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A young Michael Irvin sits in the kitchen, working his way through an entire box of cornflakes. He is eating out of a large mixing bowl. He eats fast, swallowing the cereal in huge gulps. He doesn't know if he's full. He can't tell. He can't really taste the cornflakes either, because there is no milk. He is eating the cereal with tap water. All he knows is that he's going to eat it before somebody else does. The others will be home soon. He pours more cereal into the bowl and turns on the tap. He stirs water into the flakes and recommences his tireless eating.
When his brothers and sisters discover that he has eaten their next day's breakfast they will beat him up, but the fear of a whipping is nothing compared with the gnawing want that seemed to start in the soles of the boy's feet and then lodged in the back of his throat. There are 17 Irvin children, of which Michael is the 15th. They live in a poor Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, in a small brick house with only one fan for all the children. They fight over food, beds and cool air.
At school other kids laugh at Michael's thrift-shop sneakers, black hightops that they mockingly call cat heads. When Michael's feet outgrow the sneakers, his father will cut off the toe tops, and Michael will wear the sneakers that way to school because he can't afford new ones. His teachers think he is a sad little figure. But Michael never skips school. He is on the free-lunch program. He may be ashamed of toeless sneakers, but he isn't ashamed of needing the free lunch. While the other kids hold up their lunch tickets sheepishly, Irvin jumps to his feet waving his, yelling, "I got mine!"
Michael Irvin is 27 now, but his ravenous appetite has not been appeased. It has only become more expensive, graduating from cornflakes with tap water to clams casino with white wine. "I crave things," he says. His urge to eat anything that doesn't blink is accompanied by a compulsion to say anything he thinks and buy anything that shines. Deion Sanders is one of his best friends.
It's your average weekday, and Irvin is arrayed in burgundy shorts, a paisley silk shirt, gold and diamond rings on his fingers, a large diamond stud in his left ear, a diamond bracelet on one wrist, a diamond-encrusted Rolex on the other and a necklace of inch-thick gold bars culminating in a diamond-laden triangle the size of an ashtray. Irvin slips on his burgundy-tinted shades and steps into an item that completes the ensemble, a black Mercedes convertible with windows untinted so everybody can see him. "Top down, top down!" he hollers as he turns the ignition key and retracts the top, an arrogant gesture not unlike the one he makes when he removes his Dallas Cowboy helmet so that all may view him.
Irvin is the NFL's grand master of braggadocio, and he has backed up his boasts. Now in his sixth NFL season, he has helped transform the Cowboys from a 1-15 team to the defending Super Bowl champions. The Mercedes was a gift to himself for signing a three-year, $3.75 million contract with the Cowboys in 1992 after he made All-Pro. The necklace was the reward Irvin gave to Irvin for his game-breaking Super Bowl performance against the Buffalo Bills: He caught six passes for 114 yards, including two touchdowns in 15 seconds. He comes from the slightly-larger-than-life school of athletic celebrity. "Everybody says, 'Look at that hot dog, that cocky so-and-so,' " he says. "I'm just having fun. I'm a bad example because I enjoy myself? They take me all wrong."
The truth is, Irvin is a complicated man with a quick intelligence and formidable charm. He is not a man of moderation. Dining recently at The Palm restaurant in Dallas, he declared himself to be on a diet and said he would eat only a plate of clams casino, with no main course. A few minutes later the clams were gone. He sopped up the clam juice with three dinner rolls. He stared wistfully at the plate. He gestured for the waiter. Declaring the diet ended, he ordered a four-pound lobster.
What will ever be enough for Irvin? He has his looks, his health and as much talent as any wide receiver in the NFL. He has a Super Bowl ring to go with the national championship ring he won with the Miami Hurricanes in 1987. He has a beautiful wife, Sandy, who is a former Miami Dolphin cheerleader, and he has his own TV show in Dallas. Game over. Right? "I'm still hungry," he says.
Irvin's most prominent feature has always been his mouth. When it is not yearning to be fed, it is often screaming to be heard or begging to be punched. Among the Top 40 on his rhetorical hit parade:
To Phoenix Cardinal cornerback Lorenzo Lynch, whom he had just beaten deep: "It's a nightmare, isn't it? How can lightning keep striking like this?"