By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
She looked around her, hoping no one would see the commotion inside. No one seemed to notice--and no one, for that matter, was standing behind her. Right then, she understood what was happening: This was a sign. "I said, 'This child is going to be blessed among all of my children.'"
Back then, Pearl lived with her husband, Walter, a roofer and Primitive Baptist preacher, in a three-bedroom house in Fort Lauderdale. Their enormous family rose to a cacophony of boys banging on bathroom doors and girls giggling and combing each other's hair. There were six kids from Pearl's first marriage, plus two of Walter's, then nine more they had together, the boys quartered in one bedroom, the girls in another. Michael was the 15th of 17.
While Walter sweated as a self-employed roofer in the Florida sun, Pearl worked as a domestic, taking care of elderly people and entrusting the care of the children to a baby sitter. Life inevitably had its struggles, with new shoes a scarce commodity and hungry boys scrapping for cereal in the morning--a contest Michael must have won, because Pearl remembers him eating his breakfast out of a mixing bowl. But there was love and a firm foundation of discipline. Walter had a dream for his kids, that they all get a college education, even though he'd dropped out of school in the 11th grade. He added a porch onto their little house, then crafted a table and long benches so the whole family could file in after dinner and hit the books. On the weekends, he'd often pile the kids into a rented van to travel the circuit of Primitive Baptist churches in Florida and Georgia. Walter wasn't all hard work and Baptist piety, though; he found time to shoot marbles with all the neighborhood boys and attend his children's ball games.
Today, Michael remembers his father as "a great man--the only man I fear." When Michael was 16, Walter became gravely ill with cancer. He assigned to Michael the task of driving him to and from the doctor. Those drives yielded rare moments, a time to talk man to man. "He talked about being your own man, having passion and fire for what you believe," Michael recalls. "He said being a man is having responsibilities, being a man is taking care of your family."
He'd talk about spiritual things, too, but Michael was young. He'd discovered girls, having fun, even smoking the occasional joint. He didn't want to hear that.
And within a matter of months, his father was gone. "The cancer just ate him up," Irvin says. That big, strong, outspoken man, who worked hard, cherished his family and was always in control, deteriorated before his eyes. He was only 53.
One day in his hospital bed, he tried to prepare his son for what he knew was coming. "He said, 'Michael, I'm going home on the morning train,'" Irvin recalls. "I didn't know what he was talking about; I really did not."
Morning train? What train?
"Promise you're going to take care of your mother," Walter said to the teen-ager. "Your mother's a good woman. She's a good woman."
"Yeah, Daddy. I'll do that. I'll make sure I do that."
Michael went home, puzzled by his father's words.
By 4:30 the next morning, the train had come and gone.
Michael was devastated.
Pearl Irvin always talked to Michael, her chosen son, about destiny. As a teen-ager, he believed he'd found it on the football field. Certainly not in the classroom; while he'd do well enough in high school and college, he still remembers an ache from kindergarten days. "I didn't have any preschool, and these little white kids, they knew everything," Irvin says. "Man, they're smart. They knew how to spell my name. So from that standpoint, you always thought, 'Man, they're so much more smart than you are.'
"All these things just make you feel like you don't measure up," he says. "You start looking for things. Then somebody tells you on the football field, 'Boy, you're good. Damn. Oh, you're good.' Now that's affirmation, confirmation that you measure up. If you're good on the football field, it becomes your passion. It becomes the thing that I think makes me even."
It also was the source of his legendary drive, which caused him to work harder, practice longer and fight harder on the field than just about any other player of his generation. At Saint Thomas Aquinas High, a Catholic school and state football powerhouse, then the University of Miami and Dallas Cowboys, Irvin flourished as a wide receiver. He was blessed with good size, 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, but not much speed, and Irvin used his biggest asset--his ego--to make up the deficit. "All I wanted to do was play ball," he says. "It was such a passion. I guarantee I was the only person looking forward to training camp, probably in the history of the game.