving the same recognition as I am," Aikman said. "I am proud to be a part of this group."
Smith had to stand, smile and wave for a moment when he stepped up to the microphone, unable to speak over the deafening roar from his adoring fans.
The NFL's all-time leading rusher thanked the legends - the men already in the Ring of Honor.
Eight of the 11 living members were in attendance on Monday night - Bob Lilly, Don Perkins, Randy White, Mel Renfro, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Cliff Harris and Rayfield Wright.
"When I think of all the gentlemen we are joining in this Ring of Honor tonight, I know it's because they have set a standard so high and so great, that they gave a young child like myself a vision to pursue something greater than his own thoughts," Smith said.
Ring of Honor members Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan and Don Meredith could not attend the ceremony. Late members Tex Schramm, Tom Landry and Bob Hayes were present in spirit.
Whether thanking fans, teammates or the men who've carved out Cowboys history, Irvin, Aikman and Smith took their rightful places in the Ring of Honor on Monday night.
Their names were revealed, rightfully side-by-side on the ring around Texas Stadium.
The Triplets are in.
Michael Irvin (1988-1999)
Press Conference: LISTEN
Michael Irvin has caught touchdown passes in Super Bowls. He's caught touchdown passes in NFC Championship games. He has strutted like a peacock after making simple first-down catches. And he has lay prone, face first in the turf, never to play the game of football again.
But when Michael Irvin worked the sweaty room in the bowels of Texas Stadium Monday night, some five hours before getting inducted into the Dallas Cowboys' famed Ring of Honor at halftime of the Cowboys-Redskins nationally-televised game, there were these strange memories of the most productive wide receiver in franchise history.
First, Irvin standing in the breezeway out at The Ranch, cuddling up to this life-sized cardboard cutout of Tom Landry, the head coach responsible for selecting him with the 11th pick in the 1988 NFL Draft the day earlier, and saying, "My new daddy."
That was Michael Irvin.
Then there is the brash Michael Irvin, and he told this story on himself, first landing at DFW International Airport following the draft, and having Drew Pearson, at the time the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver with 489 catches, interviewing him for a local TV station, and asking him, somewhat tongue in cheek, "If I knew who the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver was.
"Me being my brash self, and not knowing it was Drew, I said, 'I don't know who it is, Drew, but I know who it will be in 10 years,'" Irvin said.
Click, a snapshot of Michael Jerome Irvin, the kid who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and learned to eat dry cereal because there was little milk to be had in his family of 18.
Then there was that humbled Michael Irvin, walking out of a Dallas courtroom that summer of '96, on trial for felony possession of cocaine, breaking from the stoic expression fitting of his grave situation to nervously wink at a familiar face.
Some things you just don't forget.
And then, maybe most of all, this strange, strange sight one afternoon driving down Trinity Mills in suburban Carrollton, seeing this big black man, on this abnormally high seat on some basic black bicycle, peddling down the middle of the four-lane road, sweating profusely.
Click, snapshot of Michael Irvin, back in the spring of 1990, rehabbing from the severely torn anterior cruciate in his right knee he suffered six games into his second NFL season; before he was known as The Playmaker; before he would become known universally as simply "Michael."
Irvin, as part of his rehab, would bike to The Ranch and then back to his home in Carrollton, most every day, twice a day. His fear of the unknown caused him to work harder than even he knew how to work.
"Boy, God Almighty," Irvin bellowed as he was walking down the locker room corridor from his pre-game press conference to his day job at ESPN. "Those were the days right there."
Sure they were, because that brash rookie's career was in jeopardy. He would miss the final 10 games of the 1989 season, and then the first four of the 1990 season, still trying to recover from the reconstructive knee surgery which needed a second surgery because of the heavy scar-tissue buildup.
At the time, he had a whole 58 catches, a far cry from the 750 he would finish with 10 seasons later. An even farther cry from the three Super Bowl rings and five Pro Bowl selections.
"I thought I'd never play again," said Irvin, reminiscing back to when he still was trying to make his way in this league. "I hadn't thought about that, and you know what, I need to.
"It does help you realize that if you keep pushing, anything can happen."
Irvin pushed, all right. And pushed. And not only did he push himself, he would then help push a franchise back to heights it once knew but had not touched in quite some time.
And Monday night, some 15 years later from those bike-riding days, here he was, about to look up at the Texas Stadium upper deck façade and see his name with his two buds, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, directly across the stadium from the likes of Roger Staubach and Bob Lilly and Don Meredith and Chuck Howley, he, too, as one of the Dallas Cowboys' all-time greats.
"Traditions, and those were built by the great teams before us," Irvin said. "They set the stage, they made us, and when we came along it already was like a traveling rock band. We just brought (the fans) back out of the woodwork.
"It means a great deal to be put up there with those extraordinary guys . . . It has hit me now how permanent it is."
This Ring of Honor inclusion to forever more raise memories of Michael Irvin.
Troy Aikman (1989-2000)
Michael Irvin said he knew it. Emmitt Smith said he knew it.
Troy Aikman said no way.
The first time Aikman saw the Ring of Honor at Texas Stadium was in 1989, the year he would be drafted by the Cowboys as the No. 1 overall pick.
He was playing for UCLA in the Cotton Bowl at the time, a game his team would go on to win.
"I remember looking at the names," Aikman said Monday night before his induction into the Ring of Honor. "I remember seeing (Roger) Staubach and Bob Lilly and all the others. But no, never in my wildest dreams did I think . . . I don't know what Michael and Emmitt thought. Knowing them, they thought they were going in. I didn't. In fact, I'm not really sure it's gonna be there when they pull down the curtain tonight."
But it was there, in all its glory, alongside teammates Irvin and Smith, immortalizing Aikman forever.
Aikman always was a stabilizing presence for the Cowboys during his 12-year career, and he was true to that role on Monday night.
No grandiose speeches, no arms waving or great displays of emotion.
Just humble, low-key Troy.
He has everything to be proud of - 32,942 passing yards in the regular season, 3,849 in the playoffs. One hundred and sixty-five touchdowns in the regular season, 23 in the playoffs. Then there are the three Super Bowl victories, six NFC East titles, four NFC championships and six consecutive Pro Bowls.
But as always, he was soft and steady, admittedly still waiting to realize the magnitude of his accomplishments.
"I don't know if it's exactly hit me, what it really means." Aikman said. "Maybe tonight it will, maybe 10 years from now, 20, I don't know. I don't know when that moment will come exactly as far as thinking, 'Wow, this is really real.' I think that it'll probably hit me when my four-year-old or my three-year-old comes to the stadium and says, 'Look, Daddy. It's your name.'"
Aikman, Irvin and Smith had their names revealed on the north side of Texas Stadium on Monday night - the first of the now-17 members of the Ring of Honor to be on that side.
Smith suggested the north side was for "Jerry's players" - players drafted since Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989 and enjoyed so much success throughout the 90's.
Aikman isn't even worried about where his name goes.
"It wouldn't have mattered where they put me," he said. "They could have put me behind the bench where nobody ever saw it.
"I think it's a lot like the Super Bowl rings, to be quite honest. I remember thinking when I was playing, 'Boy, if I ever win one of those, I'll never take it off.' And I don't wear my Super Bowl rings very often. Just knowing they're there and knowing if I wanted to grab one and put it on if I wanted is a great feeling. And I think the same would be true with this. Just knowing it's there is meaningful enough."
After an 0-11 start his rookie season and the 12-year stretch in which he helped pull the Cowboys out of the NFL mire and lead the team to restored glory - the journey has been a winding one for Troy Aikman.
And the sure shoo-in for the NFL Hall of Fame has taken his place in Dallas Cowboys history.
A lot of the time Monday night he was rock-solid and understated, but Aikman's presence was not to be ignored.
That's just the way it's always been. **
*- Sarah Piland *
Emmitt Smith (1990-2004)
Press Conference: LISTEN
When Emmitt Smith took the stage at midfield of Texas Stadium on Monday night, he fulfilled a promise he made to himself the first time he stepped on the same field 15 years ago. Only this time, he wasn't wearing that infamous black-and-yellow polka dot suit.
"I kind of outgrew it," he said of his noisy attire on that first trip, which he upgraded Monday with a modish gray suit and Cowboy-blue tie.
Smith, then a 21-year-old rookie, first noticed Bob Lilly's name engraved above the stadium's lower deck. He gazed at the other six names that comprised the famed Ring of Honor and promised himself that "Emmitt Smith" would join the list when his career was over.
"I'll never forget it," Smith said at a news conference hours before the Cowboys hosted Washington. "Lord as my witness, I said 'One of these days, my name is going to be up there.'"
Fifteen years later, Smith's journey has come full circle. Since that quiet declaration he has won three Super Bowl titles, gone to eight Pro Bowls and punched a ticket to Canton by surpassing Walter Payton as the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 18,355 career yards.
But Smith claims that Monday's induction makes his celebrated career complete.
"This is the bow that ties up the whole complete Christmas package," he said. "You unwrap that bow and look inside that package, you're going to see my whole career in it."
For all his accomplishments, Smith always has been equally generous in giving credit to teammates like Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman, who joined him on the stage as fellow inductees Monday night. Perhaps the best example of Smith's gratitude was his teary embrace with fullback Daryl Johnston, who helped paved the way for most of those 18,355 yards, after breaking the all-time rushing record in 2002.
At his retirement news conference during Super Bowl week, Smith spent the better part of an hour thanking family, friends, teammates and coaches. And he continued to show his appreciation for those who helped him reach that brass Ring, particularly his teammates.
"You have to think about James Washington and all those guys that are coming back, and matter of fact, you have to be humbled that they're willing to come back and celebrate with you," Smith said. "That in itself shows you how unselfish the team was. Nobody's walking around here with a whole lot of arrogance on their sleeves like, 'Man, it should be me.'
"To me, that's what football is all about. That's really what it's all about. And not only that, but to have players like Troy, Michael and myself to be humble enough to recognize the value that they added."
To Smith, Monday's induction wasn't just about his career. Or Aikman's and Irvin's. It included everyone who helped make the Triplets part of Cowboys lore.
Standing on the same field where he once vowed to make his career something special, it's a safe bet Smith reflected on that again.