By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By the time he hit bottom, his so-called friends, his posse, his peeps, had all slithered away. The guy who'd rushed to carry his gym bag, the dude who'd washed his car, the hangers-on who aped his brash attitude--all gone, searching for the cool of some other celebrity shadow.
Michael Irvin was alone, stripped to his bones.
Gone was The Man, the thing born in Irvin's impoverished childhood, a hungry creature whose stature was measured in money, women and fame. It got a toehold in the little boy who went to kindergarten and found he was one of the few kids who couldn't spell their names, and in the teen-ager who went to the Catholic high school and saw his family become recipients of the annual Thanksgiving charity drive.
But when little Michael got on the football field, he was someone. The game became his passion, the thing he did to measure up. His coach at the University of Miami and the Dallas Cowboys, Jimmy Johnson, would learn to tap into that: Tell a brother you believed in him, and he'd run through a brick wall for you.
Irvin ran and ran. Through college, through three world championships with the Dallas Cowboys and Hall of Fame numbers as one of the greatest wide receivers of the 1990s, a muscled warrior who lacked the speed of a Randy Moss or Joey Galloway but grappled and writhed his way past defensive backs and caught the ball with sure hands on every big-money down.
That passion held him together when the money poured in, when he spent his off-seasons whoring, hanging out in Dallas strip joints, doing drugs and disappearing from his family for days at a time. As soon as spring rolled around, he'd always managed to push back the mess and train like a madman.
Football was his god, his drug, his wife, his life. And now that was gone, too, left on the field after a 1999 injury that ultimately forced him to retire.
It was February 2001 when Irvin realized he was out of control. He couldn't switch off the drugs and drinking anymore. He couldn't stop the womanizing. He couldn't squelch the empty feeling inside.
Like so many missteps of the past--his 1996 trial for cocaine possession, his 2000 arrest in an apartment with drugs and another woman--this particular naked moment would be captured on tape. One Sunday morning, Irvin sat alone in the front of a Southwest Dallas church.
"God told me to tell you, today is your day--come in out of the rain!" a preacher's voice intoned.
Irvin remembers the sermon like this: You think you're living well; everybody thinks you're living the good life. You've got nice clothes, the nice car, but you're torn up inside. Everybody's screaming your name, but you're hurting inside. Everybody thinks you've got it all together, but it's all falling apart.
"Come in out of the rain!"
That was all he needed to hear. Michael Irvin ran.
Moments later, a video camera zoomed in on the big man, dressed in a natty checked suit, crouched on the carpeted steps of the altar with his face to the floor, weeping and shaking his hands as though he were pleading.
Deion Sanders is irritated. The question seemed fair enough, given the penchant of entertainment and sports personalities for dropping the name of Jesus at every Grammy and goal-line stand: Is the new Michael Irvin for real?
"I don't like those kind of stories," Sanders says flatly. "I'm very saddened that another person could doubt what's in a person's heart. How can you doubt a person's heart?"
Never mind that Irvin cut a reputation as the rowdiest brigand on a rogue team, the guy whose triumphs and repeated falls from grace represented everything great and regrettable about the 1990s Cowboys.
Sanders, speaking from a cell phone somewhere in New York, where he works as an NFL analyst for CBS, is just getting warmed up. "When you look at someone like Michael Irvin and, as an outsider, say, 'I can't believe he's serving the Lord,' you're saying I can't believe if I had all the things and looked the way he looked or was built the way he's built and had all the finances he has, you couldn't do it. Not Michael couldn't do it. 'Cause Michael's doing it."
Sanders, for one, says he's tremendously proud of Irvin's rebirth as a Christian, a step Sanders, a former NFL cornerback, took himself in 1997. Apart from being former teammates and running buddies during the Cowboys' party-hearty years of the mid-1990s, Sanders and Irvin both became born-again under the tutelage of Bishop T.D. Jakes, founder and senior pastor of The Potter's House. The 28,000-member nondenominational church with Pentecostal beliefs has, with Jakes' popular television show and national conferences, become enormously influential among African-Americans nationwide. Sanders says he talks to his best friend Irvin every day, each encouraging the other to stay on the straight and narrow. "Temptation will never cease," Sanders says. "I don't put myself in certain environments to fail. I know if the oven's too hot for me; I don't have to touch it to see. I've already been there and done that."