Saturday, August 04, 2007

Teaching From His Mistakes

Published: August 5, 2007

Canton, Ohio

During the past eight days, baseball and pro football fans have listened to inspiring speeches and watched great highlight films.

Last Sunday, in the quaint village of Cooperstown, N.Y., Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn capped a feel-good weekend at the National Baseball Hall of Fame not with tear-splashed speeches, but, rather, by their presence. In the midst of the controversy surrounding pervasive steroid use in baseball, fans embraced two of the game’s most popular stars.

Nothing, however, could match the emotion here Friday during the dinner for the six players who were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last night: two offensive linemen, Gene Hickerson and Bruce Matthews; a defensive back, Roger Wehrli; a tight end, Charlie Sanders; a wide receiver, Michael Irvin (pictured); and a running back, Thurman Thomas.

The inductees received their yellow Hall of Fame jackets Friday night, completing the symbolic transformation of great players into Hall of Fame players.

Of the eight inductees we watched the last two weekends — Ripken and Gwynn in Cooperstown and the six Pro Football Hall of Famers here — Irvin was the most compelling.

“I used to tell people, ‘O.K., the best get to play in college, and then the best of that best get to play in the N.F.L.,’ ” Irvin said Friday. “This is the best of the best of the best.”

Irvin led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships and compiled great statistics for his position. But he is just as compelling for how he wrestled with — and often lost to — forces outside of football. He represents a sense of realism in an era when we would prefer our sports heroes to kiss babies and pet puppies.

I’m far more intrigued by a flawed star like Irvin.

I am not advocating that we reward poor judgment, only that we acknowledge that poor judgment will happen.

In fact, Irvin said he favored the new approach to player misconduct taken by N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell. “He’s trying to help these young guys make better decisions,” Irvin said. “At 21, 22, 23, you make a decision and you think it’s gone and in four or five years, that everybody will forget about it. That’s not the reality, not anymore.”

Everyone has lapses of judgment, everyone makes mistakes, although not everyone’s missteps become public. Irvin’s did.

There was an arrest in 1996 on charges of cocaine possession at a hotel party while celebrating his birthday. He was sentenced to community service, ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, put on four years’ probation and suspended for the first five games of the 1996 season.

In 2000, the year he retired, Irvin was arrested on drug-possession charges that were later dropped. In 2005, he was charged with a misdemeanor after the police found drug paraphernalia in his car. He said that he was taking the items away from someone he was trying to get off drugs and that he cared more about that than about his chances of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“Of course I have regrets,” he said Friday. “Some of the things that have happened off the football field, I don’t think anyone would raise their hand and say, ‘I want that to happen.’ ”

On the other hand, Irvin effectively communicates with young people precisely because of his missteps. Mistakes and misdeeds are part of life; the challenge is recovering from mistakes.

“I was the hard-headed young guy,” Irvin said. “Now I’m talking to a lot of hard-headed young guys. It’s not that they don’t want to hear it. They hear it, but it won’t take root until it’s time for it to take root. They’ll hear what you say, and the job is to give them something. You give something — you hope it prevents them from doing certain things. But the reality is, they’ll probably still get in some situations, and hopefully what you gave them will help them get through it. A lot of times, you don’t learn until you’re in the mess yourself.”

Irvin’s career ended in 1999 in Philadelphia. His head was driven into the hard artificial turf by a hard tackle. He was carried off the field on a stretcher, praying, “God if you let me walk away from this, I will straighten up.”

He sustained a cervical spinal cord injury. As he walked away from the game, his mother, Stella, said she reminded him constantly, “Michael, you are on a short leash.”

At the end of an emotional evening Friday, Stella stood by a table with her children and grandchildren, basking in the glow of a miraculous evening. She said she wished her husband, Walter, could have been a witness. Shortly before he died in 1983, Walter Irvin told his wife he had a vision that Michael would be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round.

On Friday, Irvin’s mother said she had a vision about her son’s future. “Michael’s got another job to do,” she said. “Michael’s got to preach; he’s going to have to do it before he leaves this world.”

The Right Reverend Michael Irvin.

Has an odd ring to it.

But once upon a time, so did Michael Irvin, Hall of Famer.