Climbing out of poverty, persevering through hunger, and overcoming the odds to be successful is not a unique pathway for professional athletes.
Michael Irvin knows those struggles quite well.
You can’t see it on the surface when watching highlights during his 12-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, where he won three Super Bowls.
It doesn’t show through as he swaggered around the University of Miami, cementing the bad boy attitude of “The U”.
When digging deep under that exuberant smile, braggadocious attitude, and consistently unapologetic flair that still appears across NFL television events; there’s a crowded, impoverished upbringing in a tiny house with 16 siblings in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The life of Michael Irvin is complicated at its core.
A constant battle against hunger, lack of space, and falling into the wrong crowd as a kid got countered against immense physical talent, relentless confidence, and a mouth always chambered with a response for anyone.
Controversy and trouble always seemed a few steps away from Irvin.
At least one controversy that would cost some their career lurks at every point of his life from high school, college, the NFL, and retirement.
The life and career of Michael Irvin, a Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver, has complicated twists and turns, but overcoming those is a testament to the success he accomplished on the field and in life after football.
A crowded home, unimaginable loss, and controversy in Fort Lauderdale
Michael Jerome Irvin became the 15th of an eventual 17 children when he was born on March 5, 1966, to Pearl and Walter Irvin.
The family packed into a two-bedroom house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
His father converted the porch and garage into more livable space but trying to find space for everyone wasn’t easy.
Irvin shared a king-sized bed with four of his brothers throughout his childhood.
Childhood meals of cereal with tap water or mayonnaise sandwiches were common in the Irvin household.
Add that and other remnants of poverty in a tough neighborhood with a tough crowd right around the corner nearly jeopardized Irvin’s escape.
Following a breakout season in basketball and football as a sophomore, Irvin got suspended for what his family called a “minor misunderstanding” from Piper High School before his junior year.
After getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, Irvin’s father kept an eye out for him and decided a change of scenery was needed.
In 1982, Irvin enrolled in St. Thomas Aquinas, a private Catholic high school in Fort Lauderdale.
Today, the school boasts one of the most impressive athletic programs in the country with dozens of NFL players, athletes from every major sport, and several Olympians.
When Irvin transferred to the school, it only had one famous athletic alumnus, Chris Evert, who dominated women’s tennis with 18 Grand Slam singles championships across the 1970s and ‘80s.
Piper High realized that Irvin was a transcendent athlete and relied on administrative red tape and protested his transfer to prevent Irvin from playing for St. Thomas Aquinas during his junior season.
His father made several appeals to the Florida High School Activities Association, but they wouldn’t budge, and a court ruled that Irvin needed to sit out of sports for the year.
“Mike suffered and so did our father,” Irvin’s brother Willie said to the Sun-Sentinel in 1987 recalling the suspension his brother faced in high school. “Our father didn’t think it was fair and he fought it tooth and nail.”
Before Irvin took the field as a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas, tragedy struck in the week leading up to his first game.
His father died of a brain tumor three days before the football season started. Walter was only 51 years old when he died.
“That’s something that haunted me forever,” Irvin said speaking to The Ringer in 2017 about the loss of his father.
His father’s death led Irvin to consider quitting the sport to care for his mother.
She talked him out of quitting, and he delivered an electrifying senior season, receiving All-State Honors.
The dominant performance across his senior season drew attention from a variety of top college football programs.
Irvin decided to stay within an hour of his Fort Lauderdale home and attend the University of Miami.
“The Playmaker” brings swagger to The U
The rise to prominence that transformed the University of Miami to “The U” in the late ‘80s relied on many pieces, but Michael Irvin’s “fingers pointed toward the sky touchdown dance” serves as the symbol that swagger had arrived in Miami.
To understand how Miami became “The U”, a quick history lesson is needed.
Before Howard Schnellenberger took over as head coach in 1979, the program considered folding or demoting itself to Division I-AA.
Within five years, the University of Miami won its first national championship in 1983, two years before Irvin caught his first pass at the Orange Bowl.
Schnellenberger operated like a business with a buttoned-up, get the job done attitude.
When he left for the USFL, Jimmy Johnson replaced him and started to recruit more local kids who grew up in the rough neighborhoods around Miami, including Irvin.
In his first season starting at wide receiver, Irvin impressed with 46 receptions, 840 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns, earning the nickname, “The Playmaker”.
The highlight and lowlight of Irvin’s season happened in the final two games of 1985.
It started with a dominant win against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 58-7, where the Hurricanes ran up the score in an attempt to prove they were the best team in the country.
A month later, the Hurricanes delivered one of the worst performances of Irvin’s tenure, losing 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl to a disciplined, underdog Tennessee Volunteers squad.
Irvin caught the Hurricanes’ only touchdown in the rout.
Irvin’s second season starting for the Hurricanes mirrored the first.
He accumulated gaudy numbers, finishing with 53 receptions, 868 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns, but a disappointment awaited Irvin and the Hurricanes.
Miami scorched through the season, embarrassing teams with a 25.6 average margin of victory over their 11 wins and continuing to build their bad-boy image with talk, actions, and blatant disrespect of opponents at times.
Ultimately, the Hurricanes lost in the season-ending bowl game, losing 14-10 to Penn State University in a Fiesta Bowl battle between No. 1 and No. 2 undefeated teams.
After two seasons of disappointing finishes, the Hurricanes headed into Irvin’s final year of eligibility, once again a favorite to contend for a national championship.
Irvin posted his lowest career totals but saw the most team success in 1987, finishing with 44 receptions, 715 receiving yards, and six touchdowns.
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) December 3, 2020
One of the highlights of Irvin’s career at Miami happened early in his senior season, in a nailbiting, 26-25 win against rival Florida State.
After blowing out two ranked opponents to start the season, Miami remained undefeated and built momentum to make a title run.
After a slew of dominant performances, including a 24-0 whooping of rival Notre Dame, Irvin and the No. 2 ranked Hurricanes were rewarded with a home game in the Orange Bowl against No. 1 Oklahoma for the National Championship.
Irvin caught the game-winning, 23-yard touchdown pass from Steve Walsh, to give Miami a 17-7 advantage they wouldn’t relinquish in the 20-14 victory.
After years of impressive numbers, a healthy mix of heartbreak, and a never-ending dose of smack talk, Irvin closed out his career at “The U” as a National Champion.
While Irvin prepared for the 1988 NFL Draft, he left behind a legacy of swagger that permeates through the orange and green colors of “The U” to this day.
Entering the End of an Era in Dallas
The 1988 NFL Draft featured a ton of depth at the wide receiver position in the first round.
Irvin was drafted 11th overall by the Dallas Cowboys and was the third receiver taken overall.
On this day in 1988, the Dallas Cowboys selected Miami Hurricane and then future Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin with the eleventh (11th) overall pick in the NFL Draft: pic.twitter.com/0tIHR7n7ee
— GO ‘CANES! (@83_87_89_91_01) April 24, 2020
The two receivers who were chosen ahead of him: Tim Brown and Sterling Sharpe.
Brown, who spent his college days as Irvin’s rival at Notre Dame, went on to have a Hall of Fame NFL career and even tried to team up with Irvin in 1994.
Irvin wasn’t interested.
“I think it was the first year I made the Pro Bowl as a receiver, and I was a free agent going into that offseason, the offseason of ’94, and I ended up signing with the Broncos,” Brown said in a conference call around his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I sort of happily walked up to Michael thinking it was going to be a great concept, and I said to him, ‘Hey, man, look, man, I’m thinking about coming home to Dallas. I would love to come there and be No. 2 to you.’ He got so upset. ‘Tim Brown, don’t you ever think about coming….’ I was like, ‘Mike, man, what’s going on?’ He was like, ‘No. I’m glad you told me first. I’m calling Jerry right now and telling him don’t do it.’ So that was pretty much the end of that conversation, and I was a little upset, because I did want to come home, and I wanted to play for the Cowboys. I’m glad that worked out the way it did for many reasons at this particular point. But yeah, that is a true story.”
Before we get to Irvin in 1994, let’s get back to 1988, and Irvin’s rookie season with the Cowboys.
Irvin joined a Cowboys team that was on the back-end of nearly 30 years of success under the team’s only head coach to that point, Tom Landry.
Landry, who joined the Cowboys in the team’s first season in 1960, led Dallas to four Super Bowl appearances and two wins with iconic players like Roger Staubach.
Dallas hadn’t been to a Super Bowl in 10 years and drafted Irvin following its first back-to-back losing seasons since 1965.
The Cowboys’ offense lacked talent outside of elite running back Herschel Walker.
Irvin burst onto the scene with 3 receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown in his first game in the NFL.
The losses started piling up in Irvin’s rookie season but he showed glimpses of the promise Dallas saw when they took him 11th overall.
In Dallas’ final win of a 3-13 season, Irvin racked up 6 catches, 149 yards, and all three Cowboys’ touchdowns in a 24-17 win against rival Washington.
A Bold Owner and a Familiar Face Save the Day
A sea change occurred in 1989 for the Cowboys and it couldn’t have catered to Irvin more perfectly.
In February 1989, Jerry Jones purchased the Cowboys from H.R. Bright.
He fired Landry, the team’s only coach to that point, in a controversial move soon after his purchase.
Then, he replaced Landry with his college teammate.
None other than Irvin’s college coach, Jimmy Johnson.
In the 1989 NFL Draft, the Cowboys had the No. 1 overall pick and selected UCLA standout quarterback, Troy Aikman.
#OnThisDay in 1989 Jerry Jones became the majority owner of the @dallascowboys. Since then, the Cowboys have won 3 Super Bowls, have 15 playoff appearances, and have won 11 division titles! pic.twitter.com/sKMv1Te4l1
— NFL GameDay (@NFLGameDay) February 25, 2019
Another familiar face joined the Cowboys in the supplemental draft when Dallas selected Steve Walsh, the Miami Hurricanes QB, who won a national championship with Irvin and Johnson two years earlier.
All of the friendly faces didn’t lead to success for the Cowboys as the team struggled through 1989, finishing 1-15.
Irvin only played six games and suffered a torn ACL, finishing with 26 catches for 378 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Jerry Jones didn’t buy the team to watch them lose all but one game in a season.
He made a major shake-up in 1989 when he traded running back Herschel Walker in one of the most controversial trades in league history.
Walker went to Minnesota in a trade that gave the Cowboys draft capital and saw 18 players change places in the multi-team, mega-trade.
Those bold, brash moves are exactly what the Cowboys and Irvin represented.
Emmitt Smith was drafted in the 1990 NFL Draft to replace Walker and a three-headed offensive monster was created.
Climbing out of the Basement
After the blockbuster Walker trade, Irvin’s rehab from an ACL, and another season of experience for Aikman, the Cowboys were finally rounding into form in 1991.
The season kicked off six-straight years of double-digit win dominance for the Cowboys’ offensive trio of Aikman, Smith, and Irvin.
Irvin exploded onto the scene in 1991 and racked up a league-leading 1523 receiving yards on 93 catches with eight touchdowns.
The Cowboys clicked in the second half of the season and ran off five-straight wins to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.
In the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Cowboys were outmatched by the Detroit Lions, 38-6. Irvin finished with 5 catches for 84 yards.
After getting a taste of the postseason for the first time, Aikman, Irvin, and Smith were ready in 1992.
En route to a 13-3 record, the Cowboys got revenge against the Lions with a 37-3 where Irvin tallied 114 yards and Emmitt Smith added three rushing touchdowns.
Dominant performances continued as the opponents got tougher.
Dallas scorched through the playoffs with an average margin of victory of 23 points, beating the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers to earn a trip to Super Bowl XXVII against the Buffalo Bills.
Putting the Big D in Dynasty
The Cowboys’ electric offense didn’t miss a beat in the Super Bowl and sent the Bills to its third-straight loss in the big game.
Irvin racked up 6 catches, 114 yards, and two touchdowns in the 52-17 win.
The first title of the 1990’s @dallascowboys dynasty. ⭐️
— NFL (@NFL) April 13, 2020
The 1993 season looked a bit like deja vu for the Cowboys as they cruised through another season.
The playoffs looked the same as they eliminated the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game and faced the Buffalo Bills in another Super Bowl.
Buffalo kept it closer but couldn’t stop the offensive talent on Dallas’ roster in the 30-13 loss.
Irvin had a modest 5 catches for 66 yards.
The game turned in the second half when Smith scored back-to-back touchdowns to turn a 13-13 tie into the final nail in the Bills’ coffin.
Even though the season ended with another Super Bowl, Irvin’s coach since his days at Miami, Jimmy Johnson left the team because of disputes with owner Jerry Jones over credit and control of the organization.
Barry Switzer replaced Johnson for the 1994 season.
For the third-straight season, Dallas charged through the regular season in 1994 and faced off against the 49ers in the NFC Championship.
San Francisco finally got the upper hand against Dallas and beat the Cowboys, 38-28.
Irvin posted an impressive 12 catches, 192 receiving yards, and two touchdowns but it wasn’t enough against Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
After the disappointment in 1994, Irvin posted the best numbers of his career in 1995.
He racked up 111 catches, 1603 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns.
Irvin cooled off a bit in the playoffs, posting 13 catches, 185 receiving yards, and three touchdowns as the Cowboys returned to their third Super Bowl in four seasons.
The Cowboys capped off their dynasty with a 27-17 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX.
When Irvin was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, his longtime teammate, Emmitt Smith applauded Irvin’s talent and competitive nature in a Hall of Fame press conference.
“Michael Irvin was the most competitive individual I have ever played with,” Emmitt Smith said. “He was the heart and soul of our team.
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.”
Today’s #DallasSportsMoment is a speech I often watch when I’m going through a tough time in life. It’s a segment of #DallasCowboys legend Michael Irvin’s Hall of Fame induction speech which is incredibly moving. The whole thing is well worth watching! #NFLTwitter #CowboysNation pic.twitter.com/hINQjUvQ54
— Dallas Sports Daily (@DTXSportsDaily) November 18, 2020
A Troubling End to a Hall of Fame Career
While Irvin continued to put up numbers in the three years following his third Super Bowl win, some of the drama and trouble that existed in Irvin’s youth started to creep back into his life.
Leading up to the 1996 NFC Divisional Round contest against the Carolina Panthers, a report came out that Irvin and teammate Erik Williams, sexually assaulted a Cowboys’ cheerleader.
Irvin and Williams both denied the incident and eventually, the cheerleader admitted to falsifying the story and served 90 days in jail for perjury.
The Cowboys lost the playoff game against the Panthers, 26-17.
Irvin got injured in the playoff game against Carolina.
He finished the season with 64 catches, 962 yards, and two touchdowns.
His lowest output since 1990.
In 1996, Irvin also plead no-contest to second-degree drug charges for cocaine and marijuana.
Irvin returned to form in ’97 producing 75 receptions, 1,180 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns.
The Cowboys finished the season 6-10 and collapsed down the stretch, losing five straight to end the season.
Heading into the 1998 season, one of the most unbelievable incidents of Irvin’s career occurred with teammate Everett McIver.
A dispute during training camp led to Irvin stabbing McIver with a pair of scissors because McIver wouldn’t move out of a barber’s chair to allow Irvin to get his hair cut.
McIver had a deep cut in his neck that nearly killed him.
Owner Jerry Jones quickly worked out a deal to keep the incident quiet.
Irvin paid six figures to McIver so criminal charges wouldn’t be pursued.
Irvin posted the final 1,000-plus receiving yard season of his career in 1998 and finished with 1,057 yards but only one touchdown.
The Cowboys finished the season 10-6 and lost to the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card game.
In the first quarter, Aikman targeted Irvin on a slant route.
Irvin caught the pass before being sandwiched between Bobby Taylor and Tim Hauck.
Irvin laid motionless on the turf and would never return to play another NFL game because of a severe cervical spinal cord injury.
The Hall of Fame wide receiver’s career ended with 750 receiving yards, 11,904 receiving yards, and 65 touchdowns.
Irvin made the Pro Bowl five times and received All-Pro honors in 1991.
Back in the Spotlight
Less than a month after announcing his retirement in 2000, Irvin was arrested on marijuana and cocaine charges on August 9, 2000.
After a few years out of the spotlight, Irvin made his way to ESPN as an analyst on Sunday NFL Countdown from 2003 to 2006.
In a perfect summation of his life, accolades and trouble both found Irvin in 2007.
Irvin was removed from ESPN’s coverage in 2007, then in July 2007, he was once again accused of sexual assault.
Criminal charges were never filed but a civil case was settled in 2011.
After both of those situations unfolded, Irvin was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his NFL accomplishments in August 2007.
Irvin has never stayed out of the spotlight for long.
He continues to pop up here and there on ESPN, NFL Network, or NFL on FOX to give commentary on the league.
In 2009, he appeared on Dancing with the Stars and has been on a variety of sports and entertainment programming.
— Derek Jones (@DerekJones79) November 30, 2018
Irvin has four children, including his son, Michael Irvin II, who followed in his footsteps playing football at “The U”.
Irvin II transferred to Flordia Atlantic University in 2020 for his final season of eligibility.
To this day, Michael Irvin’s legacy and life remain complicated.
He electrified on the football field.
He was the heart, soul, and vocal cords of the Dallas Cowboys’ dynasty of the 90s.
Irvin ushered in swagger at “The U” and created the mold that so many loud, braggadocious star wide receivers have followed for 20 years.
Irvin’s “in your face” approach came with plenty of criticism and trouble, some warranted and some not.
Irvin’s life is symbolized perfectly in the helmet he wore in the NFL for 12 seasons – a bright star wading in a sea of gray areas.