Back in Bounds

Michael Irvin, once the Cowboys' playmaker, has quit playing around and has turned himself over to his maker

"I knew I'd be in better shape than everybody, because I'd be in full pads in March, running routes. And the guys would say, 'Man, you are nuts. You're like one of them Zubulu Africans running in this heat.'

"But it was what I enjoyed doing."

"When I first saw her," Irvin says of Sandy, "I knew she was my wife."
Irvin debuts Sunday as a studio analyst on Fox's new The NFL Show. The show airs at 12:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., CST.
Steven Dewall
Irvin debuts Sunday as a studio analyst on Fox's new The NFL Show. The show airs at 12:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., CST.

She stepped up to the counter at a Miami McDonald's and placed her order in a baby-girl voice. "Can I have a Big Mac?"

A squeaky falsetto echoed behind her: "Can I have a Big Mac?"

Sandy turned around. "I looked back and I saw this gorgeous, dark-skinned man with beautiful white teeth," she says. "We were the same age, and he was a lot of fun, and we just sort of connected from that day."

At the time, Irvin was about to become a star at the University of Miami, having been tagged as a freshman by coach Jimmy Johnson to carry the load as a starting wide receiver. Johnson was a brilliant motivator, Irvin says, and he built up the young man's confidence at the same time he pushed him to an impossible standard. Johnson had lost two All-American wide receivers, and he gave Irvin what he'd later discover was a typical Johnson spiel. "Everybody's wondering what I'm going to do," Johnson told the young man. "Do I look like I'm worried? I'm not worried. I'm waiting to show 'em Michael Irvin. Just don't let me down."

That's all it took. Irvin was off, training like a nut, running sprints at night, pushing his lanky frame to the absolute limits of speed. Johnson's Hurricanes would go on to be named national champions in 1987, and Irvin got a vision of how he'd fulfill that promise to his dad. Big money was on the horizon.

Irvin fell for Sandy immediately. At the time, she was a cosmetologist and Miami Dolphins cheerleader who happened to live near the university campus. After their first brush at McDonald's, she caught one of his games, where he scampered to two or three touchdowns. They met at a club not long afterward.

"Can I marry you tonight?" Irvin begged.

She'd remember that Irvin--generous, funny, down-to-earth, good-hearted and full of passion--during the troubled years as a Cowboys wife. But she recalls mostly good times during those early years. She and Irvin married in 1990, a couple of years after the Cowboys made Irvin their top draft pick and the first major building block of the team that would become three-time Super Bowl champions.

Irvin's earliest days with the Cowboys weren't auspicious; as a rookie he could be found crying in the locker room after losses, of which there were many in the last, whimpering year of the Tom Landry era, and a knee injury sidelined him for most of his second season, the dawn of the Jimmy Johnson years. But Irvin would eventually become the reborn Cowboys' locker-room leader, and his ferocious play would earn him five trips to the Pro Bowl and career stats that put him on the all-time list.

Always a flamboyant, trash-talking player, Irvin began morphing into his alter ego, The Playmaker, a dude who'd contort his entire body into a first-down signal, even after a 2-yard catch, or assume a bizarre, duck-walking Greek-god posture after a big play. Irvin says now that the grand gestures were just another manifestation of the little kid with poor self-esteem, the overachiever who'd pump himself up with "I'm-the-greatest" rhetoric to keep himself from getting crushed by the extraordinary expectations of a big-time pro football star.

The personal pep-rally ritual yielded results, with Irvin turning in strong performances during victories over the Buffalo Bills in consecutive Super Bowls. Think of the quintessential Irvin highlight clip of those glory years: Irvin does a slant over the middle, catches the ball in stride, then smack!; he gets squashed between two charging defenders. He hangs onto the ball; in fact, he manages to wriggle for a couple of extra yards with some guy clawing at his thigh. He's The Man, The Man among men.

At some point, though, the alter ego began oozing into the Irvins' personal life. "There was a lot of I, I, I, me, me, me," Sandy says. "Because he was The Man. I saw friends come and go and hang around him and pull him into dark, dark holes, and some of them he came up out of and some of them he didn't. And just because of how easy it came--the women, the drugs--it was available wherever they turned.

"It was hell. Basically, just hell. Because then inside you're not happy with yourself. Michael had to go through all that."

Another thing was going on behind the scenes, well out of the public eye. Irvin had started getting high regularly, drinking and indulging in marijuana and cocaine in the off-seasons. The womanizing went right along with it, as Irvin became a fixture in Dallas strip clubs and trendy nightspots. "When you can get yourself some money, then you get out there and do some real sinning," Irvin says. "That other sinning, that wasn't anything. You can start doing some dirt once you get some money."

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