Irvin paid his dues

Tuesday, July 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

His mother, Pearl, a couple of brothers and a sister flanked him. His wife, Sandi, and two daughters were seated to his left. Before him were a phalanx of television cameras and an army of media armed with pens, pads and tape recorders ready to fire away.

Michael Jerome Irvin had many a day in his 12-year Cowboys career when he performed admirably. There was his first Super Bowl. There was the game against Kansas City when he made a clutch one-handed catch. There were the games when he caught passes by the bushel against Deion Sanders, when Sanders was with San Francisco, and against Darrell Green in Washington.

But Irvin never was better than that day just about four years ago when he told his mother, his deceased father, his wife, his children, his teammates, his coaches, his boss, his fans and the kids who looked up to him that he was sorry.

"I'm sorry for taking everybody through it," he admitted that day, fighting back tears. "I was wrong. I was wrong."

He was wrong for being busted in a motel room with a couple of women and some drugs while celebrating his 30th birthday. He owned up to his irresponsibility. He didn't pawn it off on someone else.

That was Michael Irvin, for whom a news conference is scheduled Tuesday at Texas Stadium where he is expected to announce his retirement. The best Cowboys receiver in history never ducked, except once. That was last Oct. 10 in Philadelphia, when he caught a pass eight yards over the middle and instinctively lowered his head to avoid a collision. His head struck the ground awkwardly. He injured his spine. Smartly, he has decided apparently to call it a career.

There were a lot of things said about Michael Irvin during his days with the Cowboys and in college at Miami. First and foremost, he was cocky.

Hubbard Alexander, who as a Jimmy Johnson assistant coached Irvin at Miami and with the Cowboys, recalled Irvin showing up at a Hurricanes' spring practice just after accepting their scholarship offer.

"Eddie Brown was running receiver drills," Alexander said Monday from his new home in New Orleans, where he's working as a Saints assistant coach. "Michael was leaning against the goal post wearing shades yelling, "That's the job I want right there!" All the guys were wondering: Who is this guy?"

Irvin was flamboyant. Even while in college, he took to sporting the large gold jewelry popularized then by rich-quick rappers.

Irvin was emotional. He took to thumping his chest and pumping his fist skyward at the mere accomplishment of catching a short pass for a first down.

He was rebellious. When asked on national television before a full stadium audience about his much-maligned third Cowboys coach, Barry Switzer, Irvin responded in support of Switzer with an angry expletive.

Michael Irvin is all of those things because, above all, he's real. There's nothing phony about him.

He wore 88 on his chest and back, but he wore his feelings on his sleeves. Whether it was the day he offered that heartfelt apology or the time he demanded that the media be as dogged in reporting his innocence to what turned out to be an unfounded charge of sexual assault as they had been in reporting the allegation.

Michael Irvin wasn't like so many high-profile athletes become these days. He refused, maybe to his detriment at times, to have his image refinished by some public-relations team. As the Cowboys' leader during the '90s, he didn't couch his words to keep the waters calm.

He also didn't shoot or stab anybody or wind up in some drug rehab center. He pleaded no contest to a felony drug charge from that motel incident and was suspended five games by the NFL at the start of the 1996 season for conduct detrimental to the league. He was, worst of all, unfaithful to his spouse.

His probation, however, was lifted last Thursday 10 days early. The judge found Irvin hadn't relapsed into his bad behavior.

Quietly, it has been said that Irvin has lent a helping hand to another great Cowboys receiver, Bob Hayes. He paid for a Pop Warner team in Dallas to get to and from a competition out of state. Just recently, he was in Memphis cutting the ribbon at an apartment complex he helped establish for people less fortunate than him.

There are some who've suggested rather ridiculously that Michael Irvin, who will retire tied for ninth on the NFL's all-time receiving list, shouldn't make the Hall of Fame because of what they know of him off the field. They ought to be told of the Michael Irvin since then, who's made good news in making very little at all.