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Aikman, Irvin, Smith go into Ring of Honor

(July 20, 2005) -- For 10 consecutive seasons, they were linked synonymously as the Cowboys enjoyed their most successful run in franchise history.

In any order, it was always Troy, Emmitt and Michael, not a last name required to identify any in this trio of superstars.

While the glory days might have passed for Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, all retiring over the past five years, including Smith who just called it quits at this year's past Super Bowl, the Cowboys apparently have decided they will be linked together at least one more time.

The trio not only becomes the 13th, 14th and 15th members of the exclusive group, but will be the first players sent to the Ring of Honor identified with the Jerry Jones Era, which began in 1989.

In what should be an unprecedented move, Jones is expected to announce plans to induct three of the greatest players in franchise history simultaneously into the team's hallowed Ring of Honor during a game to be announced this season. It would seem likely Jones would pick one of the early-season home games against either Washington (Sept. 19), Philadelphia (Oct. 9) or the New York Giants (Oct. 16). With Aikman's obligations to Fox and Irvin's to ESPN, this will be a fine juggling act to get all three players at Texas Stadium at the same time.

But when Jones does, this will mean that, with last year's inductions of Rayfield Wright and Cliff Harris into the Ring of Honor, five former players will have been added to the Ring in the past two years. Only seven players, along with former head coach Tom Landry and former president Tex Schramm, resided in this exclusive club over the franchise's first 44 years.

Few would argue Jones could find three more deserving players who played for one team during one era than Aikman, Smith and Irvin.

Joining the Cowboys in three consecutive years as first-round draft choices (1988-90), "The Triplets" helped the Cowboys become the "Team of the 90s," winning three Super Bowls in a four-year span (1992-95) and six NFC East titles in seven years.

Not only were The Triplets leading the way in the mid-90s for the Cowboys, but they are also regarded as three of the greatest to ever play in the NFL.

Starting with Smith, who finished his 15-year career as the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 18,355 career rushing yards. Smith broke Walter Payton's rushing record in 2002, which turned out to be his final season with the Cowboys. After being released the following offseason, Smith played his final two years with the Arizona Cardinals.

However, at his retirement press conference this past February, Smith was accompanied at the podium by Jones, properly identifying himself with the Cowboys.

Smith, an eight-time Pro Bowler and former NFL (1993) and Super Bowl (XXVIII) MVP, signed a one-day contract with the Cowboys in the following weeks so he officially could retire with the team he helped turn into a dynasty. Despite playing for the same franchise as running back greats such as Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker and Don Perkins, Smith still owns nearly every Cowboys rushing record. And along with rushing for more yards than any other player in league history, Smith also finished his career with the most career rushing touchdowns (164).

If Smith wasn't the face of the Cowboys during their glory days of the 90s, then Aikman certainly was, having won more starts during the decade than any other NFL quarterback.

As the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1989, Aikman withstood a beating in his rookie season when the Cowboys finished a woeful 1-15. But the prized quarterback didn't suffer too many more, eventually becoming one of the league's most accurate passers. The MVP of Super Bowl XXVII, Aikman was nearly flawless dismantling the Buffalo defense, throwing for four touchdowns in what turned out to be the first of his three Super Bowl wins. When he finally retired after the 2000 season, Aikman held Cowboys records for most completions (2,898), passing yards (32,942) and passing touchdowns (165). At the end of this 2005 season, Aikman will have served his mandatory five-year waiting period and becomes eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, all but certain to be a first-ballot selection.

While Aikman and Smith often shared the spotlight, Irvin arrived first on the scene (1988) and was often considered the "heart and soul" of the Cowboys during his 12-year career. And he wasn't too bad a player himself. Irvin rewrote the Cowboys record books, too, retiring after the 1999 season as the club's all-time leading receiver with 750 receptions for 11,904 yards.

A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Irvin did though create far too many off-field headlines, including serving a five-game suspension to start the 1996 season after pleading no-contest to a felony drug possession charge. But the flashy wide receiver overcame his problems to extend his career into the 1999 season, when he suffered what turned out to be a career-ending neck injury in Philadelphia. The injury revealed Irvin had a narrow spinal cord, creating a bigger risk for more permanent damage and resulted in his immediate retirement.

Throughout the decade of the 90s, the Cowboys played only one game without all three players. That occurred in November of 1999. Irvin was out with the neck injury, Aikman sat after having suffered yet another concussion, and Smith was idle nursing a broken hand. Still, the Cowboys managed to beat the Packers at home, 27-13.

While Irvin would never play again and Aikman did play one more season, both have remained in the NFL spotlight. Irvin serves as one of ESPN's top analysts on pre-game and post-game shows and Aikman has been working with Fox as a game analyst on its No. 1 crew, which included calling his first Super Bowl this past February.

And there would seem to be a good chance Smith will be joining them in the TV ranks as well now that he has retired.

In fact, Aikman and Irvin aren't the first players from that 90s era to land in the broadcaster booth. Before ending his retirement last year and returning to play in Baltimore, Deion Sanders was an analyst on CBS' pregame show and former Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston has worked on Fox's No. 2 team for the past five seasons.

But for now, one thing is certain about Smith's future: He's headed into the Ring of Honor. And he's going there with Aikman and Irvin.

And it shouldn't be any other way.

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