LOS ANGELES — The gates opened and the beasts came running. Cameras bounced on shoulders, boom microphones swung like lances, reporters dashed with notepads flying. It was Opening Day of Media Assault at the Super Bowl, a scene that every year, I am convinced, should be filmed not by ESPN, but by Cecil B. DeMille. And yet smack in the middle was a man who did not flinch. A man who sat with his legs crossed, picking lint off his uniform. It takes a certain kind of man to feel so at home among 1,000 raging journalists, 500 TV cameras, 20 tour buses and MTV’s (Downtown) Julie Brown in a see-through blouse.
Michael Irvin is the man.
Of course, that’s what he says: Michael Irvin is the man. The Man. As in Mr. Big Play, Mr. Clutch. As in that picture he keeps in his Dallas Cowboys locker, where he is gliding to yet another touchdown, above the inscription
“On my way to the bank, hoss. . . . C’Ya.”
Humility has never worn his number.
And yet, the reason Irvin, the Cowboys’ star receiver, feels relaxed with so many reporters sweating dangerously close to his Rolex, is simple: He is one of 17 children.
Crowds? What crowds?
“Let me tell you about growing up in a three-bedroom house with all those kids,” Irvin says. “All us boys slept in one bedroom, all the girls slept in the other. I was the youngest at the time. Now, this was Florida, and it was really hot. And we only had one fan, see? You had to call the fan to get it. Early. Like, at 6 a.m., someone went, ‘We got the fan tonight.’ And most of the time it was the girls.
“So we boys are in our room, and we’re burning up, we can’t sleep, and the girls are knocked out because they got the fan. And since I’m the youngest, my brothers are like, ‘Mike. Go get the fan.’
“And I’m like, I’m not getting the fan.
“They’re like, ‘Go get the fan!’
“So I have to sneak into my sisters’ room and get the fan while they’re sleeping, and I always got caught and I always got beat up.”
“Wait,” a reporter says. “Your sisters beat you up, or your brothers?”
“My sisters! My brothers were like, ‘Aw, man, Mike, you let them beat you up? You gotta be tougher than that. Go get the fan again.’ ” Roll call is problematic
Well. I often wondered what the proper training would be for Super Bowl week. Now I know. Try being 17th in line for dinner.
Better yet. Try taking roll.
“How many brother and sisters?” Irvin is asked.
“Nine sisters, six brothers. Including me.”
“So there were . . . 15?”
“No, 17. Nine plus six, plus one. That’s 17.”
“It is? No. Wait. Nine sisters, um, whatever. I can’t add.”
“Can you name them?”
The truth is — we think — Irvin has 10 sisters and six brothers. But who needs arithmetic when you have attitude? And those who remember Irvin from his Miami days — some said he was the biggest mouth in Florida this side of an alligator — know attitude is not a problem. Neither are big games. Irvin never met a big game he didn’t like. Like the winning touchdown in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. Or the 12 catches he recently made in playoff wins over the Eagles and 49ers.
Hey. With 16 brothers and sisters, a guy has to find some way to stand out.
“How many siblings are coming to the game?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I gave my wife the tickets, the checkbook, and I said, ‘You take care of it.’ ” A blessing
Irvin’s mother, Pearl, who clearly deserves a Congressional medal of honor, was the wife of a minister. She claims she knew Michael, her 15th child, was special because in church one day, when she was pregnant, she heard a whoosh sound and felt a pressing on her belly. This, she felt, was a sure sign Michael was blessed. That, or destined to be a blowhard.
Most would say a little of both. Irvin was famous in college for wearing inch-thick gold chains and medallions the size of Brazil. He would run into the stands after a touchdown. He talked trash until gum wrappers were embarrassed.
He once boasted of his naughty Hurricane teammates, “No. 1 with the UPI, No. 1 with the FBI.”
But Irvin always delivered. He holds the record for catches at that pass-happy school, and he led the NFL in receiving yardage in 1991. He is a big-play maker on a team of big-play makers. And he says — and others confirm this — that his act has mellowed. His jewelry has diminished. He bought his mother a new house and his siblings almost everything they asked for. At 26, he is just hitting his stride, and this week he is back to his roots: in the middle of a crowd.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life,” Irvin says, “but if God called me up today and said ‘We’re gonna start this over again, what race do you want to run, I’d say the same race. The same race all over.”
Maybe two fans this time.