As one of 17 children, Dallas wideout Michael Irvin battled for his share of food, and he has never lost his hunger—or the ability to be heard above the din
A young Michael Irvin sits in the kitchen, working his way through an entire box of cornflakes. He is eating out of a large mixing bowl. He eats fast, swallowing the cereal in huge gulps. He doesn't know if he's full. He can't tell. He can't really taste the cornflakes either, because there is no milk. He is eating the cereal with tap water. All he knows is that he's going to eat it before somebody else does. The others will be home soon. He pours more cereal into the bowl and turns on the tap. He stirs water into the flakes and recommences his tireless eating.
When his brothers and sisters discover that he has eaten their next day's breakfast they will beat him up, but the fear of a whipping is nothing compared with the gnawing want that seemed to start in the soles of the boy's feet and then lodged in the back of his throat. There are 17 Irvin children, of which Michael is the 15th. They live in a poor Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, in a small brick house with only one fan for all the children. They fight over food, beds and cool air.
At school other kids laugh at Michael's thrift-shop sneakers, black hightops that they mockingly call cat heads. When Michael's feet outgrow the sneakers, his father will cut off the toe tops, and Michael will wear the sneakers that way to school because he can't afford new ones. His teachers think he is a sad little figure. But Michael never skips school. He is on the free-lunch program. He may be ashamed of toeless sneakers, but he isn't ashamed of needing the free lunch. While the other kids hold up their lunch tickets sheepishly, Irvin jumps to his feet waving his, yelling, "I got mine!"
Michael Irvin is 27 now, but his ravenous appetite has not been appeased. It has only become more expensive, graduating from cornflakes with tap water to clams casino with white wine. "I crave things," he says. His urge to eat anything that doesn't blink is accompanied by a compulsion to say anything he thinks and buy anything that shines. Deion Sanders is one of his best friends.
It's your average weekday, and Irvin is arrayed in burgundy shorts, a paisley silk shirt, gold and diamond rings on his fingers, a large diamond stud in his left ear, a diamond bracelet on one wrist, a diamond-encrusted Rolex on the other and a necklace of inch-thick gold bars culminating in a diamond-laden triangle the size of an ashtray. Irvin slips on his burgundy-tinted shades and steps into an item that completes the ensemble, a black Mercedes convertible with windows untinted so everybody can see him. "Top down, top down!" he hollers as he turns the ignition key and retracts the top, an arrogant gesture not unlike the one he makes when he removes his Dallas Cowboy helmet so that all may view him.
Irvin is the NFL's grand master of braggadocio, and he has backed up his boasts. Now in his sixth NFL season, he has helped transform the Cowboys from a 1-15 team to the defending Super Bowl champions. The Mercedes was a gift to himself for signing a three-year, $3.75 million contract with the Cowboys in 1992 after he made All-Pro. The necklace was the reward Irvin gave to Irvin for his game-breaking Super Bowl performance against the Buffalo Bills: He caught six passes for 114 yards, including two touchdowns in 15 seconds. He comes from the slightly-larger-than-life school of athletic celebrity. "Everybody says, 'Look at that hot dog, that cocky so-and-so,' " he says. "I'm just having fun. I'm a bad example because I enjoy myself? They take me all wrong."
The truth is, Irvin is a complicated man with a quick intelligence and formidable charm. He is not a man of moderation. Dining recently at The Palm restaurant in Dallas, he declared himself to be on a diet and said he would eat only a plate of clams casino, with no main course. A few minutes later the clams were gone. He sopped up the clam juice with three dinner rolls. He stared wistfully at the plate. He gestured for the waiter. Declaring the diet ended, he ordered a four-pound lobster.
What will ever be enough for Irvin? He has his looks, his health and as much talent as any wide receiver in the NFL. He has a Super Bowl ring to go with the national championship ring he won with the Miami Hurricanes in 1987. He has a beautiful wife, Sandy, who is a former Miami Dolphin cheerleader, and he has his own TV show in Dallas. Game over. Right? "I'm still hungry," he says.
Irvin's most prominent feature has always been his mouth. When it is not yearning to be fed, it is often screaming to be heard or begging to be punched. Among the Top 40 on his rhetorical hit parade:
To Phoenix Cardinal cornerback Lorenzo Lynch, whom he had just beaten deep: "It's a nightmare, isn't it? How can lightning keep striking like this?"
To Cowboy reserve quarterback Hugh Millen when Millen joined the team in April: "There's only one thing you need to know. Throw the ball to 88."
To fellow Cowboy receiver Alvin Harper when Harper arrived as a rookie in '91: "I catch the balls here. I get my share, and you get the rest."
In May, Irvin's mouth got him cited for disorderly conduct in Fort Lauderdale while he was home to see his family. Out one night celebrating his younger brother Derrick's graduation from high school, Michael tried to buy a bottle of wine from a convenience store. A clerk refused to sell it because Derrick, 18, was still a minor under Florida law. Michael launched into a "Don't you know who I am" tirade. The clerk summoned the police, and Irvin got a date in court, but the charges were dropped, and he never had to appear.
On the sidelines at the 1992 Pro Bowl in Honolulu, Irvin earned disapproving stares from other players when he threw an operatic fit because he felt that Atlanta Falcon quarterback Chris Miller wasn't getting the ball to him. The Pro Bowl is a famously relaxed affair, but Irvin was coming out of a breakthrough '91 season in which he had caught 93 passes for 1,523 yards, and he was in no mood to put his feet up and sip mai tais. "Give me the ball!" he screamed to no one in particular. "I'm the one who got 1,500 yards!"
Irvin just happened to be standing next to the San Francisco 49ers' Jerry Rice, the NFL's alltime leader in touchdown catches. Rice rolled his eyes. "Irv wants the ball," Rice said. "Hey, everybody, Irv wants the ball."
Miller told Irvin, "Don't worry, I'll get it to you."
Irvin replied edgily, "I'm not joking around." He wasn't. He went on to catch eight passes for 125 yards and was named the game's most valuable player, solidifying his status as one of the foremost performers in the league—though far from the best liked. Irvin admits of the incident, "I was in a state. Everybody was looking at me like, 'There goes that crazy Mike Irvin.' "
Some NFL veterans were even more offended by Irvin's behavior after the funeral of Jerome Brown, the Philadelphia Eagle defensive lineman who died in a car crash last year. Irvin and Brown had been teammates and good friends at Miami. After the funeral Irvin went to a bar with several Philadelphia players. According to two of them, Andre Waters and Wes Hopkins, Irvin joked around, bragged about his exploits on the football field and otherwise behaved inappropriately for a somber occasion.
Irvin says he was misunderstood. He claims that he and Brown, along with some other Miami teammates, made a vow in college that when one of them died, the others would not allow tears at the funeral. They felt they had all gotten more out of life than they ever expected, so whoever died would shake God's hand and say, "Thank you, it was great." Defending his exuberant behavior at the bar, Irvin said, "Humor is one of the healing things in this world."
Gene Upshaw wasn't amused, however, when Irvin upbraided him and, according to The Dallas Morning News, mooned him during an NFL Players Association meeting in the Cowboy locker room in May. Upshaw, the head of the NFLPA, was barnstorming around the league to campaign for the association's new settlement with league owners. Irvin strenuously objects to the agreement, which, he says, sold out the wealthier players, in part because the pact will limit players' ability to negotiate independent licensing deals. Irvin, who earned a degree in business from Miami, made $200,000 in licensing deals last season; now those arrangements will be controlled by the union. He says of his encounter with Upshaw, "Somebody had to say something. The owners wrote that agreement. In two or three years everybody is going to say I'm a genius."
Upshaw replies, "The empty wagon always makes the most noise." According to Upshaw he was attempting to explain the agreement to the Cowboys when Irvin, from the back of the room, interrupted him to debate various points. Upshaw told Irvin that players before him had made sacrifices so that players of his generation would have it better, and Irvin should in turn make a sacrifice for players who would come after him. Irvin, according to Upshaw, then stalked to the front of the room and angrily took over the discussion. "He ended up loud and out of control," Upshaw says.
According to Upshaw, Irvin made a number of derisive statements, including, "I don't want to hear about what you old guys did." The gist of Irvin's speech was that he isn't an average player and doesn't intend to be paid like one. Irvin then made a vulgar gesture to Upshaw and walked out. Irvin, with a smile, denies a report that he mooned Upshaw, and Upshaw won't confirm or deny it. Upshaw says only, "What he did was immature, childish and juvenile." He adds, "What I saw was a bunch of his teammates looking at him and thinking, What a selfish son of a bitch."
On the field, though, the Cowboys view Irvin as an essential part of their team. Irvin declares confidently, "Some people might say I'm greedy or selfish, but not my teammates. They understand me."
"Everybody on this team wants the ball," says Harper. "We just show it in different ways. We don't look at Mike as selfish. When we need to get it done, what guys in the huddle are saying is, 'Let's give it to Mike.' "
What the Cowboys seem to understand about Irvin is the depth of his desire to win and the heights to which his energy can take them. Irvin says that Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson, who was his college coach at Miami, understands him better than anybody. Irvin also says that Johnson is one of the few men he respects. Their relationship is built on a simple principle: All Johnson requires from Irvin is that he help the team win. Irvin says, "You give him what he wants, which is every ounce of strength you have, or it's c'est la vie, he'll see you later."
Catching the essence of Irvin, Johnson says simply, "He's fought for food his whole life." Their first encounter occurred on one of Johnson's first days at Miami, in the fall of 1984, after a fight erupted in the cafeteria between Irvin, then a brash, skinny freshman, and Mike Moore, a 245-pound senior offensive lineman. Johnson assumed that Irvin had gotten the worst of it, but it turned out that Irvin had decked Moore. It seems that Moore had tried to cut in front of Irvin on the food line. "It was a mismatch," Johnson says.
Johnson and his staff gave Irvin latitude because, for one thing, they knew his background. "He's looked in the eyes of hell," says Cowboy receivers coach Hubbard Alexander, who was an assistant at Miami under Johnson. The coaches felt that the same combativeness that got Irvin in trouble outside of football would, with a little maturity, work for the team. "My problem," Irvin says, "is when I take my football energy off the field. If somebody challenges me, I can get in altercations."
The coaches' patience paid off in Irvin's junior year when he helped lead the Hurricanes to the 1987 national championship. In the season's pivotal game, against Florida State, Irvin issued one of his most outrageous challenges to authority. The Hurricanes trailed 19-3 late in the third quarter when Irvin, furious, got on the headphones to the assistant coaches. "Get me the ball!" he screamed. "Get me the——ball!" In the fourth quarter, Irvin caught scoring passes of 26 and 73 yards.
Ever since, Irvin has demanded the ball whenever he has seen fit. He rants to Cowboy offensive coordinator Norv Turner, "Norv, I'm open, I'm open." It's up to Turner, of course, to decide when this is bull and when Irvin can actually make a play.
Irvin's dedication is one thing no one questions. He is the last man to leave the Cowboys' weight room each night, and he hectors young players about their work habits if he thinks they leave too early. "Where are you going, to watch cartoons?" he says. It is not unusual for him to ask quarterbacks to stay after practice and throw to him as he runs every route in the playbook.
In 17 games over the past 2½ years—including Sunday's 168-yard performance against the 49ers—Irvin has caught passes for more than 100 yards. He has dominated the league's best defensive backs. In that '92 Pro Bowl he took advantage of the San Diego Chargers' Gill Byrd when he caught those eight passes and Irvin has had two 100-yard games against Washington Redskin All-Pro Darrell Green. Alexander says, "I tell every rookie, 'Just watch what he does and do it, and you'll be O.K.' "
Those performances have reversed the dismal start of Irvin's professional career, when he couldn't deliver the goods to back up his words. The Cowboys chose Irvin 11th overall in the 1988 draft. But he could not rescue the team as it faded in the last sad days before Tom Landry was fired by new owner Jerry Jones, who brought in Johnson and a whole new staff.
Irvin missed most of Johnson's first season, 1989, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which was just as well, as the Cowboys went 1-15. Fearing his career was over and haunted by old fears of poverty, he worked on rehabilitating the knee by going on 30-mile bike rides. He spent most of '90 recovering his health and confidence while being viewed by nearly everyone else as a disappointment with a $400,000-a-year limp. Then came '91 and his breakthrough. Irvin achieved absolutely everything he had aimed for, including, after a long holdout, his multimillion-dollar contract.
The extravagance of Michael Irvin's jewelry is matched by the exuberance of his laughter, at himself and everything around him. He is in a constant state of hilarity. Sandy Irvin has known her husband to lie in bed and giggle. She wants to know what's so funny. "I'm just laughing at the past," he sighs. Laughter, like money, helps Irvin turn misery into happiness.
In the house where he grew up, on 27th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, the children came in flying wedges. Walter and Pearl Irvin joked that they wanted so many children they would have to name the last one Waltina Pearl. They nearly got there. Walter had two from a previous marriage, Pearl had six, and together they had nine more.
Irvin is often asked to name his siblings in order, and he can't always do it. Even Pearl gets confused sometimes. She refers to a family Bible that has the birth date and full name of each child. They are: Willie Pearl, 46; Alice Jean, 44; Willie James, 43; Walter Jr., 40; Ray Anthony, 38; Sheila Marie, 36; Janet Lynn, 36; Rosalind Rene, 35; twins Vaughn Richard and Don Raymond, 34; Sharon Delores, 33; Laverne Denise, 32; Lisa Michelle, 30; Patricia Ann, 28; Brenda Elaine, 22; and Derrick Lamar, 18.
Some of his relatives think that Michael developed his habit of chattering at high volume simply from trying to speak above the din of the family crowd. His mother says, "Michael does like attention. I have noticed that about my son."
As soon as Pearl got a few of the children grown up and moved out, more came. There were always 12 or 13 people to feed and clothe. The house had only two bedrooms until Walter Sr. closed in a porch and the garage to make extra bedrooms for the overflow. "He filled in every hole to make places to sleep," Pearl says. Michael claims he did not sleep in a bed alone until he got to college. He likes to say his family violated the fire code.
Walter was a roofer by trade but a Baptist preacher by avocation. The Irvins say that Michael is the child most like his father in both looks and character. Walter loved to talk and loved to laugh, and he had a capacity for long, hard labor. Six days a week he rose at 5 a.m. and worked until 7 p.m. Two Sundays a month he left home to preach from pulpits in Americus, Ga., and Fort Myers, Fla. Sometimes he would get home at 4 a.m. from his preaching trips and go to work with no sleep. He put the roof on the Irvins' neighborhood church, Mount Mary Primitive Baptist. The neighbors called him Rev.
Driving his rattletrap truck, Walter would come home in the evenings bone tired and covered from head to toe in dust and mud from construction sites. Michael remembers the plaster and cement caked on his arms. Walter would raise his hand in greeting and jump down from the truck to join his children in games of marbles, which he carried in a sack at his waist, until dinner.
Walter was playful but strict. In his presence the Irvin children were not allowed to argue or complain about the things they didn't have. "You dealt with what you needed, not what you wanted," Michael says. At many Christmases there were no presents under the tree. Michael would tell neighbors that his gifts were at his grandmother's or that he was going out of town on Christmas Day. On the 25th he would stay inside all afternoon, peering at the other children from a window as they played with their new toys.
Even getting the bare essentials was difficult when there were so many other clamoring mouths and jostling bodies. Michael would wait until Walter got home and would cry, "Daddy, they didn't feed your baby today." Michael would sneak food into the bathroom and eat it there or would wait until the house was quiet and the kitchen unguarded and wipe out all the bread and milk at a single sitting. "He was a hog, he ate everything," says his sister Rene. When there was no meat, Michael ate mayonnaise sandwiches. For a change of flavor he would eat ketchup sandwiches. "He didn't care, he ate them just for the bread," Rene says.
Pearl, who was herself the 12th of 13 children, knew how to stretch food. She farmed the backyard, growing string beans, carrots, peas, collard greens and turnips for the huge urns of soup she cooked for dinner. After the children did their homework and went to bed, she would start cooking again. She would prepare the following day's meals during The Tonight Show. Walter joked that as soon as she heard Johnny Carson's voice, Pearl would start cooking.
At night the children waged wars over a fan. Although the house had an air conditioner, the Irvins couldn't afford the electricity to use it. Walter and Pearl had a fan for themselves in their room, which doubled as a nursery for the latest infant. The rest of the family was left to fight over the other fan. The girls usually got it. The boys would toss and sweat in the heat until they couldn't stand it anymore, then send Michael to sneak across the hall and steal the fan. The boys would sleep awhile in the cool breeze; then the girls would wake up in their hot room and one of them would steal the fan back. "It went on all night long," Michael says.
Everybody worked. The girls did the household chores, and the boys did the yard work. As Michael grew, his father would feel his biceps. "Pretty soon you'll be ready for the truck," Walter would say to his son. As soon as Michael could carry a bucket of wet roofing cement, he joined his father on weekend and summer jobs. At 13 he hauled the heavy buckets in the sweltering Florida heat, and his father took rent and food money out of his pay. Michael developed a physical endurance like his father's. In Michael's eyes, Walter took on heroic proportions. "He was a strong man, and strong-minded," Michael says.
Sitting on the hot roofs, Michael would think about getting what he wanted, not just what he needed. It occurred to him that football was the way to do it.
In junior high, in addition to playing football, Michael ran track and played basketball in his cat heads, slipping all over the floor until his sister Pat took a temporary job to earn the money to buy him decent sneakers. When he got to high school and it became clear that his athletic talent was great, his brother Willie took charge of his physical training. Willie, who was 16 years older, would make Michael run several miles a day in exchange for food or a chance to borrow his car. He would pick Michael up after practice and take him to Burger King. "Mama, you got to feed that boy," Willie would tell Pearl. "You got to give him a steak."
At Piper High, Michael became increasingly aware of the things other kids had that he didn't—clothes, sneakers, sunglasses, cars—and was envious. While he ran on the asphalt streets of Fort Lauderdale, he thought more and more about the things he wanted, dreaming of houses with lots of bedrooms and swimming pools. "I was thinking, God, I'm not always going to live this way," he says. "And I wasn't thinking if. I was thinking when."
Even as he began to excel at athletics, Michael envisioned a more immediate way to get what he wanted—to simply take it. He intimates a dark past, though he does not confess anything specific and says he was never caught. "I was hanging with the wrong crowd, guys who had no goals, who were just fluttering," he says. At the end of his sophomore year he was suspended from Piper for disciplinary reasons, the specifics of which "I'll never tell anyone," he says.
Walter was not happy with the course of his son's education or athletic career, and he began scouting private schools for a place to transfer Michael, settling on St. Thomas Aquinas, a private middle-class Catholic school famous for an athletic alumna, Chris Evert. In 1982 St. Thomas admitted Michael as a sophomore. Enraged Piper officials took Michael and St. Thomas to court, claiming that the private school had recruited him for football and basketball and never would have admitted him if not for his athletic talent. Piper also predicted that Irvin would be unable to make the grades at St. Thomas. The court eventually ruled that as required by Florida interscholastic regulations, Irvin would have to sit out his junior year because Piper refused to sign a waiver allowing him to compete.
It was a miserable year without athletics, but it changed Michael's life. Something essential fell into place. At St. Thomas, Michael encountered teachers and coaches who encouraged rather than criticized him and kids who welcomed rather than ostracized him. "I realized there were people willing to help me," he says. "I was around kids who had plans. I said, 'Man, this is what I've been missing.' "
At the same time Michael also lost an essential part of his life. While he discovered a world of possibilities, he learned that some people can work all their lives and never break even. The seemingly indefatigable Walter Irvin was one of them.
Early in Michael's junior year, Walter was found to have with cancer. Michael, idle after school because of his ineligibility, became his father's companion and driver when Walter went to the hospital for treatment. In the car and the waiting room they talked endlessly. Michael realized how profoundly adrift he had been. As Walter's illness progressed, Michael saw his father, for the first time, buckled by pain. Michael asked the priests at St. Thomas how to pray for his father not to be in pain. The shuttling went on for agonizing months, into the beginning of Michael's senior year.
Walter's cheerfulness in the face of his illness left yet another indelible impression on Michael. It also left him with the conviction that the best way to deal with trouble was to laugh in its face. Michael adopted a brightness that was almost fierce. "When people see you joking, they don't see a weakness," he says. "When I talk about how strong my father was, that's what I mean. You never saw the man's weakness."
One fall evening Michael came home from football practice to find the house filled with mourners. His father had died while he was at school. He stood wordlessly in the doorway of the house on 27th Avenue, then turned and fled. "He just left, running," says his sister Janet. "Running as fast as he could."
For hours no one heard from him. His mother was afraid he had thrown himself into the watery sinkhole in the woods behind the house. Finally someone called from St. Thomas. Michael had run five miles without stopping, all the way to the school, to sob in the arms of a priest.
While cancer was the immediate cause of Walter's death, Michael was convinced that his father had died from something else. "The work killed him," he insists. The loss of his father left Michael determined that no one in his family would have to work that hard—not if he could help it. "Football was the trampoline," he says. "It was going to bounce me right over the top."
On a spring afternoon later that year, the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes went through drills under their new head coach, Jimmy Johnson. A wolfish-looking teenager sat on a fence, surveying the field through a pair of sunglasses. Hubbard Alexander recognized him as a local recruit. "Even then he was fancy, Hollywood," Alexander remembers. Michael Irvin peered coolly at Alexander through his shades. "I'm just looking for whose job I'm going to take," Irvin told him.
When Irvin signed his first NFL contract, worth $1.8 million, he bought Pearl a four-bedroom house with a swimming pool in a brand-new Fort Lauderdale development. He also gave her a credit card. She was crazy about the house. She didn't know what to do with the card. She had never had one.
"What can I use it for?" she said.
"To buy things," he said.
Michael bought Janet a satellite rig and a couple of big-screen TVs so the family could watch his games at her house in Fort Lauderdale. Janet hosts all the family gatherings, which draw as many as 200 people. Pearl now has 45 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She has also learned how to use the credit card. "Now she's fancy," Michael says. "She just throws it down on that counter."
When the Irvins need something a credit card can't handle, Michael calls his accountant, Dennis Carpenter of Dallas. "Handle it," Michael says.
The Irvin siblings are, by and large, a hardworking lot, but family members frequently need their famous relative's help. A cousin needs new clothes for college. A nephew has a car payment due. Michael handles it.
Mostly, Michael accepts his relatives' requests without complaint. He demands one thing in return: All male Irvin children must attend St. Thomas. His brother Derrick and one of their nephews, Shaun, graduated from St. Thomas last spring and are attending Kansas on football scholarships this fall. In May, Michael wrote a check to the school for $30,000. He asked that it be used to start a scholarship in his father's name.
But apart from his charity and fits of jewelry buying, Michael isn't all that extravagant. The truth is, he can't afford to be if he's going to support that much family. He and Sandy live in an unremarkable home in a North Dallas development, the same home he bought as a rookie. "That serious spread, the all-out mansion, I don't do it," he says. "I've got to take care of my people. I can't go out on the limb."
Not that Michael will ever be a true model of restraint. Pearl Irvin raised 17 children in poverty, one of them hungrier than all the others. For every charming turn or affecting gesture, Michael Irvin might always have a lingering childishness. What he really likes are toys. At heart he is still the kid who didn't get anything for Christmas. He is doing just fine without winning popularity contests. If you're not a member of his family, he's not even sure he wants you to like him.
"Like me? I don't know," he says. "Understand me? I don't know. It would be nice if people didn't always judge me without understanding me. But that's like saying it would be nice if we didn't have starvation." In the end, it seems, he just wants to be rich. And full.
Sometimes the Irvin clan gathers at Mount Mary Baptist Church for a reunion. Passersby see all the cars, and the long picnic tables filled with people in the church yard, and they wonder what is going on. It's just the Irvins, eating.