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"To buy things," he said.
Michael bought Janet a satellite rig and a couple of big-screen TVs so the family could watch his games at her house in Fort Lauderdale. Janet hosts all the family gatherings, which draw as many as 200 people. Pearl now has 45 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She has also learned how to use the credit card. "Now she's fancy," Michael says. "She just throws it down on that counter."
When the Irvins need something a credit card can't handle, Michael calls his accountant, Dennis Carpenter of Dallas. "Handle it," Michael says.
The Irvin siblings are, by and large, a hardworking lot, but family members frequently need their famous relative's help. A cousin needs new clothes for college. A nephew has a car payment due. Michael handles it.
Mostly, Michael accepts his relatives' requests without complaint. He demands one thing in return: All male Irvin children must attend St. Thomas. His brother Derrick and one of their nephews, Shaun, graduated from St. Thomas last spring and are attending Kansas on football scholarships this fall. In May, Michael wrote a check to the school for $30,000. He asked that it be used to start a scholarship in his father's name.
But apart from his charity and fits of jewelry buying, Michael isn't all that extravagant. The truth is, he can't afford to be if he's going to support that much family. He and Sandy live in an unremarkable home in a North Dallas development, the same home he bought as a rookie. "That serious spread, the all-out mansion, I don't do it," he says. "I've got to take care of my people. I can't go out on the limb."
Not that Michael will ever be a true model of restraint. Pearl Irvin raised 17 children in poverty, one of them hungrier than all the others. For every charming turn or affecting gesture, Michael Irvin might always have a lingering childishness. What he really likes are toys. At heart he is still the kid who didn't get anything for Christmas. He is doing just fine without winning popularity contests. If you're not a member of his family, he's not even sure he wants you to like him.
"Like me? I don't know," he says. "Understand me? I don't know. It would be nice if people didn't always judge me without understanding me. But that's like saying it would be nice if we didn't have starvation." In the end, it seems, he just wants to be rich. And full.
Sometimes the Irvin clan gathers at Mount Mary Baptist Church for a reunion. Passersby see all the cars, and the long picnic tables filled with people in the church yard, and they wonder what is going on. It's just the Irvins, eating.