Walter was playful but strict. In his presence the Irvin children were not allowed to argue or complain about the things they didn't have. "You dealt with what you needed, not what you wanted," Michael says. At many Christmases there were no presents under the tree. Michael would tell neighbors that his gifts were at his grandmother's or that he was going out of town on Christmas Day. On the 25th he would stay inside all afternoon, peering at the other children from a window as they played with their new toys.
Even getting the bare essentials was difficult when there were so many other clamoring mouths and jostling bodies. Michael would wait until Walter got home and would cry, "Daddy, they didn't feed your baby today." Michael would sneak food into the bathroom and eat it there or would wait until the house was quiet and the kitchen unguarded and wipe out all the bread and milk at a single sitting. "He was a hog, he ate everything," says his sister Rene. When there was no meat, Michael ate mayonnaise sandwiches. For a change of flavor he would eat ketchup sandwiches. "He didn't care, he ate them just for the bread," Rene says.
Pearl, who was herself the 12th of 13 children, knew how to stretch food. She farmed the backyard, growing string beans, carrots, peas, collard greens and turnips for the huge urns of soup she cooked for dinner. After the children did their homework and went to bed, she would start cooking again. She would prepare the following day's meals during The Tonight Show. Walter joked that as soon as she heard Johnny Carson's voice, Pearl would start cooking.
At night the children waged wars over a fan. Although the house had an air conditioner, the Irvins couldn't afford the electricity to use it. Walter and Pearl had a fan for themselves in their room, which doubled as a nursery for the latest infant. The rest of the family was left to fight over the other fan. The girls usually got it. The boys would toss and sweat in the heat until they couldn't stand it anymore, then send Michael to sneak across the hall and steal the fan. The boys would sleep awhile in the cool breeze; then the girls would wake up in their hot room and one of them would steal the fan back. "It went on all night long," Michael says.
Everybody worked. The girls did the household chores, and the boys did the yard work. As Michael grew, his father would feel his biceps. "Pretty soon you'll be ready for the truck," Walter would say to his son. As soon as Michael could carry a bucket of wet roofing cement, he joined his father on weekend and summer jobs. At 13 he hauled the heavy buckets in the sweltering Florida heat, and his father took rent and food money out of his pay. Michael developed a physical endurance like his father's. In Michael's eyes, Walter took on heroic proportions. "He was a strong man, and strong-minded," Michael says.
Sitting on the hot roofs, Michael would think about getting what he wanted, not just what he needed. It occurred to him that football was the way to do it.
In junior high, in addition to playing football, Michael ran track and played basketball in his cat heads, slipping all over the floor until his sister Pat took a temporary job to earn the money to buy him decent sneakers. When he got to high school and it became clear that his athletic talent was great, his brother Willie took charge of his physical training. Willie, who was 16 years older, would make Michael run several miles a day in exchange for food or a chance to borrow his car. He would pick Michael up after practice and take him to Burger King. "Mama, you got to feed that boy," Willie would tell Pearl. "You got to give him a steak."
At Piper High, Michael became increasingly aware of the things other kids had that he didn't—clothes, sneakers, sunglasses, cars—and was envious. While he ran on the asphalt streets of Fort Lauderdale, he thought more and more about the things he wanted, dreaming of houses with lots of bedrooms and swimming pools. "I was thinking, God, I'm not always going to live this way," he says. "And I wasn't thinking if. I was thinking when."
Even as he began to excel at athletics, Michael envisioned a more immediate way to get what he wanted—to simply take it. He intimates a dark past, though he does not confess anything specific and says he was never caught. "I was hanging with the wrong crowd, guys who had no goals, who were just fluttering," he says. At the end of his sophomore year he was suspended from Piper for disciplinary reasons, the specifics of which "I'll never tell anyone," he says.
Walter was not happy with the course of his son's education or athletic career, and he began scouting private schools for a place to transfer Michael, settling on St. Thomas Aquinas, a private middle-class Catholic school famous for an athletic alumna, Chris Evert. In 1982 St. Thomas admitted Michael as a sophomore. Enraged Piper officials took Michael and St. Thomas to court, claiming that the private school had recruited him for football and basketball and never would have admitted him if not for his athletic talent. Piper also predicted that Irvin would be unable to make the grades at St. Thomas. The court eventually ruled that as required by Florida interscholastic regulations, Irvin would have to sit out his junior year because Piper refused to sign a waiver allowing him to compete.