By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Sanders admits he and Irvin were once partners in crime, friends who poured their hearts into whoring and partying as well as football. Today, Sanders is just one of several sports figures who'll go to bat for Irvin, vouching for the positive changes in his life.
Sportscaster Pat Summerall, who lives in Southlake, was so impressed after hearing Irvin talk to a civic group about his newfound faith that he called up Fox Sports boss David Hill and urged him to rehire Irvin, who'd been dumped from the network soon after his 2000 arrest. Hill would get a similar call from Cowboys boss Jerry Jones. But his answer was, "No, we don't want him back," Summerall says. "And I said, 'I'm asking you to take him back. I'm asking you to give him a shot. And if he screws up, you can fire me.'"
Hill relented, but with a stiff caveat, Summerall says. "He said, 'OK, but if he does screw up one more time, I'm gonna fire him and you.'"
Summerall, who battled alcoholism several years ago and had a religious awakening himself, says he's seen many pro athletes take the Jesus route and drop it just as fast. Irvin, he says, is different. "I really have no doubts about him," says Summerall, who, with his wife, Cheri, has become close friends with the Irvin family. "I think you'd have to hear him speak; you'd have to see what he radiates. He's just so convincing, so charismatic, so sincere.
"If he doesn't make it as a sports announcer, which I think he will, he could be a revival preacher hands down. He's got that kind of magic."
Irvin appears to have solid career prospects at Fox, though, which has been featuring him regularly on the Best Damn Sports Show Periodand has enlisted him as a studio analyst for its new The NFL Show, which debuts Sunday, September 8, at 12:30 a.m., with a repeat broadcast at 9:30 a.m. featuring live updates. Fox spokesman Seth Palansky has nothing but good things to say about Irvin so far. "Is this really him? I haven't found a slip yet," Palansky says.
These days, Irvin divides his time between the Fox studios in Los Angeles and Carrollton, where he lives with his wife of 12 years and their four children. Irvin appears on BDSSP--that's what he calls the show; he won't say the cuss word--just about every weeknight and shuttles to twice-weekly sessions with a speech coach. Then it's home to Dallas on the weekends, where he attends services at The Potter's House as often as possible.
Irvin, now 36, told his story to the Dallas Observer over breakfast in L.A., after instructing the waiter to leave the lemon out of his water glass, which he didn't want anyone to confuse with an early-morning cocktail. Later, his wife, Sandy, also 36, who stood by Michael throughout his womanizing days and numerous collisions with the law, told her side of the tale in depth for the first time publicly.
What seemed most striking about Irvin was his transparency--his willingness to answer every question, from what he was doing in that woman's apartment in August 2000 to what really happened in the notorious Cowboys "scissors incident" (see sidebar) to why the heck his wife stuck with him all those years.
Whatever you think about his Jesus, Irvin showed a remarkable lack of bitterness toward the media, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, the cops who busted down the door while he was on the toilet and everyone else who gawked from the other side during his many public embarrassments.
He didn't strain to convince. To him, the past is clearly the past, and it's easy enough to deal with, because he denies none of it.
Irvin's story begins amid the otherworldly harmonies of the Primitive Baptist church, an "old-time church" where the members eschew all musical instruments and render their hymns a cappella, conjuring up the swirling highs and lows of singing angels trapped in the troposphere. "It's like nothing you've ever heard," says Pearl Irvin, Michael's 71-year-old mother, "but if you ever come up around here, you'll think they've got a piano, guitar and organ and all that."
That was the world Michael was raised in, with its simple faith, spartan sanctuaries and self-taught circuit preachers. One of the Primitive Baptists' traditions was an ancient practice that had just about faded from the wider church scene: the washing of feet, just as Jesus had once done to his astonished disciples.
One day in church, Pearl Irvin was bending down to wash her sister's feet when she felt someone walk up behind her, then reach around and clasp his hands on her belly. Just at that moment, Pearl, who was two months' pregnant with Michael, says she felt a jolt in her womb. "When he did that, my whole stomach went to jumping," Pearl says. "Michael leaped for joy in my stomach."