By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Irvin says the preacher peered right into his soul. "He kind of had me scared. I didn't want him to see that. What he saw was a little boy trying to get out, and almost playing out a role. Gotten caught up in this world, and playing out a role."
Jakes remembers the encounter. "I knew that he was very unhappy and sad, and I knew that he was aware that something was missing out of his life. I told him he was just running from God and that it was only a matter of time."
Irvin, however, still had some more running to do. Hundreds of hours of skewering trash, laying shingles and other acts of community service hadn't done it to him; neither had his declining numbers on the field, nor an icy relationship with new Cowboys coach Chan Gailey. Irvin was hurting inside, but he wasn't about to go humble-pie. And he certainly didn't want to be around the preacher who looked right through him, yet those words were stuck in his head.
His wife was telling him the same thing. And his mother. Better come on in, boy, come on in. Sooner or later, this world is gonna bite you.
Told you so. Told you so.
That's all Irvin could think a few months later, on October 10, 1999, while he was lying motionless on the turf in Philly, with Eagles fans shrieking their approval all around him. Irvin had crunched his head into the hard turf after getting tackled, and he lay with his legs awkwardly crossed. He couldn't move.
"You know, all of it came to pass," Irvin says. "Everything I had talked to Bishop about. I remember laying there, and the first thing I thought about was, 'Oh, God, let me get up from here, just let me get up. That's it, that's it. I'm not doing these things anymore. I'll be right.'"
Irvin envisioned playing with his kids. Doing right by his wife. Let's cut a deal, he told God. Let's cut a deal.
Members of the Cowboys staff rushed beside him. One told him he could uncross his legs. "I did," Irvin said. They were still crossed.
His arm was shaking. He was eventually loaded on a stretcher and carried off the field, immobilized and with his helmet still on. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones walked next to him, looking horrified.
Irvin would discover later that he'd been temporarily paralyzed; his spine was in shock. When doctors examined him, they found he'd been born with a condition called cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. Another blow could have resulted in permanent, catastrophic injury.
The situation left Irvin with no choice; he'd have to give up his god.
So in July 2000, as his teammates were getting set for another training camp, Irvin announced his retirement.
No question about it, Irvin was losing his grip. Sure, he managed to curb the drug use through the end of his probation period, much to the surprise of Dallas County prosecutors, who'd predicted he would fail. Irvin, ever confident in his ability to beat the system, had simply switched his substance of choice. Now it was alcohol, something those dozens of required drug tests weren't designed to catch.
Without football, Irvin had no anchor. Sometimes, after a night of partying, Sandy would leave to take the kids to school and find her husband sitting in his car in the driveway, deep in thought.
She wanted to pull him out of it, wrench him away from a life that was killing him, but she knew she couldn't. He'd even beg her to take away his car keys. She refused.
She stuck with her man, she says, never even thought of leaving.
Jakes is practically beside himself with praise for Sandy Irvin. "You can't talk about Michael's marriage without talking about what a heroine his wife is; she's just an unbelievable person," Jakes says. "Whooo, she's just a breathtaking woman. Not only is she incredibly beautiful on the outside, but she is equally as beautiful on the inside. She has a grace and faith about her that is rare. And if there's any story to be told about their marriage, it is the success story that is built upon her ability to persevere and pray.
"Her faith is the crown jewel in this story. It's an unbelievable lesson of hope and encouragement, because against all odds she always believed that it would end up this way."
Not before another public debacle, though. This one came right on the heels of Irvin's decision to join Fox as an NFL analyst. Irvin was happy to be working again, happy to bring home some cash for his growing family. Today, he supports Sandy and the children, as well as his mother and mother-in-law and the occasional sibling in a tight spot.
Cowboys teammate Mark Tuinei had died of a heroin overdose in 1999, using the drug for what Irvin and other players believe was the first time. As a result, a federal drug task force was investigating a heroin and cocaine ring that provided the fatal dose to Tuinei, and their probe led them to a young woman who lived in a Far North Dallas apartment.