By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I'm gonna tell you, I'm leaps and bounds from where I was last year," he says. "I didn't know that. I thought I had a great grasp of it last year, but now that I look back at it, I truly didn't. I was tentative on my routes, I didn't know where I was supposed to be, I didn't know when the ball was coming and where it was going to be delivered. Now, I got a much better understanding. I know when I need to take a little more time or when Troy's reading something else before it comes to me. That was probably the toughest thing for me. I was always used to being the first read and sometimes the only read. Then, last year, all of a sudden everything changed."
Irvin says all the right things during camp; he's a born-again football player, given new life beneath Wichita Falls' unbearable sky. Last year during camp, he would storm off after gangbang interviews; he never had time for one-on-ones, never had time to sign autographs for the fevered faithful broiling themselves on the bare bleachers. Now, he does both -- happily, easily.
A reporter from an Oklahoma City newspaper asks Irvin what it's like to be in a free-agent year, something he's never had to deal with before. Irvin might have snapped at the writer a year ago, correcting him between gritted teeth -- this is, in fact, the third time he's been in this situation. But not this year. Now, he laughs off the incorrect statement, pointing out that he's always played out a contract -- always.
"Everybody's talking like, 'Michael's not getting his contract extended,'" he says. "You guys do all that research. Go look it up. I've never had a contract extended. I've always played them out. All I'm doing right now is worrying about this season. Everything else is beyond my control, and I'm gonna let them be beyond my control. I'm not gonna sit back and worry about something I can't control. I'm gonna step out here and play football."
"But you're only human," chimes in another reporter. "I mean, just like anybody else."
"Yeah, what's that got to do with the price of tomatoes?" Irvin shoots back through a wicked grin.
"You know what I'm taking about," the reporter pushes on, raising his voice above the laughter of other media members crowded around Irvin. "It's human nature to be a little upset..."
"No, no, no it's not," Irvin says, waving off the statement with a chuckle. "Tell me now, you're a human. What am I making? Three million this year? Why would I be upset? C'mon. I'm makin' $3 million, and they wanna throw me the ball less? I'm getting paid my money for less work -- how human am I to be upset?" His is the deep, solid laughter of a man who makes more in one year than all the reporters on the field combined.
Jerry Jones, during an interview with the Dallas Observer, says he is "very sensitive" about Irvin's concerns about a new contract. Before camp, Jones and Irvin had several talks about the wide receiver's future; the two have not spoken about the subject in Wichita Falls. The talks were meant to "eliminate any misunderstandings," Jones says; he wanted his star to know that if there's life left in those legs, then he will be a member of the Cowboys "for years to come." But those issues likely will be settled toward the end of the season -- after Irvin proves himself on the field, one more time.
Jones likes to talk about how "mentally tough" his wide receiver is, how Irvin can handle any question asked of him about the lack of a new deal. Irvin, says Jones, knows this is just a business, nothing personal.
But in the end, everything is personal. After the group interview, Irvin goes to the sidelines and starts signing caps, balls, jerseys -- anything fans hand him over the chain-link fence separating the bleachers from the field. But he consents to a quick one-on-one interview as he does it; the man can sign and talk with the best of them. He is asked one simple question: "Do you get the same thing out of playing football as you did when you first came into the league 11 years ago?" His answer is a long and thoughtful one, despite the constant shouts of Mi-chael! Mi-chael! behind him.
"Yes -- I enjoy it, I really do, and that's the only reason I still play the game," he begins. "It's a competitive thing, you enjoy the camaraderie, but more than anything else, how many people in this world can say they make a living -- and a pretty good living -- doing what they enjoy most in the whole world? It's a blessing; it's a blessing. And to let anybody steal that joy from me would be a sin.
"Off the field, it might be a business. But when I step on the field, it's still the same game it was when I was a kid. It's still throwing and catching, it's still blocking. And there is no business end of that."
Irvin hands a kid a Cowboys cap he has just signed and, for a second, stares at his interrogator, as if to drive home the point. Then, once more, he smiles and signs his name, long after the rest of his teammates have walked away.