Mickey Spagnola describes the day:
Leave it to Michael Irvin. And the Pro Football Hall of Fame did. Michael Irvin stepped to the podium last, the sixth of six great athletes entering into the Hall of Fame here Saturday night at an emotionally-drained Fawcett Stadium, where tears flowed freely all night long.
Then Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took the stage, charged with presenting Irvin, the man who gave him so much joy and put him through so much pain during his 12 years with the Dallas Cowboys, right to the bitter end when Irvin went down in Philadelphia and never got up, carried off on a stretcher the fourth game of the 1999 season forever more.
“I don’t know that we’ll see again a professional football player with a combination of his strength and his skills as an athlete on the field and his unbelievable people skills,” Jones said. “Smart, resourceful, communication, charm, the kind of charisma and tremendous will with the strength to get the respect of the team. He had his faults. But in a unique way, that only Michael Irvin could pull off.
“His fallibility by the people who follow him, by the people who were looking at him, his fallibility gave them strength because they knew, too, how fallible they were and that they wanted to see somebody that could go down and come up stronger and try to get better when they got on their feet. That’s what Michael Irvin brought to the Dallas Cowboys.”
How ironic then, that at the end of his career, Irvin went down one last time, his head piled into the Veterans Stadium turf and carried off the field on a stretcher, never to step on the football field again as a player.
Well, as he had his entire life, one which began as one of Walter and Stella’s 17 children in a home with a barren refrigerator and a cereal bowl without milk, Michael Irvin rose one more time Saturday night, giving a speech from his heart, without a single note, baring his ever-lovin’ soul before God and everybody.
The lady down the road from me was wiping her eyes. Grown men in front of me were looking down, not wanting to appear weak. The sheriff’s deputy in the holding zone was shaking his head afterward, as if he had never heard the likes. Stella Irvin cried, cried so hard she was biting the towel in her hands to muffle her emotions. Gene Jones cried, as did her husband, Jerry Jones, who made it through his presentation, but not Michael’s.
We cried. You cried. Michael cried, not ashamed to wipe away his tears.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Jones said of the atmosphere on stage with the other Hall of Famers and the former inductees. “You saw some of the ways he can motivate people, relate to people.”
The entire world saw what Irvin was capable of in the locker room and in the huddle. You saw why former Cowboys head coach Dave Campo, an assistant with Irvin at the University of Miami, asked and received special dispensation from Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio to miss Saturday’s practice so he could attend Saturday’s ceremony and why he would say beforehand, “I loved Mike. He was always my guy.”
You saw why the Cowboys’ list of who’s who was so long on the floor of Fawcett Stadium: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Troy Novacek, Nate Newton, Erik Williams, Jim Jeffcoat, Russell Maryland, Deion Sanders, Daryl Johnston, James Washington, Hubbard Alexander, Ron Stone, and no telling who else was there.
Why you might have heard and read all our stories, but you saw first hand why Irvin indeed was the heart and soul of those Cowboys teams winning three Super Bowls in four years, the flamboyant receiver confirming every single tale with how he related to the every-day man on this night.
Someone afterward asked Irvin if his speech, his brutal honesty was cathartic, as if he was doing penance for all the social and legal transgressions he went through when he was on the top of the world playing for the Dallas Cowboys.
Irvin stared at the inquisitor, knowing he had told everyone the day before he was planning to speak from his “heart.” He kept secret the part about from his soul. “It was real,” Irvin said, summing up what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told Deion Sanders afterward, saying, “That was the best speech I’ve heard in a long time.”
Me, forever. You?
“I just felt I needed to share with all that had messed up their lives what I had done,” Irvin said. “It haunts me. People think I got away with something now that I’m up here.”
So he was trying the best he could to make something good out of some things bad, but he couldn’t without going down to his knees.
Irvin realizes his life has been as transparent as his career. People saw his greatness on the field, but also saw him in the courtroom that summer of 1996, finally pleading no-contest to a felony drug possession charge, receiving a five-year probation sentence, 100′s of hours of community service and a target on his head for others to implicate him for this and that, Irvin not taking care to keep himself out of harm’s way where people could try to take him down.
He’s not proud of that part of his life, how at times he thought he was invisible after midnight although a married man with eventually a family of four. And indeed it haunts him now that he knows his sons, Michael, 10, and Elijah, 8, can now go online and read about that other Michael, evidently to him, the ultimate embarrassment.
So when Michael spoke here Saturday night, he was selfless. He spoke very little of his accomplishments, while reaching out to put an arm around everyone else – from Hickerson, to the people of Dallas, to the Cowboys fans, to the Jones family, to his teammates, to his mother, father, brothers and sisters, and Aunt Fanny, too.
Why, Irvin put his arm around the people of New Orleans, where he witnessed firsthand the return of a city on “Monday night, Sept. 26, 2006, New Orleans, Louisiana, site of the Superdome. I watched our people who had suffered so grievously through Hurricane Katrina fill a stadium hours before the game and stay hours after the game. I witnessed those fans as they looked for each other, hugged one another, and just be thankful to be in that stadium.
“You see the game flexed its greatest muscle that day: The ability to heal. I experienced a football game that contributed to the healing of a city. So don’t tell me it’s just a game.”
No it’s life, and Irvin, in his inimitable way, came clean, knowing he had to somehow reduce himself to the common man, to all of us who have fallen or will fall, trying to tell them they, too, can get up.
So he began rising once again, referencing the threshing floor, a biblical reference for a healing place:
“The threshing floor is where you take your greatest fear and you pray for help from your great God. I want to share something with you today. I have two sons. Michael, he’s 10, and Elijah, he’s 8. Michael and Elijah, could you guys stand up for me. (They did.) That’s my heart right there. That’s my heart. When I am on that threshing floor, I pray. I say, ‘God, I have my struggles and I made some bad decisions, but whatever you do, whatever you do, don’t let me mess this up.’
“I say, ‘Please, help me raise them for some young lady so that they can be a better husband than I. Help me raise them for their kids so that they could be a better father than I. And I tell you guys to always do the right thing so you can be a better role model than dad.
“I sat right here where you are last year and I watched the Class of 2006: Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Harry Carson, Rayfield Wright, John Madden, and the late great Reggie White represented by his wife Sara White. And I said, ‘Wow, that’s what a Hall of Famer is.’
“Certainly I am not that. I doubted I would ever have the chance to stand before you today. So when I returned home, I spoke with Michael and Elijah. I said, ‘That’s how you do it, son. You do it like they did it.’ Michael asked, he said, ‘Dad, do you ever think we will be there?’ And I didn’t know how to answer that. And it returned me to that threshing floor. This time I was voiceless, but my heart cried out. God, why must I go through so many peaks and valleys? I wanted to stand in front of my boys and say, ‘Do it like your dad, like any proud dad would want to.’
“Why must I go through so much?
“At that moment a voice came over me and said, ‘Look up, get up, and don’t ever give up. You tell everyone or anyone that has ever doubted, thought they did not measure up or wanted to quit, you tell them to look up, get up and don’t ever give up.’”
Don’t ever give up.
Michael Irvin never quit on the field. That’s why he was here Saturday night.
Maybe now he won’t quit on himself,
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