Sports Outside the Beltway

Michael Irvin Finally in Hall of Fame

As Steven Taylor already reported, Michael Irvin was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after being snubbed twice. It’s about time.

Even as a die-hard Cowboys fan, it’s hard to refute that Irvin can be obnoxious, let alone his problems with drugs. Still, he’s a much better man than Lawrence Taylor. And he was the undisputed leader of the dominant team of the 1990s. He’s a happy and relieved man.

Michael Irvin Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys Michael Irvin fields a pass for a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter of their game in Philadelphia, in this Nov. 2, 1998 file photo. Irvin was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner) Michael Irvin wrapped his arms around Thurman Thomas in the kind of hug that new Hall of Famers share. Somewhere, Paul Tagliabue could only envy their emotional display. “That embrace Thurman and I had, we talked earlier, we were falling apart on the phone,” Irvin said. “We don’t sound like cool people that played a tough game right now.”


“This was worth the wait,” Irvin said. “I know my alphabet. When I heard ‘H’ I was like, ‘OK, I (is) next.’ So, whew! I was so afraid we were going to skip over the I’s.” Not this year, his third try.

Irvin didn’t mention his troubled past — pleading no contest in 1996 to felony cocaine possession; getting arrested in 2000 on drug possession charges that were later dropped — but former teammate Troy Aikman did. “I think that maybe some of that is why he hasn’t gotten in until now,” said Aikman, who was inducted last year. “And I know that’s not part of the criteria, and I think all of the voters would tell you that’s not part of the criteria. But we are all human and I think you maybe take what you think of a person as an individual and have that cloud what you think of his athletic abilities. That happens.”


Irvin finished his career with 750 receptions for 11,904 yards and 65 touchdowns. He was selected to five straight Pro Bowls and picked for the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1990s.

“I played with a lot of great guys and played under some great guys,” he said, specifically mentioning the Triplets — himself, Emmitt Smith and Aikman. “Jimmy Johnson was a great head football coach. And Norv Turner, we always got on him every week: `Get me the ball.’ “He’d say, `Stop bothering me. Do you think I’m stupid? We are throwing you the ball.’ “

Irvin lacked the gaudy stats of great receivers who played in the West Coast offense but was, in my view, the dominant receiver of the early 1990s. At their peaks, he was better even than Jerry Rice. Blessed with better health and playing for consecutive Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Rice unquestionably had the better career.

One benefit of the three year delay is that the announcement came in Irvin’s hometown of Miami. And his friends and former teammates were there.

“Michael Irvin was the most competitive individual I have every played with. He was the heart and soul of our team,” [Emmitt] Smith said. “From a physical standpoint, there is no one who could match his talent and skill. His work ethic, charisma and drive were what carried us to our three Super Bowl titles. I am proud of him for this accomplishment. It is much deserved.”

Among those celebrating Irvin’s election were Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and San Francisco offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Turner is the leading candidate for the Cowboys head coaching job and a former Dallas offensive coordinator. Recently hired Jason Garrett was also present.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Randy Galloway thinks it was about time, too.

Nobody does joy better than Mike Irvin. Nor does anybody do charisma better. He was a special football player as a big-game, big-time receiver, and also always a guy blessed with a unique personality while being cursed by well-chronicled off-the-field demons.


By any football-only criteria, Irvin being elected was not only deserved, but overdue. Michael should have been voted in two years ago, when he missed out despite making it to the final six candidates, usually an automatic sign of entrance.

But even in Cowboy Nation, there will be dissenters. I read your e-mails, about how Irvin once disgraced the franchise, and about how he is such a poor off-the-field example when it comes to what kind of player should represent the Cowboys in Canton.

I’ve got minimum rebuttal for that, except one thing: The process. The bylaws for voting in the Pro Football Hall of Fame are clear on one thing: On-the-field only. Then there is no argument about Mike Irvin. But human nature, of course, will always slip into the process. And these aren’t computers doing the voting. These are humans, or at least 40 media members from around the country.

As Michael was recognizing those in the audience, and others who have meant much to him over the years, his words Saturday about Aikman certainly stood out. Talking about former teammates, Irvin praised Emmitt Smith and others, but finally said, “my very best, my very favorite, and I don’t mind saying it, is Troy Aikman, a man among men.”

Irving continued by mentioning how much Aikman “hated to throw interceptions,” so every ball thrown his way, he strived to “protect Troy from interceptions.” But the kicker line from Mike on Troy was, “Troy also protected me all the time. I want to thank him for being a great quarterback, but for also being a great friend.”

So after the Saturday festivities, I asked Troy to address those in Cowboy Nation who will disagree, or be uncomfortable, with Michael being in the Hall of Fame. Certainly, Aikman is the ultimate when it comes to the “character” that many desire with this football honor.

“Mistakes were made by Michael in his life, and I have no doubt this is why it took a little longer for this day than it should have,” said Aikman. “But I know all sides of Michael. What kind of individual he is, and what kind of loyal friend. And as a football player, well, they don’t come any better than Michael.” Aikman, the football perfectionist, had a soulmate in Irvin. “He not only showed up for practice every day, he showed up prepared, showed up knowing all his assignments and knowing what had to be done that day to get ready for Sunday,” Aikman added.

“On game day, he was the epitome of the big-game receiver, plus he was our emotional leader on the team. Without question, Michael’s emotional impact on the entire team, and how he prepared to play on Sunday, was the difference in many of the games we won.”

And finally, Aikman finished off with his ultimate compliment: “Michael is a great friend, not just to me, but also my family, and there was none better when it came to being a great teammate,” he said. Believe me, Aikman is very particular about his choices of “great teammate,” and also “great friends.”

And it was also Aikman, of course, who showed up in the Dallas County courtroom as a show of support for Michael in one of Irvin’s dark days with the law. “I was there to support my friend, not to support what he was in the courtroom for,” Troy said Saturday. On the criticism Aikman received for being there, he added that “what was important to me was I thought Michael needed a friend at that particular time in his life.”

Michael Irvin’s career with the Cowboys was a contradiction at times, bouncing between great player and team leader, to a guy who could screw up royally on the streets. But when it comes to judging individual and team accomplishments over many seasons, Mike is now going where he belonged all along. Canton.

The Cowboy fan-in-chief agrees.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was also in attendance, didn’t draft Irvin but bought the team before Irvin’s second year. He soon became father, friend and confidant. Jones shed tears twice while talking about what making the Hall of Fame meant to Irvin and the Cowboys. “I apologize,” Jones said. “There were some great memories with Michael. He is about life. He says something about getting up. It’s inspirational.”

Indeed it is.

Brad Sham thinks the Hall voters might have been a little inspired, too.

They all credit Norv Turner for giving the Cowboys a championship offense in the early ’90s. Now they might be able to give him some credit for putting one of the main cogs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Turner spoke to HOF voter Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram during the past week. Williams had called to get more ammunition to bolster Michael Irvin’s Hall candidacy when it came time to make the arguments in the voters’ room Saturday, and Turner made the case by looking ahead a year, to the potential first-ballot nomination of Washington’s great cornerback Darrell Green. “Tell ‘em if they don’t vote for Michael to forget about voting for Darrell,” said Turner, who coached them both, “because Darrell hasn’t covered him yet.”


The stats, of course, set the foundation. Presenter Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth’s Williams and USA Today’s Jarrett Bell brought the stats to life. Bell, who worked at the old Dallas Times-Herald a few years before Irvin arrived on the scene, compiled a dossier of Irvin’s numbers against the top corners, the Hall of Famers: Darrell Green, Rod Woodson, Aeneas Williams and Deion Sanders. It was even better than the overall numbers. That’s why Irvin made it to the Hall of Fame: What he did in the biggest games against the best players.

But he was able to do that because of a work ethic that lifted his teammates and made them better. Garrett, the Cowboys’ newly-hired offensive coordinator, remembers a summer night in the mid-90s that describes Irvin perfectly.

The story Garrett recounted Saturday occurred somewhere in the mid-90s, after the Cowboys’ ’92 and ’93 championships, after Irvin had been a Pro Bowl pick at least twice.

“It’s the Sunday night before training camp opened on Thursday,” Garrett recalls. Then the team’s backup quarterback, Garrett was returning to Dallas from his family home in New Jersey. “I land about 5 in the afternoon and I’ve got 10 messages from Michael Irvin. ‘Red, I need you to meet me at the complex tonight. I need to get some throws before camp.’

“So I meet him at the complex at 7 p.m. It’s 100 degrees. No one there but the two of us. I’m wearing grays (t-short and shorts). Irvin’s wearing his helmet, his shoulder pads, this big heavy weight vest he wore in practice and these hot rubber pants. We run metabolics, which are position-specific exercises. For receivers, that means running routes. And he’s running them.

“We do five sets of ten of these things. Not a lot is said. He runs a route, hard, catches the ball, walks it back, does it again. Stops after a set to swig some Gatorade. We’re doing 50, 60 throws, and after about throw 35, I’m sweating, I’m thinking, ‘I’m getting a little tired.’ He’s out there in his rubber pants and his big freakin’ weight vest running more routes. And I remember thinking, ‘This is why this guy is so good.’ And there’s not a soul there to see it.”

Turner mentions how Irvin made average players good, what he did to make the Alvin Harpers and Larry Browns of the world significant cogs. He’s asked, which Irvin was more important: The one who made plays, outfought defenders, prevented interceptions, or the one who lifted his teammates to be better? “You can’t separate them,” he says shaking his head. “You have to have both. For Michael, not doing everything in his power to win championships would have meant he had not done what he was supposed to do.”

Jerry Jones remembers Irvin coming out for stretching in practice, one of the last ones out, standing in front of the whole team “and yelling, ‘Hold up now. Hold ‘em up: who out here is gonna outwork me today?’ Every now and then he had some takers, but no one ever managed it.”

Many observers around the country don’t like Irvin because of his off-field problems. Some don’t like his personality on television. One voter said Friday, “He’s a despicable human being, but I’m voting for him.”

But the point is, he’s not a despicable human being. He is a different person than the one who was in trouble every day 10 years ago. You don’t have to like or be comfortable with his frequent professions of faith, and many aren’t.

All those of us who know him can do is tell you what we know. Five years ago, the recently-retired Irvin was trying to break into broadcasting. One of his first jobs was being the analyst on the TV games of the brand-new Arena League Desperados. I was his partner on those games. I traveled with him. I watched him work. I watched him stay in his room at night and study. We talked a lot. Please don’t try to tell me what’s fake and what’s real about Michael Irvin.

Every new Hall of Famer’s initial remarks are moving, in one way or another. Saturday afternoon, just miles from his boyhood home, from his high school field, from his college experience, Michael Irvin was the most composed and eloquent of them. He’s worked hard on that, too.

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