HERNDON, Va. -- Troy Aikman was born to play baseball.
At least, he was until his family moved to a small town in Oklahoma when he was 12 years old.
"Baseball was my first love. If I had stayed in California, I firmly believe I would have stuck with baseball," the Dallas Cowboys quarterback said yesterday. "It wasn't until my junior year of high school that I started entertaining any thoughts of playing football in college."
Aikman, whose team plays host to the Washington Redskins on Monday night, grew up as a pitcher in Cerritos, Calif., until his father decided to try small-town life and moved the family to Henryetta, Okla., population 6,000. Aikman wasn't thrilled.
"It was quite a shock," he said. "I didn't speak to my parents, I think, for two weeks after I got there."
But he grew to like it.
"I'm really glad we did move there. I think the small-town environment teaches kids a lot of things. You have a real sense of belonging," he said.
Not that he wants to live there now -- as a 24-year-old single guy. Though he has donated money to upgrade the high school facilities and endowed a scholarship for high school students who can't afford to go to college -- and the town has named a street for him -- he only makes brief visits there.
"I love the town and I love the people there, but it's a little too slow for someone of my age," he said.
But it was in Henryetta that he was introduced to football.
He said that in Oklahoma, everybody plays football "whether they want to or not. It's the manly thing to do."
The strong right arm that made him a good baseball pitcher also made him a natural at quarterback.
He went to college hoping to play both sports. But football coaches
never would let him out of spring football practice to play baseball.
Aikman first went to Oklahoma, but transferred to UCLA so he could work in a pro-type offense. He passed for 5,298 yards in two years before the Cowboys made him the first pick in the draft in 1989.
He struggled through a 1-15, rebuilding season as a rookie, but had coach Jimmy Johnson's team on the cusp of the playoffs at 7-7 when he was knocked out with a shoulder injury.
He underwent surgery on both his shoulder and his elbow in the off-season and had 15 bone chips removed from the elbow.
"They thought there were only four chips until they went in and found pockets around the elbow," he said.
The result is he's throwing without pain for the first time as a pro, and some scouts say he's throwing harder than ever.
"I don't feel I'm throwing any harder, but it's made a huge difference as far as the comfort I feel now," he said.
In the exhibition season, he was intercepted just once in 72 attempts, and in the opener against the Cleveland Browns, he completed 24 of 37 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns.
He's now being touted as The Next Great Quarterback.
"I think Troy's an extremely talented individual. I think he's got all the ingredients to be as good as there is. I'm very happy with his progress up to this point," Johnson said.
Stopping Aikman will be one of the Redskins' major tasks.
Richie Petitbon, the assistant coach in charge of Washington's defense, said: "I think he's great. I think he's absolutely great. I compare his throwing right now to Dan Marino's. I think he's got it. He's one of the few people who can hit those deep 20-, 25-yard outs. He's really good," he said.
Cornerback Darrell Green said: "I think he has a Dan Marino-type arm. He gets the ball off real fast."
Aikman said of any comparisons to Marino: "I would have to say that's drastically premature. I don't pay much attention to comparisons people make, but it's nice to know that people are saying good things about you."
NOTES: A league spokesman said that WR Gary Clark got a celebrating penalty last week for high-fiving fans in the stands, which is illegal. Coach Joe Gibbs, who didn't know high-fiving the fans was a penalty, said, "I just work here.". . . . In an attempt to change their luck in Monday night games, the Redskins will fly to Dallas Sunday night instead of during the afternoon. The idea is for them to have less idle time after they arrive.