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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

(continued from page 1)

And so, he entered the world of another kind of promise—one he was unable to keep. "For 30 years, my drug was football. That was who I was," says Irvin. "And then, just like that, it's gone. You start to wonder: Who am I? What's my purpose? We as men don't want to talk to each other about these kind of feelings." So instead, they find other outlets. If they're wealthy All-Pros used to rock star treatment, they don't always make the best decisions. Even back in his playing days. Irvin was breaking promises to his wife, Sandi (the two were married in 1990). In March 1996, celebrating his 30th birthday, he was arrested on charges of cocaine possession. But as he notes, "The team environment can keep you in check. I'd broken my promises to Leon and Emmitt and Troy, and knew if I did it again, they'd kick my ass."

Once retired, though, who was around to hold Irvin accountable in the way Lett, Smith and Aikman had? "I spiraled," says Irvin. "I was lost. I blew all kinds of money on women and drugs and hotel rooms. And don't forget, when you're the man, you've got a posse, so you're picking up tabs left and right. I'm talking hundreds of thousands of dollars."

There came a night when Irvin made his way home amid a barrage of TV helicopters and cameras. He had no idea how to begin to recount to his wife all the ways he'd lied to her. As soon as he opened the door, she made it all clear. Don't say a word to me, she said. Look in the mirror and make your peace with God.

In early 2001, after giving up what he calls "my main addiction—football," Irvin realized he had to give up the other addictions, too. Irvin found solace in religion. The hours he once devoted to hedonistic pursuits are now often spent with Bishop T. D. Jakes. "He's helped me get inspired, helped me understand myself and just what an obsessive person I can be," says Irvin. "Before I met him, I was knowledgeable but I wasn't spiritually healthy."

When he isn't spending hours reading the Bible, talking with Jakes or working with Sandi on building a new house, Irvin's got a new career that greatly excites him. His chatty manner made him a natural for a television career. However, his off-the-field scandals compelled ESPN to initially reject him as a potential commentator. After seeing Irvin excel in a short stint with FOX, though, ESPN decided it was worth hiring him as a studio analyst. "I love TV," he says. "I love that it's live. That's as close as it comes to the adrenaline of the game. I can talk about football all day."

According to ESPN football analyst Suzy Kolber, a fellow Miami graduate who's worked with Irvin and has known him since she worked for a Cowboys' TV network in the early '90s, "We talked extensively about how to do the job. And he works on it, not just on football but on diction, on language and delivery. He's good, he's outgoing, he comes up with unique lines and phrases that are unique to him."

Earlier this year, Irvin made his film debut in the remake of the 1974 prison football classic, The Longest Yard. Uncertain how to act, he met with Burt Reynolds, who'd starred in the first version and was also in the second. "He told me just to be real, to find it from the heart," says Irvin. Reviews of Irvin's supporting role were generally positive. "The former Dallas Cowboy can act," said Rolling Stone. Since then, he and the movie's star, Adam Sandler, have become pals, and Irvin hopes to find more film work.

But the cornerstones of his life remain football, family and faith. Life has not been easy for this man since he was carried off the field that day in Philadelphia. The cheers have gone; the memories remain. Can anything quite match that feeling he and Smith had when they took the field for their first Super Bowl back in 1993? "Don't let anyone tell you it's just another game," says Irvin. "We walked onto that field, and our knees were shaking. But we won, we got it done." Asked his thoughts on the comment that athletes die twice—the first time when they retire—Irvin nods his head.

These days, Michael Irvin enjoys his cigars in solitude. As a friendly concession to Sandi, he doesn't smoke at home, opting instead for one during his many road trips. Traveling to NFL cities for his ESPN work, staying in hotel rooms by himself, unwinding at the end of a day out on a location shoot, Irvin reflects on the many promises he's kept, the many he's broken and his hopes for the future—in his case, one blessed day at a time.

Oakland-based Joel Drucker, author of the book Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, writes about sports, popular culture and business.

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