In 17 games over the past 2½ years—including Sunday's 168-yard performance against the 49ers—Irvin has caught passes for more than 100 yards. He has dominated the league's best defensive backs. In that '92 Pro Bowl he took advantage of the San Diego Chargers' Gill Byrd when he caught those eight passes and Irvin has had two 100-yard games against Washington Redskin All-Pro Darrell Green. Alexander says, "I tell every rookie, 'Just watch what he does and do it, and you'll be O.K.' "
Those performances have reversed the dismal start of Irvin's professional career, when he couldn't deliver the goods to back up his words. The Cowboys chose Irvin 11th overall in the 1988 draft. But he could not rescue the team as it faded in the last sad days before Tom Landry was fired by new owner Jerry Jones, who brought in Johnson and a whole new staff.
Irvin missed most of Johnson's first season, 1989, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which was just as well, as the Cowboys went 1-15. Fearing his career was over and haunted by old fears of poverty, he worked on rehabilitating the knee by going on 30-mile bike rides. He spent most of '90 recovering his health and confidence while being viewed by nearly everyone else as a disappointment with a $400,000-a-year limp. Then came '91 and his breakthrough. Irvin achieved absolutely everything he had aimed for, including, after a long holdout, his multimillion-dollar contract.
The extravagance of Michael Irvin's jewelry is matched by the exuberance of his laughter, at himself and everything around him. He is in a constant state of hilarity. Sandy Irvin has known her husband to lie in bed and giggle. She wants to know what's so funny. "I'm just laughing at the past," he sighs. Laughter, like money, helps Irvin turn misery into happiness.
In the house where he grew up, on 27th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, the children came in flying wedges. Walter and Pearl Irvin joked that they wanted so many children they would have to name the last one Waltina Pearl. They nearly got there. Walter had two from a previous marriage, Pearl had six, and together they had nine more.
Irvin is often asked to name his siblings in order, and he can't always do it. Even Pearl gets confused sometimes. She refers to a family Bible that has the birth date and full name of each child. They are: Willie Pearl, 46; Alice Jean, 44; Willie James, 43; Walter Jr., 40; Ray Anthony, 38; Sheila Marie, 36; Janet Lynn, 36; Rosalind Rene, 35; twins Vaughn Richard and Don Raymond, 34; Sharon Delores, 33; Laverne Denise, 32; Lisa Michelle, 30; Patricia Ann, 28; Brenda Elaine, 22; and Derrick Lamar, 18.
Some of his relatives think that Michael developed his habit of chattering at high volume simply from trying to speak above the din of the family crowd. His mother says, "Michael does like attention. I have noticed that about my son."
As soon as Pearl got a few of the children grown up and moved out, more came. There were always 12 or 13 people to feed and clothe. The house had only two bedrooms until Walter Sr. closed in a porch and the garage to make extra bedrooms for the overflow. "He filled in every hole to make places to sleep," Pearl says. Michael claims he did not sleep in a bed alone until he got to college. He likes to say his family violated the fire code.
Walter was a roofer by trade but a Baptist preacher by avocation. The Irvins say that Michael is the child most like his father in both looks and character. Walter loved to talk and loved to laugh, and he had a capacity for long, hard labor. Six days a week he rose at 5 a.m. and worked until 7 p.m. Two Sundays a month he left home to preach from pulpits in Americus, Ga., and Fort Myers, Fla. Sometimes he would get home at 4 a.m. from his preaching trips and go to work with no sleep. He put the roof on the Irvins' neighborhood church, Mount Mary Primitive Baptist. The neighbors called him Rev.
Driving his rattletrap truck, Walter would come home in the evenings bone tired and covered from head to toe in dust and mud from construction sites. Michael remembers the plaster and cement caked on his arms. Walter would raise his hand in greeting and jump down from the truck to join his children in games of marbles, which he carried in a sack at his waist, until dinner.