I have never tried cocaine. I’ve seen it in real life only twice. Once was outside a girl’s house, and the other time was outside a nightclub. I’m just now realizing as I write this that that means I’ve never even seen it indoors. What a shame.
I’ve of course seen it in the movies a ton. It always looks very exciting, at least in the beginning of the movie, anyway, before everything turns to poo for whoever is using it (Henry in Goodfellas, Tony in Scarface, Scar in The Lion King, etc.). And one time I was watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel and a man being interviewed said the first time he tried it he had an orgasm, which seems like a strange reaction to a drug but also the best reaction to a drug. However, for my 33 years on earth, that’s basically all of my experience with cocaine. Those particular instances, and also Michael Irvin.
This, I suppose, would be a peculiar way to start an essay about many Hall of Fame wide receivers. But not when it’s about Irvin.1 Because it is definitely relevant to the conversation. Because it’s one of three things everybody seems to associate with Irvin, even those who are not particularly concerned with him or his playing career.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good start, either, I guess.
I’ve never cared for the Cowboys,2 and I recall specifically disliking the very dominant teams of the ’90s that Irvin helped anchor. It wasn’t that I disliked them because they were good. The 49ers were equally good for a similar period of time. But the 49ers were interesting. They had Bill Romanowski, who, best I could tell, was He-Man except if He-Man was a psychopath. They had Ronnie Lott, who, at the time, I’d heard bit off the tip of his own pinkie just so he could play in the second quarter of a preseason game.3 And they had a nose tackle named Pete Kugler, a player who became way less fascinating when I later realized the guy from A Nightmare on Elm Street was actually Freddy Krueger and not Freddy Kugler.
I do like the Tony Romo version of the Cowboys. They are endlessly entertaining. It’s always just so much fun watching them figure out the most devastating way to lose a key game.
That’s of course not how the story actually went. He had the tip of his pinkie amputated following the 1985 season because the proper procedure (a bone graft or something) was going to extend into the ’86 season). But the truth rarely matters in these sorts of instances. By the time I tell my sons this story, it’ll be that Lott ate through his own leg because it was trapped in a scrum and he wanted to get free in a hurry to recover a fumble.
But the Cowboys — the Cowboys were always just so — so blah.
Troy Aikman kind of looked like the bad guy jock in a movie about high school kids but he never did any of the cool bad guy jock stuff (imagine how much fun it would’ve been if he’d been giving wedgies to reporters on the field after the game as he walked back to the locker room).
Daryl Johnston looked like he would invite you to his house to play cards and then you get there and he’s like, “OK, some house rules: No cursing, no alcoholic beverages, no loud speak, no carbs and let’s try to be done by 7:45. Also, we’re not playing cards, we’re singing church hymns. Also, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?”
And Emmitt Smith, maybe the best running back of all time and definitely the most prolific running back of all time, I don’t even know. I mean, he ran the ball for more than 18,000 yards but was only ever cool during his career twice: (1) when he retaliated against Terrell Owens celebrating a touchdown on the Dallas star at midfield by scoring his own touchdown and then celebrating on the Dallas star at midfield, and (2) for 4 minutes, 32 seconds in 1996 when Dr. Dre wore an Emmitt Smith jersey during Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” video.
Those guys, they just never seemed to be interested in anything other than winning, which of course isn’t a bad thing, but it also wasn’t a cool thing. When I looked at them, they were basically (very big) pieces of cardboard. I didn’t want to be a piece of cardboard. I wanted a fucking mohawk. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to be cool.
So I was drawn to Irvin. He was of course a great player. By all accounts, he had an unreal work ethic. And he was driven to be great. But so were Aikman and Johnston and Emmitt. However, Irvin had charisma. Irvin was charming. Irvin was infuriating, mostly to the other teams but also sometimes to Cowboys fans, too. Irvin would get a first down and celebrate like he’d scored a touchdown. Irvin would score a touchdown and celebrate like he’d won the Super Bowl. Irvin would win a Super Bowl and celebrate with cocaine and prostitutes. Irvin would get caught celebrating with cocaine and prostitutes and then show up to court dressed like Nino Brown from New Jack City. And noooooooobody was cooler than Nino Brown.
When I was in middle school, when we played football at the park or in the street or at school or whatever, I always told everyone I was Irvin, even though I was not even the smallest amount like him. I remember we played one game in the eighth grade and the quarterback accidentally threw the ball to me. (I’m assuming it was an accident because during every huddle I would get the quarterback’s attention and say something like, “Hey, man. Do not throw it to me. Do you hear me? Do NOT throw it to me.”) So I see the ball coming and I just swat it out of the sky like, “Nope. No, thank you.” I actively avoided catching it because I didn’t want to get tackled because I knew if I got tackled my arms and my legs would break in half (at the time, I was maybe 5-foot-1, 110 pounds). And so I run back to the huddle and everyone is giving me shit about it and the quarterback, he says, “I’m coming to you again, Serrano.” And I say, “No. Don’t come to me again. Definitely do not do that.”
But so the quarterback shouts, “Hike!” and I try to turn invisible and I look and oh no the ball is wobbling right at me. It hits me flush in the chest even though I tried to dodge it. And I was so surprised that it hit me that my arms grabbed it out of instinct. And I was like, “OHHHHHHHHH FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU.” The world was over. I said goodbye to everything. And I waited to die. But then the cornerback hit me, and I guess he was even more afraid than I was because instead of tackling me, he just slapped into me and fell down. And when I realized that my protons had not been separated from my electrons, oh my god I was just OH MY GOD.
I ran for about 11 yards before someone actually pulled me down. And I immediately jumped up, saw that we’d gotten a first down, and very emphatically spiked the ball on the ground and pointed forward to indicate the first down like I’d seen Irvin do 10,000 times. It was my greatest football moment, and my only catch of the season.
But after that, I felt like, “Yes, you and I have a connection, Irvin.” It was so empowering. All of the stuff that he’d gotten in trouble for, that never swayed me from rooting for him. If anything, it made me like him more. Michael Irvin got arrested for drugs, and I was like, “Man, I got grounded for failing math. I know what it’s like.” We were the same.
Even when I got older, when I sort of realized how serious some of the stuff he was involved in was, when my dad would explain to me how sometimes Cowboys fans really just loved him to death and how sometimes those same Cowboys fans just wanted him to go to death, it only made me appreciate him more. He was a human man, and human men make mistakes. Cardboards don’t make mistakes. Cardboards go on Dancing with the Stars or become spokespeople for weird lifestyle coach companies or something.
I don’t know how Irvin’s career would’ve played out had he gotten traded during that super big Herschel Walker deal back when Jimmy Johnson got there and just started flicking players from team to team, but I can’t imagine it’d have gone too differently.
Irvin was amazing. He’s my all-time favorite football player and maybe even the greatest receiver ever.4 When I watched his Hall of Fame speech, specifically when he got to the part about watching Troy and the rest of the 2006 Hall of Fame class get inducted and said he felt like, “Wow. That’s what a Hall of Famer is. Certainly, I am not that.” And his whole face was covered in tears and he was trying to not break down totally. Aw, man, dang. Come on. And when he started talking about how he wanted to tell his sons to be like him, to do it like he’d done it, because that’s what a dad is and that’s how dads feel, but that he couldn’t, that he had to tell them, “That’s how you do it, son. You do it … like they did it.” Aw, man, dang. Come on.
Michael Irvin is amazing.
I called my dad when I got assigned this story because my dad is the biggest Cowboys fan I know. I asked him who his favorite player was from that era. He said Emmitt, which I already knew because I think I’d gotten him an Emmitt Smith jersey for every holiday for, like, five years in a row. When I asked him about Irvin, he said, “Irvin was good, too.” I asked about all the off-the-field stuff. “That never really mattered. Back then, you could do that and nobody really cared.” I asked how he felt about me liking Irvin more than everyone else. “That makes sense. There was always something wrong with you.” And then he laughed. “If you’re gonna have a favorite receiver, it should be Mike.”