Aikman, Irvin And The Josh Brent Brotherhood
It was the middle of July in 1996, and Troy Aikman was in possession of football's most demanding schedule – overflowing with the rights and responsibilities that come with existing as a freshly-minted three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. There was mostly the business of leading a football team.
But Aikman couldn't leave one member of that team behind.
"It meant everything in the world to me,'' Michael Irvin recently told me, reflecting on Aikman's voluntary appearance in a Dallas courtroom to support a teammate embroiled in a sordid second-degree felony drug case. "It meant more than football, more than black and white. It meant he was my brother.''
Aikman and Irvin had forged an unusually close alliance as their Cowboys built from a 1-15 season to those Super Bowls. I have no indication that Josh Brent and Sean Lee share a similar bond.
Yet there was Lee on Jan. 21, attending closing arguments in a Dallas courtroom sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Brent, who was charged with intoxication manslaughter in the December 2012 death of his friend, Cowboys practice-squadder Jerry Brown, and was sentenced to 10 years probation and 180 days in jail.
On Sunday, Brent walked out of the Dallas County Jail. His jail sentence is served (with the rest of his time in a rehab facility now. And of course, there's also the matter of NFL punishment before he'd be eligible to return, so it's no sure thing he plays soon, or ever again.
Cowboys management has remained in contact with Brent -- and there are specific reasons for that. Privately, Dallas' front office has never ruled out bringing back Brent once he completes his jail sentence. On June 3, COO Stephen Jones said so publically about Brent -- the former seventh-round supplemental pick who before the accident was on the verge of winning the 1-tech starting job.
"We'll certainly look at that," Jones said, acknowledging the timing of the Cowboys beginning training camp in Oxnard on July 23. "The league will have a big say in when he can come back. We'll evaluate that situation when it comes. But I certainly wouldn't rule it out."
Logic suggests he will eventually file papers with the league to return as a member of the Cowboys, at which time hewould also be subject to further punishment by the NFL under the league's personal conduct policy.
While the Cowboys coaching staff has in many ways understandably moved on -- young veteran newcomer Terrell McClain is likely among those who will end up competing with incumbent Nick Hayden for the 1-tech job -- Dallas management is touching base with the NFL on a "program'' that would return Brent to football.
"Obviously, (the NFL is) looking at it, and we'll kind of see how it goes," Jones said. "Obviously he sat out a year. The bigger thing is that Josh has to see where his priorities are. A lot of things have to be determined there. ... Josh has paid a price. That's a tragic, tragic accident. Right now he's doing what he needs to be doing."
How have the Cowboys helped Brent "do what he needs to be doing''? Sources tell me during Brent's time away from football he's been employed in a warehouse situated on Highway 114 near DFW Airport. You may know the building; it's the Cowboys Merchandise Distribution Center.
That's right. During Brent's time away from the Cowboys football team, he's been working in the Cowboys warehouse.
But the deepest connection Brent has with this team is in the locker room. That's why Lee showed up in the courtroom. Dallas' defensive leader might've very well been motivated as Aikman was before him.
"I'm here to support a friend, certainly, in a time of need," Aikman said outside the courtroom in July 1996. "It is not to come here and try to influence the jury or the outcome of this trial in any way. I'm here much like many of Michael's family members are here, and that is for support."
Aikman and Irvin aren't the same as Lee and Brent. The first pairing achieved superstardom; Lee is gifted but oft-injured (and now out for the season), and Brent is a former seventh-round pick who was a part-time starter. Aikman may have risked some public scorn for his support of his teammate, though the quarterback's glorious achievements and pristine reputation may have caused him to be bulletproof to any criticism.
Lee? He isn't bulletproof. But his unselfish actions demonstrate that Lee thinks there are bigger issues here than criticism that might come his way.
This isn't just a football story, of course; these men play that game and that's their job. But one life has already been lost here. And Brent's issues run deep enough that another soul may hang in the balance. So the courtroom drama goes far beyond football and the Cowboys.
But it took a desire for bonding and a skill in leadership to do what Aikman once did in throwing Irvin a lifeline.
And it took a desire for bonding and a skill in leadership for Sean Lee to do the same for Brent.
I believe Sean Lee, an unselfish leader in his actions, is thinking the same thing Troy Aikman once put into words: "I'm here to support a friend in a time of need.''
I believe Josh Brent, a troubled person in his actions, is thinking what Michael Irvin told me: "It meant more than football, more than black and white. It meant he was my brother.''
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