By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You'd never know it from the press coverage, but there was a woman at home that whole time, with babies, no less, even when Irvin's partying ways became grossly public. Sandy refused to talk to reporters, and her silent presence beside her man became the subject of speculation, and lots of vicious girl talk. While her husband and some of his teammates were boasting about "'hos, limos and Pappadeaux," Sandy was putting up and shutting up. Why?
What only her closest friends and family members knew is that she'd had her own encounter with God in 1994. That, she says, along with her belief that Michael could still be the good, kind man she'd known in his early days with the Cowboys--the man she still saw in flashes--steeled her for the disgraces to come.
Far from being the gorgeous but timid football wife outsiders presumed her to be, Sandy tells a story of unconditional love and strength that is almost hard to believe, except for the fact that her husband backs up every bit of it, down to the exact words she spoke at his ugliest moments.
Summing up those years, Sandy makes a startling comment.
"The things that he went through, I wouldn't take them back," she says on the phone. "No." She sighs.
Those terrible experiences, she adds, will take away the urge ever to return.
"He had to travel that road to know what it was like and not want it again."
It was 1996, and something had to break. Irvin was coming off his best season, with 111 catches, 1,603 yards and 11 touchdowns. Though Jimmy Johnson was gone, the Cowboys had managed to regain the world-champion title one more time. Everything looked so perfect from the outside; Irvin had done it all, accomplished every goal he'd set for himself in life. Because life was football.
Sandy knew better. About Dallas, for one thing, a place where people teased her about her jeans, and women clopped around Texas Stadium in stiletto heels. That was an adjustment for her, but it didn't stop at that. Fans recognized her husband everywhere and accosted them, pumping a little more gas into The Man.
Who, by this time, would be gone for days at a time. His youthful face had taken on sharper lines, cloudier eyes, the look of an all-night carouser. "He was just deep in thought and down on himself, wanting to get up and couldn't," Sandy says. "He wouldn't sleep when he was home. He would just think all night. I'd wake up, and he's just sitting there, thinking. I knew he was getting high. In my mind, I was thinking he was with women--someone.
"One night he just let me know that he'd been getting high and hanging with some guys. I think he wanted to leave it alone and couldn't."
Sandy had been through scary nights, wondering where her husband was. Her faith, she said, had given her peace, just in time for a season of storms. "That's when it was time for the world to see it," Sandy says. "It had gotten pretty bad. Michael started staying out for days at a time. I would call his cell phone, and what I would do is leave a message telling him that we love him.
"I knew that Satan had him out there in deep, deep dark hell."
The "veil would come off," as Sandy tells it, in a spectacular way. On March 4, police found Irvin partying in a Dallas-area hotel room with former Cowboy Alfredo Roberts and two one-time topless dancers, as well as cocaine and marijuana. Police arrested one of the dancers, but a few weeks later Irvin's involvement became public, and he was arrested for felony drug possession. He denied the drugs were his, though he admits today that he was getting high.
Sandy Irvin found out about it when it flashed across the TV news.
She says she was ready. And she had a surprise of her own.
"There were helicopters and everything at my house," Michael recalls. "And I'm on my way home. I'm thinking, what am I going to say? What will I say? It's one thing to have a thought that your husband is doing something. It's a whole other thing to turn on channels 4, 7, 10, 11 and he's right there."
It's a story Irvin and Bishop T.D. Jakes are fond of telling these days.
"So I'm thinking, man, what do I say? And I walked in the house--I was getting ready to say I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry--and all she said was, 'Baby, don't apologize to me. You need to go in the room and make your peace with God.'"
Irvin was stunned. It would have been easier, he says, if she'd chucked a shoe at him, slammed a door.