It's so hot in Wichita Falls that the heat almost becomes a solid. The thermometer reads 107 degrees at this moment, with the heat index creeping toward 115. Even the breeze becomes an enemy when the mercury climbs this high. Imagine a thousand hair dryers aimed in your face -- drying your throat, evaporating your sweat, burning your eyes. Hell ain't got nothing on Wichita Falls. Rumor has it the devil moved away from here about three months ago -- got too hot for the old boy.
"Aw, man, I like the heat," Michael Irvin says to a dozen reporters who surround him, thrusting tape recorders and TV boom mikes into his face. The Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver looks around, seeing mostly pale faces before him on the Midwestern State University practice field. Beneath a backward baseball cap, the heat freak smiles that broad smile that has eradicated so many past sins, erased them from our collective memory (what cocaine?). The diamond stud in his left ear lobe is almost as blinding. And Irvin begins to laugh.
"I can't get any darker, so it doesn't bother me," he offers, choking on his own amusement. "Now, some of the rest of y'all may want the break so you don't burn. But I like the heat. Nothing wrong with it."
Maybe that's why, after every Cowboys afternoon practice during training camp, Irvin stands on the field and answers every reporter's variations on the same old damned questions: "How do you feel about this being the last year on your contract?" Or, "Are you worried you might not finish your career in Dallas?" He takes the queries in stride. Irvin -- who wears next to nothing during practice, only a helmet and jersey and sheer see-through pads and tights -- bathes in the heat. No sweat. Let the reporters wilt beneath the sun. He's having a ball.
It's also possible that Irvin sticks around so long after practice because it will endear him to the media, put his beaming face on TV every night, reapply some of the shine to a star that has lost its luster over the last few years. Maybe if the locals see how accessible Irvin is, how happy he is being a Dallas Cowboy after 11 years (Lord, has it been that long?), then perhaps it will make it harder for owner Jerry Jones to toss out the Playmaker after the season is done. Or maybe talking to the media, like signing autographs for fans, is part of Irvin's community-service penance. God knows the rest of his teammates don't like to stick around.
There's been so much talk of late about how Irvin is no longer the player he was at the beginning of the decade, when he was part of Dallas' Holy Trinity: Troy, Emmitt, and Michael. Every day during training camp, he is reminded of last season's failures. How he had but one touchdown reception, the lowest total of his career. How, in November, his streak of 117 consecutive games with a reception came to a shrugging end against the Arizona Cardinals. How he had a mere four receptions for a nominal 32 yards against the Cardinals in Dallas' NFC wild-card loss in January. How he was a shadow on the field.
When Irvin failed to show up for voluntary mini-camps earlier this summer, local media pundits took it as a hint that Irvin was disgruntled with Jones for not renegotiating his contract. Irvin insisted that he was just working out on his own -- not seeking a trade, not insinuating his displeasure with the Cowboys' owner and general manager. He claimed he was not unhappy with a smaller role in head coach Chan Gailey's offense. Hell, he said, who would complain about getting less playing time and still making $3 million?
Of course, there exists the chance that Irvin, once deemed an untouchable, is this close to becoming detritus on a team full of young, fresh legs: free-agent signing Raghib "Rocket" Ismail (who has kept his distance from the media thus far during camp, and he will learn); fourth-round draft pick Wane McGarity, the former Texas Longhorn whose speed impresses even Irvin; and James McKnight, to name but a handful of young contenders. Irvin could end his career with another team, an almost unheard-of proposition a few years ago. Then again, even Willie Mays said farewell to baseball as a New York Met.
During the early days of training camp, Irvin handles the reporters' questions with remarkable aplomb. Where Emmitt Smith used to snap at media folk who hinted that perhaps his legs were turning to cement, Irvin laughs off the notion that his best days are behind him. Instead, he insists that last year's stumble had more to do with his inability to adapt to Chan Gailey's playbook, which called for Irvin to accept a less-than-starring role.
All that is behind him now, he says with a wide, open smile. Then again, what is training camp if not the opportunity to forget last season while dreaming of Super Bowls and multi-year contract extensions? No one is in more need of a fresh start than the 33-year-old Irvin.
"I'm gonna tell you, I'm leaps and bounds from where I was last year," he says. "I didn't know that. I thought I had a great grasp of it last year, but now that I look back at it, I truly didn't. I was tentative on my routes, I didn't know where I was supposed to be, I didn't know when the ball was coming and where it was going to be delivered. Now, I got a much better understanding. I know when I need to take a little more time or when Troy's reading something else before it comes to me. That was probably the toughest thing for me. I was always used to being the first read and sometimes the only read. Then, last year, all of a sudden everything changed."
Irvin says all the right things during camp; he's a born-again football player, given new life beneath Wichita Falls' unbearable sky. Last year during camp, he would storm off after gangbang interviews; he never had time for one-on-ones, never had time to sign autographs for the fevered faithful broiling themselves on the bare bleachers. Now, he does both -- happily, easily.
A reporter from an Oklahoma City newspaper asks Irvin what it's like to be in a free-agent year, something he's never had to deal with before. Irvin might have snapped at the writer a year ago, correcting him between gritted teeth -- this is, in fact, the third time he's been in this situation. But not this year. Now, he laughs off the incorrect statement, pointing out that he's always played out a contract -- always.
"Everybody's talking like, 'Michael's not getting his contract extended,'" he says. "You guys do all that research. Go look it up. I've never had a contract extended. I've always played them out. All I'm doing right now is worrying about this season. Everything else is beyond my control, and I'm gonna let them be beyond my control. I'm not gonna sit back and worry about something I can't control. I'm gonna step out here and play football."
"But you're only human," chimes in another reporter. "I mean, just like anybody else."
"Yeah, what's that got to do with the price of tomatoes?" Irvin shoots back through a wicked grin.
"You know what I'm taking about," the reporter pushes on, raising his voice above the laughter of other media members crowded around Irvin. "It's human nature to be a little upset..."
"No, no, no it's not," Irvin says, waving off the statement with a chuckle. "Tell me now, you're a human. What am I making? Three million this year? Why would I be upset? C'mon. I'm makin' $3 million, and they wanna throw me the ball less? I'm getting paid my money for less work -- how human am I to be upset?" His is the deep, solid laughter of a man who makes more in one year than all the reporters on the field combined.
Jerry Jones, during an interview with the Dallas Observer, says he is "very sensitive" about Irvin's concerns about a new contract. Before camp, Jones and Irvin had several talks about the wide receiver's future; the two have not spoken about the subject in Wichita Falls. The talks were meant to "eliminate any misunderstandings," Jones says; he wanted his star to know that if there's life left in those legs, then he will be a member of the Cowboys "for years to come." But those issues likely will be settled toward the end of the season -- after Irvin proves himself on the field, one more time.
Jones likes to talk about how "mentally tough" his wide receiver is, how Irvin can handle any question asked of him about the lack of a new deal. Irvin, says Jones, knows this is just a business, nothing personal.
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But in the end, everything is personal. After the group interview, Irvin goes to the sidelines and starts signing caps, balls, jerseys -- anything fans hand him over the chain-link fence separating the bleachers from the field. But he consents to a quick one-on-one interview as he does it; the man can sign and talk with the best of them. He is asked one simple question: "Do you get the same thing out of playing football as you did when you first came into the league 11 years ago?" His answer is a long and thoughtful one, despite the constant shouts of Mi-chael! Mi-chael! behind him.
"Yes -- I enjoy it, I really do, and that's the only reason I still play the game," he begins. "It's a competitive thing, you enjoy the camaraderie, but more than anything else, how many people in this world can say they make a living -- and a pretty good living -- doing what they enjoy most in the whole world? It's a blessing; it's a blessing. And to let anybody steal that joy from me would be a sin.
"Off the field, it might be a business. But when I step on the field, it's still the same game it was when I was a kid. It's still throwing and catching, it's still blocking. And there is no business end of that."
Irvin hands a kid a Cowboys cap he has just signed and, for a second, stares at his interrogator, as if to drive home the point. Then, once more, he smiles and signs his name, long after the rest of his teammates have walked away.