Cowboys boss Jerry Jones was understandably upset as he escorted a temporarily paralyzed Irvin into an ambulance during a Philadelphia Eagles game in 1999.
Cowboys boss Jerry Jones was understandably upset as he escorted a temporarily paralyzed Irvin into an ambulance during a Philadelphia Eagles game in 1999.
AP/Wide World

Back in Bounds

"Control? You think you have control?" Michael Irvin says. "Tell me what you have control of, and I'll put something in front of you that you'll realize you don't have control of that thing."

By the time he hit bottom, his so-called friends, his posse, his peeps, had all slithered away. The guy who'd rushed to carry his gym bag, the dude who'd washed his car, the hangers-on who aped his brash attitude--all gone, searching for the cool of some other celebrity shadow.

Michael Irvin was alone, stripped to his bones.

Gone was The Man, the thing born in Irvin's impoverished childhood, a hungry creature whose stature was measured in money, women and fame. It got a toehold in the little boy who went to kindergarten and found he was one of the few kids who couldn't spell their names, and in the teen-ager who went to the Catholic high school and saw his family become recipients of the annual Thanksgiving charity drive.

But when little Michael got on the football field, he was someone. The game became his passion, the thing he did to measure up. His coach at the University of Miami and the Dallas Cowboys, Jimmy Johnson, would learn to tap into that: Tell a brother you believed in him, and he'd run through a brick wall for you.

Irvin ran and ran. Through college, through three world championships with the Dallas Cowboys and Hall of Fame numbers as one of the greatest wide receivers of the 1990s, a muscled warrior who lacked the speed of a Randy Moss or Joey Galloway but grappled and writhed his way past defensive backs and caught the ball with sure hands on every big-money down.

That passion held him together when the money poured in, when he spent his off-seasons whoring, hanging out in Dallas strip joints, doing drugs and disappearing from his family for days at a time. As soon as spring rolled around, he'd always managed to push back the mess and train like a madman.

Football was his god, his drug, his wife, his life. And now that was gone, too, left on the field after a 1999 injury that ultimately forced him to retire.

It was February 2001 when Irvin realized he was out of control. He couldn't switch off the drugs and drinking anymore. He couldn't stop the womanizing. He couldn't squelch the empty feeling inside.

Like so many missteps of the past--his 1996 trial for cocaine possession, his 2000 arrest in an apartment with drugs and another woman--this particular naked moment would be captured on tape. One Sunday morning, Irvin sat alone in the front of a Southwest Dallas church.

"God told me to tell you, today is your day--come in out of the rain!" a preacher's voice intoned.

Irvin remembers the sermon like this: You think you're living well; everybody thinks you're living the good life. You've got nice clothes, the nice car, but you're torn up inside. Everybody's screaming your name, but you're hurting inside. Everybody thinks you've got it all together, but it's all falling apart.

"Come in out of the rain!"

That was all he needed to hear. Michael Irvin ran.

Moments later, a video camera zoomed in on the big man, dressed in a natty checked suit, crouched on the carpeted steps of the altar with his face to the floor, weeping and shaking his hands as though he were pleading.

"Yeah, I found it now," Irvin says. "There's no 'think so' about it."

Deion Sanders is irritated. The question seemed fair enough, given the penchant of entertainment and sports personalities for dropping the name of Jesus at every Grammy and goal-line stand: Is the new Michael Irvin for real?

"I don't like those kind of stories," Sanders says flatly. "I'm very saddened that another person could doubt what's in a person's heart. How can you doubt a person's heart?"

Never mind that Irvin cut a reputation as the rowdiest brigand on a rogue team, the guy whose triumphs and repeated falls from grace represented everything great and regrettable about the 1990s Cowboys.

Sanders, speaking from a cell phone somewhere in New York, where he works as an NFL analyst for CBS, is just getting warmed up. "When you look at someone like Michael Irvin and, as an outsider, say, 'I can't believe he's serving the Lord,' you're saying I can't believe if I had all the things and looked the way he looked or was built the way he's built and had all the finances he has, you couldn't do it. Not Michael couldn't do it. 'Cause Michael's doing it."

Sanders, for one, says he's tremendously proud of Irvin's rebirth as a Christian, a step Sanders, a former NFL cornerback, took himself in 1997. Apart from being former teammates and running buddies during the Cowboys' party-hearty years of the mid-1990s, Sanders and Irvin both became born-again under the tutelage of Bishop T.D. Jakes, founder and senior pastor of The Potter's House. The 28,000-member nondenominational church with Pentecostal beliefs has, with Jakes' popular television show and national conferences, become enormously influential among African-Americans nationwide. Sanders says he talks to his best friend Irvin every day, each encouraging the other to stay on the straight and narrow. "Temptation will never cease," Sanders says. "I don't put myself in certain environments to fail. I know if the oven's too hot for me; I don't have to touch it to see. I've already been there and done that."

Sanders admits he and Irvin were once partners in crime, friends who poured their hearts into whoring and partying as well as football. Today, Sanders is just one of several sports figures who'll go to bat for Irvin, vouching for the positive changes in his life.

Sportscaster Pat Summerall, who lives in Southlake, was so impressed after hearing Irvin talk to a civic group about his newfound faith that he called up Fox Sports boss David Hill and urged him to rehire Irvin, who'd been dumped from the network soon after his 2000 arrest. Hill would get a similar call from Cowboys boss Jerry Jones. But his answer was, "No, we don't want him back," Summerall says. "And I said, 'I'm asking you to take him back. I'm asking you to give him a shot. And if he screws up, you can fire me.'"

Hill relented, but with a stiff caveat, Summerall says. "He said, 'OK, but if he does screw up one more time, I'm gonna fire him and you.'"

Summerall, who battled alcoholism several years ago and had a religious awakening himself, says he's seen many pro athletes take the Jesus route and drop it just as fast. Irvin, he says, is different. "I really have no doubts about him," says Summerall, who, with his wife, Cheri, has become close friends with the Irvin family. "I think you'd have to hear him speak; you'd have to see what he radiates. He's just so convincing, so charismatic, so sincere.

"If he doesn't make it as a sports announcer, which I think he will, he could be a revival preacher hands down. He's got that kind of magic."

Irvin appears to have solid career prospects at Fox, though, which has been featuring him regularly on the Best Damn Sports Show Period and has enlisted him as a studio analyst for its new The NFL Show, which debuts Sunday, September 8, at 12:30 a.m., with a repeat broadcast at 9:30 a.m. featuring live updates. Fox spokesman Seth Palansky has nothing but good things to say about Irvin so far. "Is this really him? I haven't found a slip yet," Palansky says.

These days, Irvin divides his time between the Fox studios in Los Angeles and Carrollton, where he lives with his wife of 12 years and their four children. Irvin appears on BDSSP--that's what he calls the show; he won't say the cuss word--just about every weeknight and shuttles to twice-weekly sessions with a speech coach. Then it's home to Dallas on the weekends, where he attends services at The Potter's House as often as possible.

Irvin, now 36, told his story to the Dallas Observer over breakfast in L.A., after instructing the waiter to leave the lemon out of his water glass, which he didn't want anyone to confuse with an early-morning cocktail. Later, his wife, Sandy, also 36, who stood by Michael throughout his womanizing days and numerous collisions with the law, told her side of the tale in depth for the first time publicly.

What seemed most striking about Irvin was his transparency--his willingness to answer every question, from what he was doing in that woman's apartment in August 2000 to what really happened in the notorious Cowboys "scissors incident" (see sidebar) to why the heck his wife stuck with him all those years.

Whatever you think about his Jesus, Irvin showed a remarkable lack of bitterness toward the media, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, the cops who busted down the door while he was on the toilet and everyone else who gawked from the other side during his many public embarrassments.

He didn't strain to convince. To him, the past is clearly the past, and it's easy enough to deal with, because he denies none of it.

"My mom used to tell me all the time when I was young, you're not getting away with anything," Irvin says. "You'll get in trouble, because God has you on a short leash. It tripped me out, man. If we sit around playing and we throw a rock and it hit a building and break the glass, everybody sprint. And they always come to my house. It's always on me."

Irvin's story begins amid the otherworldly harmonies of the Primitive Baptist church, an "old-time church" where the members eschew all musical instruments and render their hymns a cappella, conjuring up the swirling highs and lows of singing angels trapped in the troposphere. "It's like nothing you've ever heard," says Pearl Irvin, Michael's 71-year-old mother, "but if you ever come up around here, you'll think they've got a piano, guitar and organ and all that."

That was the world Michael was raised in, with its simple faith, spartan sanctuaries and self-taught circuit preachers. One of the Primitive Baptists' traditions was an ancient practice that had just about faded from the wider church scene: the washing of feet, just as Jesus had once done to his astonished disciples.

One day in church, Pearl Irvin was bending down to wash her sister's feet when she felt someone walk up behind her, then reach around and clasp his hands on her belly. Just at that moment, Pearl, who was two months' pregnant with Michael, says she felt a jolt in her womb. "When he did that, my whole stomach went to jumping," Pearl says. "Michael leaped for joy in my stomach."

She looked around her, hoping no one would see the commotion inside. No one seemed to notice--and no one, for that matter, was standing behind her. Right then, she understood what was happening: This was a sign. "I said, 'This child is going to be blessed among all of my children.'"

Back then, Pearl lived with her husband, Walter, a roofer and Primitive Baptist preacher, in a three-bedroom house in Fort Lauderdale. Their enormous family rose to a cacophony of boys banging on bathroom doors and girls giggling and combing each other's hair. There were six kids from Pearl's first marriage, plus two of Walter's, then nine more they had together, the boys quartered in one bedroom, the girls in another. Michael was the 15th of 17.

While Walter sweated as a self-employed roofer in the Florida sun, Pearl worked as a domestic, taking care of elderly people and entrusting the care of the children to a baby sitter. Life inevitably had its struggles, with new shoes a scarce commodity and hungry boys scrapping for cereal in the morning--a contest Michael must have won, because Pearl remembers him eating his breakfast out of a mixing bowl. But there was love and a firm foundation of discipline. Walter had a dream for his kids, that they all get a college education, even though he'd dropped out of school in the 11th grade. He added a porch onto their little house, then crafted a table and long benches so the whole family could file in after dinner and hit the books. On the weekends, he'd often pile the kids into a rented van to travel the circuit of Primitive Baptist churches in Florida and Georgia. Walter wasn't all hard work and Baptist piety, though; he found time to shoot marbles with all the neighborhood boys and attend his children's ball games.

Today, Michael remembers his father as "a great man--the only man I fear." When Michael was 16, Walter became gravely ill with cancer. He assigned to Michael the task of driving him to and from the doctor. Those drives yielded rare moments, a time to talk man to man. "He talked about being your own man, having passion and fire for what you believe," Michael recalls. "He said being a man is having responsibilities, being a man is taking care of your family."

He'd talk about spiritual things, too, but Michael was young. He'd discovered girls, having fun, even smoking the occasional joint. He didn't want to hear that.

And within a matter of months, his father was gone. "The cancer just ate him up," Irvin says. That big, strong, outspoken man, who worked hard, cherished his family and was always in control, deteriorated before his eyes. He was only 53.

One day in his hospital bed, he tried to prepare his son for what he knew was coming. "He said, 'Michael, I'm going home on the morning train,'" Irvin recalls. "I didn't know what he was talking about; I really did not."

Morning train? What train?

"Promise you're going to take care of your mother," Walter said to the teen-ager. "Your mother's a good woman. She's a good woman."

"Yeah, Daddy. I'll do that. I'll make sure I do that."

Michael went home, puzzled by his father's words.

By 4:30 the next morning, the train had come and gone.

Michael was devastated.

"I was fanatic about football," Irvin says. "All I have done at various times, I've always had football to bring me out of it. If I was messing with women or getting high or drinking, I could do that in the off-season, but come March, it was always time to train."

Pearl Irvin always talked to Michael, her chosen son, about destiny. As a teen-ager, he believed he'd found it on the football field. Certainly not in the classroom; while he'd do well enough in high school and college, he still remembers an ache from kindergarten days. "I didn't have any preschool, and these little white kids, they knew everything," Irvin says. "Man, they're smart. They knew how to spell my name. So from that standpoint, you always thought, 'Man, they're so much more smart than you are.'

"All these things just make you feel like you don't measure up," he says. "You start looking for things. Then somebody tells you on the football field, 'Boy, you're good. Damn. Oh, you're good.' Now that's affirmation, confirmation that you measure up. If you're good on the football field, it becomes your passion. It becomes the thing that I think makes me even."

It also was the source of his legendary drive, which caused him to work harder, practice longer and fight harder on the field than just about any other player of his generation. At Saint Thomas Aquinas High, a Catholic school and state football powerhouse, then the University of Miami and Dallas Cowboys, Irvin flourished as a wide receiver. He was blessed with good size, 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, but not much speed, and Irvin used his biggest asset--his ego--to make up the deficit. "All I wanted to do was play ball," he says. "It was such a passion. I guarantee I was the only person looking forward to training camp, probably in the history of the game.

"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."

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."

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."

"Power is head wine for men--any form of power," Irvin says. "That's why we make money an issue, nice cars an issue, clothes--all of it's head wine, all of it's to draw women. It all comes back to women. If a guy tells you it doesn't, trust me, he's lying. Let's be real here."

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.

She never mentioned it again.

Sandy says she felt a surge of strength inside her. "The arguing and all that," she explains today, "none of it works. This was something that God had to do. I knew that. And it was so amazing, because when the anger was there, Michael wasn't around. And when he came around, I had nothing but love for him. You understand?"

Sandy shared her struggles with Irvin's mother, who'd become close to her. And across the country, in the dream house her superstar son had bought her in Plantation, Florida, Pearl Irvin took a day to despair over her "baby," something she seldom allowed herself as mother of 15. "When this first happened, that really got next to me," Pearl recalls. "But I went in my room, and I prayed. I took Michael's picture, I put my hand on it, and I got down on my knees.

"And God told me, the battle is mine."

At the Dallas County courthouse, there was another kind of fight. Irvin's case was set to go before the grand jury, and prosecutors refused to cut a deal with The Playmaker. Not the one he wanted, anyway. Veteran prosecutor Mike Gillett recalls meeting with Irvin and one of his attorneys and flashing a bit of the evidence that would come out at trial: Irvin's greasy fingerprints, for example, on a plate of cocaine. The trial, which started in late June, would yield many more excruciating glimpses of the Michael Irvin lifestyle: the lesbian sex show, the orgies, the collection of "very curious sex toys," as then-columnist Laura Miller wrote in an Observer report.

Irvin's team hoped to bust down the charge to misdemeanor possession, but Gillett wasn't buying it, calling that "special treatment." According to Irvin, the conversation got downright nasty. "He just had a really bad attitude," Irvin says of Gillett. "He said, 'Listen, you're a piece of sh_ _, and what I'm going to do, I'm going to ruin you; I'm going to fillet you like a fish and leave you in the alley. I'm going to bring out all your dirty laundry.'"

Gillett, who has since retired, said, "I have absolutely no recollection of that."

Irvin recalls that he had his sharp tongue at the ready.

"I said, 'In a few months, when this case is over, somebody else will pay me 3 or 4 million dollars to catch a football. So really, you're not going to ruin me. This is my first offense.'"

Well, what's a Playmaker to do? Irvin racked his addled head and came up with a comeback for the ages.

The mink coat.

Irvin gets a laugh now from his big screw-you statement on the day of the grand-jury hearing. He showed up in court dripping in dead weasels, having donned a shimmering, black floor-length number and sunglasses. "All night I was thinking, I'll get him back--how will I get him back?" Irvin says. "And my ignorance said, wear your mink. Have your mink on with the shades and walk right through the crowd. They'll be talking about the mink more than anything else. And boy, did they talk about that mink. That was wild, man. That was crazy. That was stupidity."

The trial that summer was, as promised, a parade of tawdry allegations, complete with a B-movie subplot when one witness' boyfriend--a Dallas cop, no less--tried to enlist an undercover agent to kill Irvin.

All of Dallas, it seems, was disgusted by the sleaze. But not Irvin. "No, I was The Man. That made me The Man," he says. "I was in there; I was enmeshed."

Before it reached the jury, Irvin and his attorneys struck a deal that netted Irvin four years of probation, including 800 hours of community service, in exchange for a no-contest plea. Irvin, repentant to his family but still defiant on the outside, held a news conference in which he promised to be a better man, a better husband.

He vowed to himself to stop the partying and womanizing.

That lasted, oh, about a week.

"You expect me to believe you just stopped? From flying to a run to a jog to a walk and then a stop--you just stopped?" Irvin says about his friend Deion. "I'm not trying to believe that."

Deion Sanders had found Jesus, and that was the pits. Irvin's fast-living buddy went to the other extreme, proclaiming his faith loudly and obnoxiously--in the media, in the locker room, in the ears of anyone who'd listen. Irvin razzed him at first. "I used to kill him in the locker room," Irvin says. "Straight kill him. I used to mess with him to prove that he was not that. See, it was my spirit crying."

When that didn't work, Irvin backed off from his party pal.

Sanders just bided his time. And Irvin was there one day at his friend's house in early '99, when Sanders' spiritual mentor, Bishop T.D. Jakes, a big man himself, physically cornered The Playmaker in the bathroom.

"God's working on you, man," Jakes said. "I'm telling you, Michael, you need to come on in. Come on in before something real crazy happens to you."

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.

"Man, I couldn't have changed if I tried to," Irvin says. "Not on my own. Not even if I wanted to. To die and be reborn, now that's a different thing."

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.

And who would turn up there in August 2000 but Michael Irvin?

Irvin insists he's never used heroin; he went there strictly for sex, with another young woman who was later questioned by police. Irvin says he was sitting on the toilet when cops broke down the apartment door one afternoon. They cuffed Irvin behind his back and left him on the floor naked for several hours while they searched the apartment. After some rooting around, they found their prize: half a roach, which they pinned on Irvin.

He'd just cleared probation for the 1996 offense; he'd just got a job; he blew it again. Fox didn't waste any time getting rid of him.

Irvin was ashamed, even though he says the marijuana cigarette wasn't his, and the charge was eventually dropped. (Irvin says a DNA test of his saliva cleared him. Plus, he says, if it were his joint, he would have smoked it.)

He'd finally begun suspecting he couldn't stop on his own. If God had him on a short leash, he thought, someone was yanking it real hard.

He knew that for sure after he'd promised to come home to his wife on the eve of Valentine's Day 2001, and instead found himself picking up "baaad" girls at Cuba Libre and partying all night.

Sandy Irvin tells the rest of the story. "It was getting to the point where he would come home and say that's it, I'm not doing this anymore," she says.

She would sometimes shock him after nights he'd spent away from home, getting high, by walking up and embracing him. "He would cry in my arms," she says, "and that's when I knew it was something that he couldn't handle--more of an addiction."

Irvin walked in the door the next day, and he didn't try to explain it all away. "You know what, baby, can we just go to a hotel and talk?" he asked his wife. "I know I'm too late for dinner and all that. We can order room service; I just want to talk to you. Can you bring your Bible?"

Sandy wasn't quite sure what to think; they'd been down this path before. They left their children with Sandy's sister and checked into the Hotel Inter-Continental Dallas, where they talked and read the Bible together.

After several hours, Sandy drifted off to sleep. "I'd wake up," she says, "and he was on his knees or reading the Bible in the middle of the night."

Still, Sandy wasn't overly impressed. "We'd had a lot of nights like that in the past, but Michael wasn't serious."

It would be a few days before she knew something had truly changed. The next Sunday, Irvin got up and dressed for church without her.

During that morning's sermon at The Potter's House, Michael says it felt like Jakes was preaching right at him as he sat in the front row of the huge sanctuary. "Come in out of the rain," he said. "God told me to tell you today is your day..."

"That was the sign for me to get my butt up there," Irvin says. "I ran to that altar."

"That's why it's a godly love," Irvin says. "It's God loving me through her. How else could she have stayed?"

Michael Irvin was on his way to the 8 a.m. service at The Potter's House two Sundays ago, and he pulled up at a gas station in his black Mercedes to hand over a copy of his videotaped testimony.

As he stood beside the car, he offered this bit of advice: "Now don't forget the drugs. That's part of the story, too. Not to mention it would take away from what God's done in my life."

I know I was squinting in disbelief, trying to remember the last time an interview subject reminded me to get all the dirt in. There was no last time.

The tape itself is brief, a few minutes of Irvin talking to the camera, then a clip from a 2001 revival meeting at The Potter's House. Some of it would later be featured on Jakes' early-morning religious talk show, The Potter's Touch. In that segment, Jakes walks Michael and Sandy Irvin through their courtship, their troubled marriage, their reconciliation. A Potter's House spokesman says it's one of the show's most highly requested episodes, and Sandy says people have stopped her in the street as far away as New York, telling her how much the show affected them.

Irvin's testimony has caused a similar stir. It isn't the words themselves, which are plain and sometimes halting, and it isn't the suit--a red-satin ensemble that'll make Irvin's kids cringe some day. It's his transparency, the word that seems to come up in every conversation about the new Michael Irvin.

Jakes agrees. "I've seen a tremendous transformation since his conversion," he says. "If he's in town, he's generally in Bible class. I've seen Michael become much more focused on his family. You almost get a feeling of seeing him with his wife and kids as if he is redeeming the time, making up for weekends away.

"Most of all, he seems happy."

Irvin is so transparent that he doesn't hesitate to answer a touchy interview question: Has he been faithful to his wife since his Christian conversion?

"Yes," he says. "Yes."

He remembers, he adds, when he hit the one-year mark. Irvin smiles. "I thought, 'I did a whole year.' Wow, I thought that was something. Oh, that was huge."

Back to the revival meeting. It wasn't preaching that brought down the house. No, Jakes calls up his new disciple, Michael Irvin, then summons Sandy. Irvin strides across the stage and stands beside his bishop. As Jakes talks, Irvin grabs the microphone, then starts talking in his characteristically emphatic voice.

"I'm here to say this right now; I've made my peace with God," he says, "and now I want to tell my woman, I'm sorry, baby. I am sorry."

The Irvins embrace. Sandy leans up into his shoulder, and he gently strokes her hair with his huge hand. After a long moment, he kisses her, then hugs her some more. They are both weeping.

The camera pans into the audience, the black-clad choir, the assembled bishops, pastors and ministers, thousands of men and women. There are few dry eyes. All are directed toward the stage and the rocking, embracing couple. Jakes stands beside them smiling.

The choir glides into a hymn: "He changed my heart, he changed my mind, he changed my spirit--oh, the wonderful change..."

Dallas Observer Editorial Assistant Michelle Martinez contributed to this report.


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