Number 88 is slashing through a Green Bay Packers secondary, evading hapless defenders who fall headlong just as he slips from their grasp. Someone snags a tiny piece of jersey, and soon his shoulder pads are out and flapping as he makes a cut and throws his long body into the end zone.
Michael Irvin is transfixed by the overhead video screen at Texas Stadium. "Do I look fine in my uniform!" he says, with a cocky little jerk of the head.
Six years after his retirement from football--the result of a frightening neck injury in Philadelphia, with Eagles fans cheering as he lay motionless on the field--Irvin still shows traces of the guy who'd throw down boasts about everything from his reputation as the Dallas Cowboys' "Playmaker" to his predilection for "'hos, limos and Pappadeaux."
All of that would change. Irvin bottomed out; the whoring and partying for which he was notorious became joyless habits. He'd gone on trial for cocaine possession in 1996 (he got probation); he'd been busted by the cops in 2000 while he was with another woman. His wife, Sandy, was hanging in there with him, but he felt powerless to break away from his lifestyle. He would end up at the altar of the renowned Bishop T.D. Jakes in February 2001, during a sermon with a pleading refrain, "Come in from the rain."
Like his buddy Deion Sanders before him, he'd turned to Jesus.
I met Irvin in August 2002, when he eschewed a lemon in his ice water because he didn't want people to confuse it with an early-morning cocktail. He'd begun a broadcasting career with Fox, and the same passion he applied to football was evident in his sessions with a speech and diction coach and his raucous laughter on the set of BDSSP--that's what he called it, anyway. He didn't want to say the word "damn," as in Best Damn Sports Show Period.
Last week, as the former All-Pro wide receiver appeared at Texas Stadium for his induction into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor alongside 1990s greats Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, Irvin was his ebullient self, laughing, gripping and walking around in a sleek gray suit with his characteristic swagger. He signed autographs, posed for cell phone pictures and was unfalteringly gracious to the fans, Texas Stadium employees, reporters and guys in wheelchairs who followed him everywhere like an entourage on a scorching day that heated up the playing field to what seemed like 150 degrees.
Irvin sat beside his fellow Triplets at the on-field set for ESPN, his broadcasting gig these days. There's no pretending with these guys; they obviously get along great. While they were joking on-air, musing about the upcoming Ring of Honor ceremony, Cowboys wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson warmed up on the field. Thoughts of Terrell Owens and Randy Moss flashed in my mind: Here are three prodigiously gifted receivers who seem to play for a team of one.
Nothing like the Michael Irvin we knew. Crazy as he was off the field, Irvin was a total team guy, and unlike Owens and Moss, he always got along with his quarterback. At a brief news conference earlier in the evening, he told a story from his rookie year about meeting Cowboys great Drew Pearson, who asked him if he could identify the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver. The answer at the time, of course, was Pearson. "I really didn't know," Irvin said. "And I said in my brash, ignorant way, "I don't know who it is, Drew, but I know who it will be in about 10 years.'" Former Coach Jimmy Johnson credited Irvin, in fact, with sparking the team turnaround that would ultimately lead to the Super Bowl. To the three-time champion Cowboys of the 1990s, Irvin brought the killer attitude.
About an hour before kickoff, a weary Irvin retired to the office of a Cowboys executive. Fans were literally pressing against the glass doors of the administrative suites, but here he could escape for a few minutes.
Hunched in a worn leather chair, he seemed merely life-size. He spoke quietly about his faith; when he talks about God, all the bluster and bragging drains away. He's still hanging on to Jesus four years after his very public conversion; he's replaced "chasing, running around" with "chasing the best father I can be, chasing the best husband I can be," he said.
Irvin still attends Bishop Jakes' church, The Potter's House, every Sunday in the off-season. And while life after football has yielded its share of disappointments, Irvin credited Jakes for helping him adjust to the "real world," as he called it. "The football world is all about we're a team, we are together," he said. "In the business world, there is no team. You have to be careful. In the football world, I had a promise from a man, and it meant a lot. In this world, promises mean nothing."
Sanders is still pulling for him, too; the former teammates talk regularly. "He calls me at 10 o'clock in the evening," Irvin said, "and he knows I'm on the road, and I'm not answering my phone. "Adam, where art thou? I'll call heaven.' And he'll break off in a sermon on the phone.
"We just mess around with each other," he said. "We have accountability with each other, and you need that. You need somebody that you're going to be naked with."
Talking with him in this rare quiet moment, Irvin offered that he's not all he's cracked up to be. People expect a spiritual All-Pro and dog him for every misstep; he's hanging on to Jesus, he'll tell you, because it's the sick who need a doctor.
"He sustained me. I've been doing fine," he said. "But I'm not perfect. It's a funny thing, when you go around and tell people you're saved, they say, "You're no greater than me.' I didn't say that. I just said that I'm saved.
"I know that I'm no better than you." --Julie Lyons