By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Gotta find somebody fitting to present Michael Irvin at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Because ready or not, Canton, here he comes.
"I'm on pins and needles," the former Dallas Cowboys receiver says Monday after a couple weekend shifts on ESPN's NFL Countdown. "I'm at the mercy of my life's work, and there are no guarantees. I'm doing my best to sit back and put it in God's hands."
Uh-oh. For a player known as much for sinnin' as winnin', sharing a nice warm bed with Beelzebub seems more plausible than earning a sacred statue alongside infallible immortals such as Roger Staubach, Rayfield Wright and Tom Landry.
Luckily for Irvin and appropriately for the NFL, the Hall of Fame canonizes football players, not choirboys. Right, Lawrence Taylor?
"How you gonna have a Hall of Fame without one of the greatest clutch receivers ever to play the game?" Emmitt Smith said last summer at Cowboys training camp. "Only way to keep him out is if they change it to the Life Hall of Fame."
For the third consecutive winter Irvin is a finalist. Two years ago he made it to the final six; final 10 last year. This may be his best, last chance. Among the 15 nominees are zero quarterbacks, only one running back and inferior receivers Andre Reed and Art Monk. The Hall's 39 voters will meet February 3, before Super Bowl XLI in Miami, to elect this year's relatively weak class.
"I feel good, hopeful," Irvin says. "The rules say my off-field stuff shouldn't be considered, but I know these are human beings casting these votes. They can't help it. They'll take everything into account. I think I deserve to be in. But I've already in my mind dealt with the reality that I'll never get in."
Irvin has the stats—and the story—worthy of not just Canton but Hollywood.
Michael Jerome Irvin grew up impoverished in Fort Lauderdale, the 15th of 17 children whose father died of cancer and whose family was the recipient of annual charity drives. From a wide-eyed kid who couldn't spell his name in kindergarten, he grew into a big-mouth receiver who tortured defenses with his ferocious talent and taunted them with his furious trash-talking.
On a team that featured the NFL's all-time leading rusher (Smith), Irvin finished his 12-year career as the Cowboys' leader with 750 catches and 11,904 yards. Despite modest size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) and speed (4.7 in the 40), he went to five consecutive Pro Bowls, won three Super Bowl rings and was named to the All-Decade Team of the '90s before being carried off the field with a career-ending neck injury in Philadelphia in 1999.
But because the name attached to those milestones also owns a notorious police record, Irvin's final reception might be his most difficult. Hall of Fame bylaws prevent voters from considering personal conduct, but...
Ultimately more nefarious than even Terrell Owens' "T.O.," Irvin's "Playmaker" alter-ego—the one that overshadowed 17-member-family values with 24-karat charisma—possessed him into leading the league in infidelity and incarcerations. Admit it, you're surprised that Irvin's most famous bust is coming equipped not with silver handcuffs but a bronze likeness. His transgressions will forever tarnish his image as a family man, but they shouldn't taint his legacy as a football player.
But don't take it from me. Two who know Irvin best—with a detailed knowledge of his worst—want nothing more than to see him ascend to Canton.
"I'd vote him in, sure," says Manny Alvarez, the state district judge who presided over Irvin's 1996 felony drug possession trial. "I've always rooted for him. Even my son [Nicholas, 10] looks up to him now. We all have slip-ups, and none of us are picture-perfect. But you can see that, from where he was in '96, Michael's worked hard on himself, and now he's an inspiration."
For the lowlight of his bloated blotter, Irvin in '96 was found in an Irving hotel room with topless dancers, plates of cocaine, marijuana and a variety of sex toys. Shortly after his probation expired in '00, Irvin was found in the apartment of a woman federal agents were searching for in connection with the heroin overdose death of former Cowboys lineman Mark Tuinei. In between, there was the Dallas cop who tried to hire a hit man to kill Irvin and, most recently, the November '05 arrest for the infamous drug pipe found in his car.
"His probation was productive and, for the most part, he's addressed and corrected his problems," says Alvarez, who approved the four-year probation despite Irvin walking into his courtroom in glitzy sunglasses and a full-length mink coat. "I think he's a pretty good model of how our system is supposed to work."
Similarly, Anthony "Paco" Montoya thinks Irvin's angel dwarfs his devil. Now a Dallas-based private investigator, Paco met Irvin in '88 when the rookie receiver wrested control of the Cowboys' touring Dallas Hoopsters basketball team away from veteran bully Eugene Lockhart.