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He’s Not All Talk : Cowboy Receiver Michael Irvin Can Back Up What He Says on the Field

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before Michael Irvin was a trash-talking Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, he was known as “Little Michael” to his family.

While growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with 16 brothers and sisters, Irvin--the third-youngest--was just a little different from the rest.

“We always considered him a mama’s boy,” said Jan Carter, one of Irvin’s eight sisters. “He was a happy, outgoing kid, who just bubbled once he got involved in something.”

Thanks to the support of his older brothers, Irvin bubbled the most whenever he played sports.

“Michael has always loved to talk,” Carter said.

Talking has helped Irvin become one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. He uses his trash talk to display

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confidence in his ability. It may not be different from many other successful players, but it became Irvin’s trademark years ago at the University of Miami.

“It all started at Miami when we gained a lot of attention for our style on the field,” said Irvin, who played on the Hurricanes’ 1987 national championship team. “It stuck with me because I was considered kind of a leader of those teams.”

One of his teammates at Miami was Detroit Lion safety Bennie Blades, who has known Irvin since grade school and was also a high school teammate. Blades said that Irvin was a polished talker even before he enrolled at Miami.

“He always had that air about him where he thought that he was the best in whatever he did,” Blades said. “He’s been a brash, (junk-) talking type of player with confidence all of his life.”

That confidence helped Irvin become Dallas’ No. 1 draft choice in 1988 and the third wide receiver selected overall. He was expected to bring excitement to the then-lowly Cowboys, who finished 3-13 his rookie season.

But Irvin’s development as a player did not keep pace with his reputation. In his first three seasons, he averaged 26 catches and four touchdowns a year, but a knee injury in 1989 set him back. On a pace to gain more than 1,000 yards receiving, Irvin tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the sixth game of the season.

That was a rude awakening for a player who considered himself almost invincible.

“After coming in as a rookie with an attitude that I could play forever, the knee injury made me realize some things,” Irvin said. “I saw that your career can end at any moment and that makes you realize that you have to go hard on every play.”

Irvin missed the last 10 games of the 1989 season and the first four of 1990. And he caught only 20 passes the rest of the ’90 season. Still, he did average 20.7 yards a reception, the highest figure by a Cowboy in nearly a decade.

At the start of last season, Irvin was at a turning point in his career. He knew that he had not reached the expectations he had set for himself and vowed to change that.

And change it, he did. In 1991, he was voted to his first Pro Bowl after leading the league in yards receiving with 1,523 and the NFC in catches with 93.

He set a team record with seven 100-yard games and had 11 catches of 25 yards or more and eight touchdowns.

The game in which this role was clearly defined was Dallas’ 24-21 regular-season victory over Washington. Working mostly against all-pro cornerback Darrell Green, Irvin caught nine passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.

The play Irvin remembers most about that game occurred late in the fourth quarter, when the Cowboys needed nine yards on third down. With a seven-point lead, Dallas needed a field goal to ensure victory and Coach Jimmy Johnson looked to Irvin to keep the drive alive.

“Can you get inside?” Johnson asked his standout receiver.

“I have to, don’t I?” Irvin said.

Johnson called for a slant pattern against Green and Irvin beat the Washington defender to the ball to make the first down and help preserve Dallas’ biggest victory of the season.

“Michael Irvin is a great receiver and everyone knows that when you play the Dallas Cowboys, you think of him,” said Raider cornerback Terry McDaniel, who will be covering Irvin on Sunday at the Coliseum.

Irvin held out for all of training camp before the start of this season. He did not sign his $4-million contract until four days before the Cowboys’ season opener against Washington.

Johnson, who had coached Irvin at Miami, knew his receiver would be ready.

“Michael is a unique guy who always stays in shape,” Johnson said. “He is a great competitor who loves to play the game. Being out was not a negative, like it would have been for most guys.”

The Cowboys lead the NFC East Division with a 5-1 record and Irvin is a key reason for their success. He leads the NFL with 674 yards and has a team-high 33 receptions. He is second in the NFC with 20.4 yards a catch.

And with his stock rising on the field, his talking has begun to taper off.

“When he first came into the league, he did a lot of talking,” McDaniel said. “But now he doesn’t talk as much as he used to. He lets his actions speak now.”

Blades agreed.

“He’s mellowed out a lot,” Blades said. “I think he learned that in this league you can’t afford to make too many defensive backs mad at you.”

But Irvin still has his moments. Like last season, when he played against Blades and the Lions.

“Yeah, there were a couple of times that I had to catch myself,” Blades said. “I had to remind myself that I’ve known him most of my life and that he doesn’t mean any harm. He was just being Michael.”

Irvin says that his reputation is overblown.

“It far exceeds you because I don’t talk as much as people try to make me out to do,” he said.

And now, Irvin’s main goal is to help the Cowboys to the Super Bowl because he figures he has everything else.

“I think that I have a great life,” he said. “I enjoy every moment. After all, I’m a rich man with a great family, a beautiful wife and good friends around me. I have a whole lot to be thankful for.”


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