Michael Irvin: The Playmaker Preaches
By Cyd Zeigler
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.’ ”