Michael Irvin: The Playmaker Preaches
By Cyd Zeigler
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.”