IRVING, Texas (Sept. 19, 2005) -- The brash receiver arrived first, full of smiles and swagger.
Then came the guy who seemed straight out of some build-a-quarterback kit: rocket arm, Hollywood good looks, even a name befitting a rugged leader.
Last but certainly not least, there was the little man, the running back who loved being told what he couldn't do just so he could prove folks wrong.
Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith joined the Dallas Cowboys in successive years, 1988, '89 and '90, each as a first-round pick. They wound up becoming quite a trio, perhaps the best the NFL has ever seen.
While there's a good chance Irvin, Aikman and Smith will eventually all be part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they received another, more fitting tribute by going into the team's Ring of Honor -- together. During halftime of the Cowboys-Redskins game, their names were unveiled across the stadium's facade around the 50-yard line facing the Dallas bench.
"I feel wholeheartedly that our success was linked together in so many different ways," Aikman said when the induction was announced. "I think that all three of us, in a lot of ways, pushed aside our own egos and selfishness in order for the team to thrive."
Debating their status among the greatest QB-RB-WR combinations could be a lot of fun. However, these guys have the ultimate rebuttal: Name another set that won three Super Bowls in four years? (New England has won three of the last four titles, but the Patriots had three leading receivers and two leading rushers along the way.)
OK, how about the Pittsburgh teams that dominated the 1970s? Or the San Francisco clubs from the 1980s?
Well, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann were the regular-season leaders together in only two of the Steelers' four Super Bowl-winning seasons. Joe Montana, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice did it for only two of the 49ers' title teams.
"What we shared and what we were able to accomplish on the football field was something unbelievable," Smith said.
Aikman, Irvin and Smith came from wildly different backgrounds and personalities, yet they quickly developed a unique bond. Former coach Barry Switzer was the first to call them "The Triplets" and they still love hearing it because of the kinship the nickname conjures.
Each realized how much their success depended on the others. The dare they presented defenses -- are you going to try stopping the run or the pass, because you can't stop both -- was the basis of Dallas' return to glory, winning Super Bowls following the 1992, '93 and '95 seasons.
The Cowboys came darn close to winning four in a row, too. The year they fell short, they lost the NFC championship game to eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco. All three say that game sticks out the most in their careers.
What makes their relationship so special is that they were there for each other off the field, too.
"To this day," Irvin said, "we remain special friends."
Irvin and Smith were roommates early on. Irvin watched Smith write down before his rookie season that his goals were to win Super Bowls, rushing titles and become the leading rusher in NFL history, then witnessed him do all three.
When Irvin was in trouble with the law, Aikman showed up at his trial. Those two are still so close that they end phone calls by saying they love each other, which Aikman acknowledges is very out of character for himself.
"Make no mistake about it, this is my quarterback right here," Irvin said. "There's nothing like standing in that huddle, looking up and him saying, 'I'm coming to you."'
Aikman and Smith were a twosome for one season after an injury forced Irvin to retire. When Aikman retired a year later, he choked up while saying his biggest regret was that he wouldn't give Smith the handoff on his run that broke Walter Payton's career rushing record.
Nowadays, all three are cashing in on their high profile and knowledge of the game as football broadcasters. Aikman is Fox's lead game analyst, Irvin is part of ESPN's studio show and Smith recently joined the NFL Network's signature show.
They're also launching third careers. Aikman has an automobile dealership and is partnering with Roger Staubach on a NASCAR team, Smith is working for a real-estate firm that's tied to Staubach's successful company and Irvin is getting into acting. He had a role in the remake of "The Longest Yard" and is seeking other roles.