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Michael Irvin Keeping the Promise

The Former Dallas Cowboy reflects on success, scandal and salvation, and his undying passion for football and cigars.
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

The cigar was the symbol of a series of promises. At least that was the way Michael Irvin saw it. There he was, the All-Pro wide receiver, the self-proclaimed "Playmaker" on the big-time National Football League dynasty of the '90s, the Dallas Cowboys. After a fallow decade, America's Team had been resurrected, the squeaky-clean, humble piety of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach jettisoned for the brash in-your-face arrogance of coach Jimmy Johnson and his former University of Miami star, the cocky Irvin. As all the pieces fell into place—as the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl in 14 years, then a second, then a third—Irvin basked in the glow of success. He loved the glory and the top-tier perks offered to an All-Pro football player in the Lone Star State. "We knew how the Cowboys did would even affect the Texas economy," says Irvin as he zips through the streets of suburban Dallas in his silver Mercedes SL55. "We were big; the Beatles, the Rat Pack of Texas." • A smooth cigar was one great way to savor that glory. On Sunday nights, with the game still racking his ears and memories of each play ringing through his brain, Irvin would join his Cowboys buddies to decompress at places like the local Ruth's Chris Steak House. "You can't eat," says Irvin. "You're too hyped to get the food down. You need to play it out, let it go, relax and, most of all, be one of the boys." • At first it was Leon Lett, the gregarious defensive end, who offered Irvin a taste of a vanilla cigar. "That was sweet, so delicious," says Irvin.

He and Leon, often joined by their buddy Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys' go-to running back, found the cigars an ideal way to chew over the game.

But even celebration of a battle well fought was secondary to Irvin's pride in having delivered on a promise he'd made years earlier to his father, Walter. Michael was one of 17 kids raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While Michael was in his teens, Walter fell ill with throat and brain cancer. Michael, already starting to prove his prowess as a football star, was the one Walter selected to drive him to his doctor's appointments.

"I'd just gotten my driver's license, so I was just happy to get behind the wheel of our silver Chevy Caprice," says Irvin. "But my dad had something else in mind. He'd talk to me about manhood, and responsibility. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I remember this: One time he tried in our living room to get up, and he couldn't, and he broke his hip. He asked out loud—and he was big, 6 feet, 2 inches, 240 pounds—'How long can I deal with this?' It wasn't the pain he was talking about. It was the pain of having his family see him like this. So he and I would talk, and he said to me, 'You're going to do something great. But you've got to promise me you'll take care of your mother. Promise me that.' And then one day he said, 'I feel like going home on the morning train.' And that night, he died."

Irvin kept the promise. He earned a scholarship to the University of Miami, became an All-American receiver, and then threw himself heart and soul into his pro career. "What made Michael so special was the way he worked," says Troy Aikman, the Cowboys' quarterback from those years. "He practiced every day as if he was going up against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship."

All his life Irvin dreamed of being a famous performer and a superb athlete. With Dallas, in his own loud and diligent way, he'd struck gold in both areas. "Wide receivers are the ones at the end," says Irvin, "so we've got to make noise and work hard to get people to pay attention to us. But when they do, we better make things happen." By 1990, his third season, Irvin ranked on a par with the great Jerry Rice. He also revolutionized the wide receiver position, imposing a new level of physicality to running his patterns. Earning good money, he bought his mother a new house and gratefully assumed the role of family financial caretaker. "You can catch it and take that hit," he says, "or get back to the ghetto."

Back with Lett and Smith after the games, and also occasionally with Aikman, lineman Erik Williams or other teammates, enjoying the sweet taste of the vanilla cigars, Irvin savored how far he had come. " 'Let's be big boys' was the way I thought of it," says Irvin. "Let's have a Cognac and a cigar. To me, that was the ultimate way of being bourgeois—brothers from the ghetto being bourgeois. Leon would try to eat caviar and we'd crack up. Imagine that, raised on collard greens and here we're cooling out with a cigar."

There was time spent making other promises, too. No other sport requires more intricate forms of collaboration than football. "You need everyone to help everyone," says Irvin. "For me to make that catch, the other receiver needs to run his pattern, too, so that the defense is off-balance. I may be the one who makes the grab, but everyone contributes to it. So we'd sit down and get each other to commit to things we'd do during the games—all those little things that add up to great football." As the late hours of Sunday turned into the early hours of Monday, as the smoke wisped its way into the air, Irvin locked himself into one agreement after another. This was what it took to be a champion. This was what it took to succeed. It was all so simple.

Life became more complicated for Michael Irvin on October 10, 1999. That was the day he suffered a career-ending neck injury in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Though he'd always imagined he'd have to be dragged off the field, he'd always thought that was a silly fantasy, and certainly one that wouldn't happen when he was a mere 33 years old. He finished his career with 750 catches and 65 touchdowns. Eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time in 2005, Irvin failed to get voted in, but it's expected he'll make it to the Hall in due time.

Nearly six years after that fateful day, Irvin's sitting in a Dallas seafood restaurant, eating from a bowl of gumbo, sipping water, staggered by how fast fame comes and goes. Over the course of the meal, a few fans politely wave, say hello and wish him well. Irvin is kind to them all. He remembers how he lived for the chance to get in the face of the opposing defensive back, make the big catch and bring the crowd to its feet. "Fans may watch a movie," he says, "but with us, with football, they live a game. You do that in front of millions, it's like nothing you can ever imagine feeling."


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