This story originally published in the May 8, 1988 editions ofThe Dallas Morning News.
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Ten people have been sitting on the Irvins' front porch for more than an hour on a warm afternoon, waiting for Michael Irvin. Occasionally, cousin John will arise from his perch on a paint bucket to look down the street that bends in front of the neat, white home. Derrick, the youngest of 17 Irvin children, laughs and says John "thinks he can smell Michael coming." John neither smiles nor allows his eyes to leave the street. He stands up again. "Here he comes," he says, dutifully.
A few moments later, the dark gray BMW eases slowly into the driveway, and Michael Irvin unfolds from the front seat. He smiles widely. He is wearing a white University of Miami T-shirt with "Press On" written across the chest, green shorts, tennis shoes with no socks, and a Dallas Cowboys cap. A gold medallion beats against his chest as he comes up the sidewalk, a medallion three inches wide with the head of a lion at its center, suspended by a gold rope chain an inch in diameter. He wears a large, square national championship ring on the middle finger of his left hand. A diamond stud flashes in his left ear lobe.
This is the Michael Irvin the nation knows: flashy, brassy, a hero to his fans; the man who points at the sky when he scores; the man who, upon meeting President Reagan after the Hurricanes beat Oklahoma for the national championship, circled his fist in the air; the man who talks so much; the wide receiver who inspired Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm to say "he should accelerate our return to the living" after he was chosen in the first round of the NFL draft.
He is all of those things to most of the people waiting on the front porch, and something more: He is their hope. He is a dream house to his mother, business backing to one brother, a guarantor on loans for at least two other siblings and a vicarious exit from a spare, no-frills lifestyle for the entire family.
"I know that's the way it is," Michael says later, without rancor.
"It's definitely been 'Michael this, Michael that,' the last couple of years. Somebody's always got their hand out. I'm a 20-year-old kid with a 40-year-old man's responsibilities."
He smiles slowly now, the corners of his mouth easing his cheeks back.
"But that's all right," he says. "I love them. They're my family.
And there's nothing like seeing your family back you."
Michael's family shaped him. He learned all the traditional values, from responsibility and the work ethic taught by his father to a respect for religion from his mother. And, growing up in a three-bedroom house with 18 other people, he developed what is sometimes an acerbic wit as a means of personality survival.
But, now that he is on his own, he still is not alone. His family is behind him, but he may be pulling more than they are pushing.
A discussion of Michael Irvin's family invariably turns into a numbers game. Michael is the 15th of Walter and Pearl Irvin's children, thought to be the last child until a sister followed six years later, and then another brother three years after that. There are 10 girls and seven boys, ranging in age from 39 (Alice) to 13 (Derrick). There are two sets of twins: Janet and Sheila and Daughn and Vaughn.
Pearl already had six children when, in her "early 20s,' she met Walter, at the time an owner of a small restaurant. Large families ran on both sides. She came from a family of 13 children, he from a family of eight. They married and had 11 more children and never enough money, right up to the time he died of cancer in 1983.
No one could find Michael after the family learned of their father's death, and Pearl feared that Michael had thrown himself in the pond behind the house. A coach called a few minutes later, saying Michael was all right. He had run the five miles to St. Thomas Aquinas High School.
"I asked a priest at my school why my father had to go through all that, just when we could see the light at the end of the tunnel," Michael said. "Sometimes I'll wonder what it would be like if he were here. I can see him at the games, with a suit, a hat and a cigar in his mouth.
"I talk to my father before every game. I really miss him. When things are going good, that's when I miss him most."
He says he points to the sky after a touchdown because he is saluting his father. A friend of the family says she couldn't believe Michael could be so touching about his father. She says he talks and clowns so much that it is difficult to imagine a serious, thoughtful side.
Pearl said it is because her son is the image of his father.
"My husband loved children," Pearl said. "When we first got married, he said, 'I want to have so many children that we have to name them Cornbread, Peas, Mashed Potatoes.' "
"I don't know if life would have been any simpler if we hadn't had so many. I don't think life is ever meant to be simple.'
But Walter Irvin's rules were simple. Anybody who didn't want to go to school could quit, but that person would have to go to work. When Walter left in the morning for work as a roofing contractor, everyone else was to leave the home, also. No one stayed home who was healthy, employable or of school age.
He had a curfew. When it was dark, the kids came home. They say they never felt in danger growing up, mainly because of the protective nature of the people in the neighborhood. Everyone knew their neighbors, and a stranger is always regarded with long, watchful stares. The older children discipline the younger children, as did other fathers. One by one, Vaughn said, he has watched the fathers die, and watched the neighborhood change because of it.
Golden Heights is a pocket of small, brightly-colored houses sitting hard by the narrow streets. Hot-house plants such as crotons, philodendrons and scheffleras border lawns little more than 10 yards deep, giving a poor neighborhood an almost festive appearance. The neighborhood is connected to the major thoroughfare of Sunrise Boulevard by 27th Avenue, an umbilical cord dotted with small businesses that have bars over the windows and doors. Vaughn says one of the businesses is the center of neighborhood drug activity.
"A woman down the street used to have drug fits in the morning,'
Vaughn said. "We'd all just laugh. But I told them that, one day, it would come knocking on our door. And it did.'
He said the family took care of its drug problem. His father was strict. No alcohol was allowed in the house. Walter tried to cut off any potential problem areas. One summer night, he walked to a drive-in to retrieve his children who were not home by midnight.
Like the other fathers, he also was not shy about disciplining other children. He once caught Michael and several of his neighborhood friends swimming in the pond that separates their back yard from the old city dump. The pond, or "rock pit,' was forbidden. Walter had once pulled a drowned man from it. He lined all the children up, gave each a spanking and told them to go home and tell their parents why they were punished.
Walter was a big man, more than six feet tall with thick, powerful arms. Michael says he was the only man who ever scared him.
"He was Superman,' Michael said. "People don't understand how hard he worked. He'd get up at 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning and come home at 8 o'clock at night, six days a week, then he'd go preach on Sundays.'
Walter traveled to Americus, Ga., and Fort Myers, Fla., twice a month to preach in Primitive Baptist churches, a splinter of the denomination that finds most normal Southern Baptist trappings to be un-Biblical. They have no choir, no home or foreign mission board. The services are long, sometimes lasting all day, ending with a church supper.
Pearl Irvin said they also are "foot-washin' Baptists,' meaning they wash the feet of their brethren as a sign of humility and service.
Pearl said she was washing the feet of "a sister' one Sunday when she felt what seemed like a pair of hands reaching around her waist. She heard a whoosh, as if a great wind had entered the church, and then she felt the 2-month-old fetus in her womb begin to kick and jump. She knew this baby would be special, she said, because he had been blessed.
Either blessed or spoiled, Michael soon proved to be the favorite.
On hot, sticky nights, his brothers would send him to steal a fan from their sisters in the next room. They reasoned that, if caught, Michael would get in the least trouble.
The Irvins didn't have air conditioning or didn't run it much when they did because they couldn't afford the electric bill. They could afford little of anything. Vaughn says he would wear a set of clothes one day, and Daughn would wear it the next. Tennis shoes that were too small but still had rubber on the soles would have the tops cut out, leaving the toes exposed. Michael says Christmas often meant no present at all.
His poor past is one of the reasons he likes to flaunt his jewelry and other material possessions. He told a man who is customizing his BMW he didn't want tinted windows because he wanted people to see him as he drove it and know that the man driving the expensive BMW is Michael Irvin.
"I'm still like a big kid because we didn't have that much growing up,' Michael said. "I'd see kids running out in the streets with all their new Christmas stuff. I'd tell them before Christmas that I'd be going to Grandma's, so they wouldn't ask where I was. But I'd be there inside, looking out the window at them.'
Bitterness never occurred to him, he said, because he understood.
His Aunt Fannie, Pearl's older sister who lives down the street, says Michael was never one to be depressed about anything.
If anything, he was too happy.
"He was always kissing you, kissing you all over the mouth, real hard," she said, tilting her head back and popping her palm against her mouth. She retreated to another room in the house and brought back a photo album. An 8-year-old is smiling back from one of the yellowing photographs. "He was always smiling, always happy."
Willie, Pearl's oldest son, says Michael has the smile of his mother. A short, solid, square-shouldered woman, Pearl greets someone she has met only once with a firm hug. She smiles easily and often. The tone of her voice in conversation rises and pitches likes waves, occasionally accelerating and then breaking into laughter before petering into silence.
She is the root of the family's spiritual beliefs. She says she likes to be alone at times so she can hear God's voice. Only when she is still, she said, can she hear it. And she is never alone in the little three-bedroom house she has lived in for 28 years. Someone is always there. A dozen telephone calls placed to the house on Northwest 28th Avenue over a three-day period were greeted by a different voice each time.
The Irvin house always has been a center of activity. If not playing in what used to be a vacant field two blocks away, children would congregate in the Irvin yard and the street in front of the house. Michael sometimes played tackle in the street. For basketball, they would set up a goal by the street and nail the rim of what had been a bicycle wheel to a backboard.
"I had kids everywhere, 75, 80 kids," Pearl said, throwing her arms outward and laughing. "They were always saying, 'Miss Pearl, can I have some water? Miss Pearl, can I have something to drink?' Oh! I went out to that goal post one day and I shook it until it came down."
The children kept playing anyway. The Irvin boys often played as a team, taking on other neighborhoods, and Michael always was the best.
He was the only Irvin to attend college on an athletic scholarship and only the third of the Irvin children to earn a degree. There was no money to send the rest.
Michael's athletic ability took the family by surprise. They knew he was good when he was in high school but weren't sure how good until Willie saw him play basketball in the 10th grade. Only a sixth man because the coach wouldn't let underclassmen start, Michael led the team in scoring in the first game Willie saw.
"I just stood there with my mouth open," he said. "It was unbelievable."
A few years later, Michael would be winning dunking contests. But his athletic participation soon became a point of contention in the community.
He tried to transfer from Piper High School to St. Thomas after his sophomore year, primarily because he was angry about receiving a three-day disciplinary suspension. Piper officials would not grant him a waiver to participate in sports at St. Thomas, which had been accused of recruiting high school players. A court case followed, with Michael eventually losing. He was not allowed to participate in sports at St.
Thomas during his junior year.
Family members agree that the year off from sports was good for Michael. His grades improved. He became better focused on his goals.
George Smith, St. Thomas' coach, moved Michael, who had been a defensive end and offensive tackle, to wide receiver, a move that coach and player said was natural for his talent and disposition.
Michael began to work harder. He ran everywhere. He would borrow Willie's car on dates, return it and then run the five miles home. He still runs. He ran with teammates when they had to run penalty laps at Miami. He ran at night on the beach, often being stopped by police. He runs for a reason.
"When you come up in such a big family, you learn to put out 150 percent when you get a good thing," he said. "I work out two or three times a day. I like going to practice. It's like a high. The best part of football is when I'm giving myself up, running the stairs with a 30-pound weight jacket or running with my equipment on.
"People would say, 'Mike Irvin, you're a fool.' But I'd tell them that, in the fourth quarter, I know I've worked harder than that other guy, and that helps me beat him."
He had learned as a junior in high school that hard work was all that separated him from what he wanted. And, now that he has it, he has become the family focus. His earning power already has been felt. A black Volvo sedan sits in the driveway. Michael gave his white Datsun 280Z to his nephew, Tony Sands, who will be a freshman running back at Kansas this fall.
Michael is able to do things for his family that no one else has.
His mother wants a new house, a "big house with a big kitchen and plenty of cabinets.' She wouldn't say in front of her children but, later, when they are gone, she said she would like to live in Dallas.
She said she would welcome the quiet, to be still and hear God's voice and dream her dreams.
"She believes so strong," Michael said. "She tells me she has dreams about all kinds of things. She sees the house. Sometimes she gets real deep.
"I want her to have a reward for all she's done. That's why I've got to work a little harder, because it's my mom's reward. I'll break my back for that."
Willie had the same goal when he went to college at Bethune-Cookman. He returned with a degree but without the means. He has been a teacher and counselor, and his dignified manner befits those professions. He led much of the conversation in a three-hour visit at his mother's house two nights before Michael arrived from Miami.
But, as Willie led, everyone felt free to step in. Questions were only interruptions. A fan stirred the warm air in a tiny den off the living room as one thought spilled into another.
The size of the group was in constant flux as family members moved in and out, recalling games, catches, scores, opponents, where they were sitting, what they were doing, how long it took to get there, all the details of Michael's football career. Their voices were those of children: excited, animated.
They recalled what it had been like on draft day, when the Cowboys made Michael their first choice.
"I told all the children to get in front of the TV to watch," Willie said. "Then I said, 'Now dream a little bit. Maybe one day, it'll happen for you.' "
It has not happened for any of the other Irvin children. All either have jobs or are in school and all are healthy. They have done more than most would have thought possible for 17 children from a poor family. But none has been as wildly successful as Michael, and that may be more than enough for all of them.
"I used to dream that I would come back from school one day and help my mother," Willie said. "Now Michael will be able to do it. I could never be envious of him, because he's my brother. The cars don't bother me, the gold ropes don't bother me, none of that. I'm just happy for Michael. I'm just proud of him . . . We're all proud of him."
He stared at the floor as he finished his last sentence and, for the first time all evening, the room was quiet. There was only the hum of the fan.Click here to order Michael Irvin's proCane Rookie Card.