By Jim Schutze
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It's so hot in Wichita Falls that the heat almost becomes a solid. The thermometer reads 107 degrees at this moment, with the heat index creeping toward 115. Even the breeze becomes an enemy when the mercury climbs this high. Imagine a thousand hair dryers aimed in your face -- drying your throat, evaporating your sweat, burning your eyes. Hell ain't got nothing on Wichita Falls. Rumor has it the devil moved away from here about three months ago -- got too hot for the old boy.
"Aw, man, I like the heat," Michael Irvin says to a dozen reporters who surround him, thrusting tape recorders and TV boom mikes into his face. The Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver looks around, seeing mostly pale faces before him on the Midwestern State University practice field. Beneath a backward baseball cap, the heat freak smiles that broad smile that has eradicated so many past sins, erased them from our collective memory (what cocaine?). The diamond stud in his left ear lobe is almost as blinding. And Irvin begins to laugh.
"I can't get any darker, so it doesn't bother me," he offers, choking on his own amusement. "Now, some of the rest of y'all may want the break so you don't burn. But I like the heat. Nothing wrong with it."
Maybe that's why, after every Cowboys afternoon practice during training camp, Irvin stands on the field and answers every reporter's variations on the same old damned questions: "How do you feel about this being the last year on your contract?" Or, "Are you worried you might not finish your career in Dallas?" He takes the queries in stride. Irvin -- who wears next to nothing during practice, only a helmet and jersey and sheer see-through pads and tights -- bathes in the heat. No sweat. Let the reporters wilt beneath the sun. He's having a ball.
It's also possible that Irvin sticks around so long after practice because it will endear him to the media, put his beaming face on TV every night, reapply some of the shine to a star that has lost its luster over the last few years. Maybe if the locals see how accessible Irvin is, how happy he is being a Dallas Cowboy after 11 years (Lord, has it been that long?), then perhaps it will make it harder for owner Jerry Jones to toss out the Playmaker after the season is done. Or maybe talking to the media, like signing autographs for fans, is part of Irvin's community-service penance. God knows the rest of his teammates don't like to stick around.
There's been so much talk of late about how Irvin is no longer the player he was at the beginning of the decade, when he was part of Dallas' Holy Trinity: Troy, Emmitt, and Michael. Every day during training camp, he is reminded of last season's failures. How he had but one touchdown reception, the lowest total of his career. How, in November, his streak of 117 consecutive games with a reception came to a shrugging end against the Arizona Cardinals. How he had a mere four receptions for a nominal 32 yards against the Cardinals in Dallas' NFC wild-card loss in January. How he was a shadow on the field.
When Irvin failed to show up for voluntary mini-camps earlier this summer, local media pundits took it as a hint that Irvin was disgruntled with Jones for not renegotiating his contract. Irvin insisted that he was just working out on his own -- not seeking a trade, not insinuating his displeasure with the Cowboys' owner and general manager. He claimed he was not unhappy with a smaller role in head coach Chan Gailey's offense. Hell, he said, who would complain about getting less playing time and still making $3 million?
Of course, there exists the chance that Irvin, once deemed an untouchable, is this close to becoming detritus on a team full of young, fresh legs: free-agent signing Raghib "Rocket" Ismail (who has kept his distance from the media thus far during camp, and he will learn); fourth-round draft pick Wane McGarity, the former Texas Longhorn whose speed impresses even Irvin; and James McKnight, to name but a handful of young contenders. Irvin could end his career with another team, an almost unheard-of proposition a few years ago. Then again, even Willie Mays said farewell to baseball as a New York Met.
During the early days of training camp, Irvin handles the reporters' questions with remarkable aplomb. Where Emmitt Smith used to snap at media folk who hinted that perhaps his legs were turning to cement, Irvin laughs off the notion that his best days are behind him. Instead, he insists that last year's stumble had more to do with his inability to adapt to Chan Gailey's playbook, which called for Irvin to accept a less-than-starring role.
All that is behind him now, he says with a wide, open smile. Then again, what is training camp if not the opportunity to forget last season while dreaming of Super Bowls and multi-year contract extensions? No one is in more need of a fresh start than the 33-year-old Irvin.