It was a Friday evening in Fort Lauderdale, warm and clear, like so many that 12-year-old Michael Irvin had experienced growing up in southern Florida. He was riding in a car with his father, Walter, a roofer by trade who spent what little spare time he had operating as the local Primitive Baptist minister. The two were heading home after an errand that was a regular payday ritual: Walter would drive into town to buy cigars and then drop off money with Michael’s grandmother to help with her bills. It was the late 1970s, a time of strife in America, and young Michael had already seen a lot in his low-income neighborhood. But nothing prepared him for what happened next.
As Walter drove up Northwest 27th Avenue, about to turn onto 16th Street, his son noticed a man who looked just like his older brother, Vaughn, walking away from their house toward “all the craziness in the ’hood,” Irvin remembers. It couldn’t be Vaughn: “This man was wearing women’s clothes.” But it was. “My brother had a very distinctive walk,” he says.
Irvin couldn’t believe his eyes. He turned to his father. “My dad looked back at me and said, ‘Yes, that’s your brother. And you love your brother.’ ”
That was it. Irvin, who went on to become one of football’s greatest players, as well as the epitome of the troublemaking macho NFL stereotype, would never again discuss the issue with his father. “Whether Vaughn and my father later spoke about it, I don’t know. But it wasn’t something that was ever discussed among the family,” says Irvin, speaking for the first time about the gay older brother he idolized.
Walter Irvin’s message was simple: Michael was supposed to love his brother unconditionally, no matter what he looked like or who he was. But, still, the discovery was a shock that haunted Irvin as he grew into one of college football’s most feted stars. He worried that people would find out about Vaughn and bring shame upon the family. Most of all, he worried that he was gay. He kept his brother’s secret while winning a national championship with the University of Miami in 1987 (he scored a winning touchdown with a 73-yard catch during that season) and leading the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s. Irvin was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, and in 2010, NFL .com named him one of the 100 greatest football players in history.
Meanwhile, he developed a reputation as a reckless, self-destructive celebrity who polarized public opinion like no other athlete of his generation. Irvin was a great player with a big mouth and a nasty streak, a man with a penchant for fast living. He made it a point to parade his female conquests past his teammates. Although he’s been married to his wife, Sandy, since 1990, Irvin made what he calls “mistakes” throughout his Cowboys career.
“Growing up, whoever had the most women and the nicest car, he was the man,” he says. “So when you get in the locker room, you remember that. I’m gonna get all the girls so that everybody says, ‘Michael’s the man.’ ”
In 1996, Irvin was arrested on charges of cocaine possession. He arrived in court wearing a full-length mink coat to plead no contest. The NFL suspended him five games. In 2000, he was arrested on possession charges in the company of a woman who was not his wife. The charges were later dropped. In 2005, he was cited for possession of drug paraphernalia. He claimed the items were those of a friend. ESPN, his employer at the time, suspended him.
Now, after working through some of his personal demons with his long-time bishop, T.D. Jakes of the Potter’s House church in Dallas, Texas, Irvin is ready to talk about Vaughn. More than that, he’s become a passionate supporter of gay athletes and equal rights for same-sex couples. Today, Irvin is a widely respected football commentator with weekly appearances on the NFL Network. He hosts The Michael Irvin Show on Miami’s WQAM with former World Football League player Kevin Kiley. For two years, the pair has delved into gay issues; in recent months, they have turned their attention to the subject of athletes, coaches, and team executives coming out of the closet. Now, Irvin is waiting for the day when America has its first openly gay active athlete in one of the top four professional sports leagues.
“If anyone comes out in those top four major sports, I will absolutely support him,” says Irvin. “That’s why I do my radio show every day. When these issues come out, I want to have a voice to speak about them. I think growth comes when we share. Until we do that, we’re going to be stuck in the Dark Ages about a lot of things. When a guy steps up and says, ‘This is who I am,’ I guarantee you I’ll give him 100% support.”
At 45 years old, Irvin isn’t satisfied. A deeply religious man, he’s begun grappling with images of himself standing at heaven’s door. Irvin doesn’t think touchdowns are going to score him a ticket to eternity.
“The last thing I want is to go to God and have him ask, ‘What did you do?’ And I talk about winning Super Bowls and national titles,” Irvin says. “I didn’t do anything to make it a better world before I left? That would be scary.”
Irvin studies the Bible and attends church every Sunday when he’s not on TV. During his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2007, he mentioned his wife, Sandy, twice; he mentioned his pro coaches, Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson, once each; and he referenced God 14 times. The theme song for his radio show is Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.”
As he approached the end of his football career, and as legal troubles piled up, Irvin searched deep within himself to understand the life choices he had made. Together with Jakes, whom Irvin considers his “spiritual father,” he searched for the root cause of his drug abuse and womanizing, and they revisited the car ride with his father more than 30 years earlier. That, Irvin now realizes, was a major turning point in his life.
Growing up, Irvin greatly admired his brother Vaughn, who was a successful bank manager while still living in “the ’hood,” says Irvin. That success made him “God” in his younger brother’s eyes. “He was the smartest, most charismatic man I’d ever seen in my life. We would all say, ‘Can you believe -- white people put Vaughn in charge of all that money?!’ ” The boys had similar personalities: Both were gregarious and got along with just about everyone. As the 15th child of 17, Irvin wore Vaughn’s hand-me-downs as a boy, and they grew up in close quarters. Even as Irvin kept the secret of Vaughn’s sexual orientation, he remained close to him until Vaughn died of stomach cancer at the age of 49 in 2006.
Did Vaughn’s 15 other siblings know of his secret? “Oh, they knew. We all knew,” says Irvin. “It just wasn’t discussed.”
Homosexuality wasn’t exactly an issue that could be discussed in the football locker room, either -- unless, of course, it was in the form of the homophobic bile rife among his colleagues and friends. As Irvin’s national profile grew, he subconsciously distanced himself further from his brother’s sexuality.
“We went back to that day,” Irvin says of the car ride in Fort Lauderdale, “and through it all, we realized maybe some of the issues I’ve had with so many women—just bringing women around so everybody can see—maybe that’s residual of the fear I had that, if my brother is wearing ladies’ clothes, am I going to be doing that? Is it genetic? I’m certainly not making excuses for my bad decisions. But I had to dive inside of me to find out why I was making these decisions, and that came up.”
Years with this secret have given Irvin a glimpse into the solitary confinement so many closeted athletes feel locked inside.
“I’m not gay, but I was afraid to even let anyone have the thought. I can only imagine the agony—being a prisoner in your own mind -- for someone who wants to come out. If I’m not gay and I am afraid to mention it, I can only imagine what an athlete must be going through if he is gay.”
And yet, Irvin says, 15 years ago his champion team would have accepted a gay teammate on one condition: that the player could play. Winning was all that mattered.
“I believe, if a teammate had said he was gay, we would have integrated him and kept moving because of the closeness.” As a leader in the locker room, it would have been Irvin’s job to keep the team together, first and foremost. And if that job called for him to support a gay teammate and share his connection, he thinks he could have. “We had a bunch of different characters on that team. Deoin [Sanders] and Emmitt [Smith]. I believe that team would have handled it well.”
The quarterback of Irvin’s all-conquering team was Troy Aikman, infamously “outed” by sportswriter Skip Bayless in his 1996 book, Hell-Bent. Bayless wrote, “I had heard the rumor since 1991. An off-duty Dallas police officer who traveled with the Cowboys and worked security at their hotels first told me that the ‘word on the street’ was that Aikman was gay. Over the next four years, I heard the rumor from two more police officers who worked around the team, and I know they mentioned it to team officials.”
Did Irvin and his teammates discuss Aikman’s sexuality? Irvin pauses for a while before answering, “No, we didn’t. I didn’t think Troy was gay, but even if he had been, I think we could have handled it. Would it have affected the team? No sir. I was going to make sure of that.”
Irvin is certain that, in light of today’s relatively more enlightened attitudes, a team would have no choice but to embrace their gay teammate. He also notes that his 2009 appearance on Dancing With the Stars would never have happened 10 years ago, when he was still embodying the macho stereotype. “No way, man. I could not have done that kind of thing before.” (He made it to seventh place on the contest, but says it was tough: “There’s a difference between being quick on your toes on the field and going heel-to-toe on the dance floor.”)
So now that society has loosened up, is it wrong for a gay player to hide his sexuality, or is he still entitled to his privacy? “I think it’s his own preference, who he wants to share that with. But I would like to see players come forward and be happy with who they are.
“Hopefully, as we move forward, we’ll get to a place where there’s no way it’s even considered; it just is what it is and everybody can do what they do. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Irvin wants to eradicate homophobia in every corner of American society. He points to churches that have skewed the word of God to persecute those who don’t share their dogma; he shakes his head at the black culture he says has gone adrift in a sea of homophobia; and he said it’s time to end the second class–citizen status of gays in the eyes of the law.
“I don’t see how any African-American with any inkling of history can say that you don’t have the right to live your life how you want to live your life. No one should be telling you who you should love, no one should be telling you who you should be spending the rest of your life with. When we start talking about equality and everybody being treated equally, I don’t want to know an African-American who will say everybody doesn’t deserve equality.”
Love him or hate him, Michael Irvin doesn’t care. He’s on a mission. He hopes opening closet doors for gay people will be a key chapter in his life story. “I have to make sure we do things to bring people together. The Super Bowls will be the footnotes on my resume.”