From actor to AFC championship: SoCal’s Trenton Irwin on big stage with Bengals
Trenton Irwin sat at the end of the dining room table — but not for long.
The teen watched for nearly 30 seconds as others tasted their food, and then were catapulted in succession through a window, into a China cabinet and French doors. When Irwin finally took a bite, he was launched backward into the wall of a faux fireplace with more velocity than a Joe Burrow pass.
“Man, that’s good,” the young actor said at the end of an action-packed 2010 Kraft Velveeta television commercial, which featured the tagline, “So good, it will blow ‘em away.”
Irwin was 13 when he appeared in that spot. It was one of more than a dozen the Cincinnati Bengals receiver was cast for before giving up show business to fully commit to football.
On Sunday, the former Newhall Hart High and Stanford receiver goes prime time when he will play in the AFC championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Irwin, 27, is a rotational player for a Bengals team that features Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd — perhaps the NFL’s best receiver group.
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But he has made the most of his opportunities.
Of his 15 catches this season, four resulted in touchdowns.
“I’ve been in the league for four years, but this is my first real opportunity in that type of situation,” Irwin said in a telephone interview. “So, I’m just having fun with it, just with my guys, my brothers, and learning from the best.”
Irwin’s development into a future NFL receiver coincided with his fledgling acting career, an offshoot of what essentially was the family business.
Craig Irwin, his father, is a longtime character actor who has appeared in numerous commercials and television shows. During Trenton’s youth, the entire family — Craig, wife Ericka, Trenton, and younger siblings Alyssa, Shawn and Ava — went on casting calls together.
The family also appeared in a 2005 Bravo reality series “Sports Kids, Moms & Dads.”
“I was not a kid wanting to see all that attention and all that,” Trenton said. “I was a quiet little kid just catching lizards and fishing and playing football.
“For me that was to help the family and to be with the family because we all went [to] auditions together sometimes. That was just trying to help the squad.”
Football, not acting, was his passion.
At age 3, Irwin began carrying a football everywhere. Around the house. At the grocery store. On trips to the airport.
“They called it his responsibility,” his mother said, laughing. “ ’Don’t lose your responsibility!’ ”
Despite an injured ankle, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes said after practice for the AFC title game vs. the Bengals: “I feel like I can still do a lot of things.”
Craig was inspired by the 10,000 hours of purposeful practice theory that gained popularity after the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “Outliers.” The goal was for Trenton to catch 200 balls a day.
“It was kind of obsessive,” Craig said, “but fun.”
On days when Craig was not available to throw passes, Ericka filled in.
“Every kid says, ‘I’m going to grow up and be in the NFL or I’m going to be an astronaut,’ ” Ericka said. “And mom says ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s build you a rocket ship.‘ And this kid was like, ‘Let’s go to the park and throw me the ball.’
“I try to take credit. Because I was such horrible quarterback, that if he could catch mine, he could catch anyone’s.”
As Irwin sharpened his football craft — he played on the same youth football team as Philadelphia Eagles safety Marcus Epps — he also blossomed as an actor.
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His career began innocently. A casting director asked Craig to bring his then-7-year-old son along on Craig’s audition for a Nissan SUV commercial.
“He gets the job,” Craig said, laughing. “Not me.”
Said Trenton: “They snagged me up for it and I was like, ‘This is easy.’ It was not that easy afterwards. We did not get that many.”
But Irwin landed the Velveeta spot.
“I wasn’t doing a great job early on,” he said. “I had to lock in. I almost got fired. My stunt double was this blond-haired dude and he almost [replaced Irwin]. I ended getting it right. ... It turned out wonderful.”
A few years later, however, Irwin called it a career.
On the brink of becoming the first freshman to start for Hart, he booked a Microsoft commercial. The shoot was scheduled for the day before a Friday night game.
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“I think we threatened, ‘You’re going to be here at practice,’ ” said former Hart coach Mike Herrington, now the school’s offensive coordinator. “Because that was our rule: If you miss practice, you couldn’t start in the game.”
The job paid more than $15,000, so Irwin felt obliged to work.
“My family needed it,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m doing that rather than going to this last practice. I got to do that.’ ”
Irwin did not play in the first quarter. It felt like an eternity.
“That was the turning point,” he said. “I don’t think I went on an audition again.”
Irwin did go on to become the first four-year starter for Hart. He established state records with 285 career receptions for 5,268 yards and 57 touchdowns receiving.
“One of the best, if not the best receiver, we’ve ever had,” said Herrington, who now runs an offense that features college prospect Shawn Irwin at receiver.
Irwin earned a scholarship to Stanford, graduated with a degree in Science, Technology, and Society and in 2019 signed as an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins. He was cut, but the Bengals signed Irwin and he began his journey from practice squad player to contributor.
Irwin played in one game in 2019 and one game in 2020 but did not catch a pass. In 2021, he had two catches in seven games, but he was not active for the playoffs — including Super Bowl LVI against the Rams at SoFi Stadium.
“It was that twisted, mixed-feelings type of thing,” he said. “Like, ‘All right, glad we won [playoff games] but I also want a dang chance to do something for the squad.’ … That’s the happy medium, being able to feel good with being blessed with what you’ve got, but also still want more.”
Irwin got increased opportunities this season because several receivers suffered injuries.
Irwin’s first touchdown catch came on a one-yard pass from Burrow that gave the Bengals the lead in a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I knew, a guy like Trenton Irwin, I knew exactly what I was going to get when he gets on the field,” Burrow told Cincinnati reporters in the days after the game. “In practice, he does exactly what he’s supposed to do. Runs the route exactly the way you expect. He’s going to be right where he’s supposed to be at the time he’s supposed to be there, and that’s what you need out of a guy like that.
“He’s going to play hard, and he’s going to catch balls when his opportunity comes.”
A few weeks later, Irwin scored on a 45-yard touchdown on a flea-flicker play in a victory over the Cleveland Browns. He added two touchdown catches in a win over the New England Patriots.
In the Bengals’ AFC wild-card victory over Baltimore, Irwin did not have a catch. Last Sunday, he was targeted twice and had one catch for 13 yards in a divisional-round victory over the Bills.
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As the Bengals prepared this week for the Chiefs, Irwin and his father continued their daily phone chats about life and football. On Saturday, it will embody their usual day-before-the-game emphasis.
Craig reads aloud every play-call for all three receiver positions.
“I try to do it in a Joe Burrow-type accent,” Craig said, chuckling, “even though Joe doesn’t have an accent.”
“He’s an actor,” he said, “so he always loved the accents.”
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