MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Bruce Irvin stood in a drug dealer's house, his gun tucked away, searching for money. It never occurred to him that this might not be the best idea; that somebody might be home, that he might even get shot. In his mind he thought only one thing: "I'm going to get paid."
This is what Irvin's life had come to since dropping out of high school, when things started to go wrong and his mother threw him out of her home. By the end of the night he would be in jail, and it appeared likely he would be headed there again, or prison or something worse.
Anywhere but on the verge of the NFL draft.
"I just lay in bed and think about life," Irvin says. "Me and my situation where I was – man I could write a book. It's just crazy. God had a plan for me."
Bruce Irvin is not a religious man. He does not go to church. But sometimes things don't make much sense, like the robbery charge he avoided or the drug raid he missed or how sitting on a curb, his clothes stuffed in a garbage bag next to him, he found a mentor who would help guide him to the verge of the NFL.
"He's the best story I've come across in years," says Ken Herock, a former NFL general manager who runs a program that prepares college players for their interviews at the NFL scouting combine.
Growing up in Stone Mountain, Ga., Irvin attended Stockbridge High, a mostly-white school 20 minutes away. He had trouble adjusting to the different culture, and when he overheard his teachers talking about him in the halls wishing he would leave, he did. That broke his mother Bessie Lee's heart, and so she did the only thing she thought she could: She threw him out.
If he was not going to school he would have to find his own way.
"He got caught up in the hype of the street," she says. "Sometimes you have to pray."
Says Irvin: "I was foolish, man. It takes some people longer to realize certain stuff than other people. You never want to go through that situation that I went through, but a lot of people who did that stuff wouldn't be doing this stuff today. I beat the odds. It showed me a lot of stuff: life is not just about getting money or having fun. I'm not going to take this one life I got and wreck it."
And so he remembers dates, calling them out as if they are signposts appearing in the fog.
May 23, 2007
The day Irvin and two others broke into a drug dealer's house in suburban Atlanta. After dropping out of high school, he fell in with people who were tumbling like himself – the kind of people his mother warned him would "laugh at you when you are down and out."
All rational thought was gone, though. He didn't much consider the consequences when he entered the home. Nothing mattered besides the money. He and two others robbed the house and escaped, not realizing that the person next door saw them and called the police.
It didn't take long for Irvin to be arrested and hauled to the police station where he was charged with burglary and carrying a concealed weapon. Then he was thrown into jail where he sat for two-plus weeks.
"I thought I was done," he says.
He probably would have been done were it not for one fortuitous circumstance: drug dealers tend not to want to go to court and say, "Yes, that was my drug house that had been robbed." With no one to testify against him, Irvin was set free.
"After that, I was done with the breaking in," Irvin says.
But not with a life drifting out of control.
There was no going back home. He didn't have a job and didn't want to go back to school. Deep down he knew he should be doing something better. Still, he was homeless, rolling from one couch to another, crashing with the same unsavory friends, eventually finding his way to a drug house where he settled in to live that fall.
Nov. 13, 2007
The day Irvin sat on a couch in the drug house, playing video games when a former player from Stockbridge High came to buy marijuana. The player remembered him, recalling the talent that went unfulfilled. Looking at Irvin, sprawled on the couch, a video game remote in his hands, the player shook his head.
"What are you doing with your life?" he asked.
Irvin didn't have an answer.
Come to Atlanta, the player urged. He was going to Ware Prep Academy – a kind of last- chance place for high school athletes who had been in trouble. They had a football team. He knew people who could help Irvin out, get him playing football again. Irvin heard nothing after the word "football." He didn't consider how he could get into a prep school, what classes he would take, how he would pay for it. He just saw a path out of the life where he was. He threw everything he had into a trash bag and rode with the player to Atlanta.
Irvin moved into the dormitory without ever enrolling in the school, happy to have a new place to live and the prospect of playing football again.
Four days later, Irvin got a call from a man who had been living with him in the drug house. Police had raided the house a day after Irvin left. Everyone was arrested, including the man on the phone who was calling from jail.
"God got you out of that house for a reason," the man said. "Go to school, live your dream and don't look back."
Except there would be no school. The next day, the prep school closed – its owners worn down by a corrupt recruiting world. The dormitories cleared. Everyone stood out front, clutching possessions, leaving one-by-one as friends and family picked them up until only Irvin remained, sitting alone on the steps, his garbage bag beside him. That's when Chad Allen drove up.
"Do you have anywhere to go?" Irvin remembers Allen asking.
He shook his head no.
And right there, on the steps of the shuttered prep school, he broke down.
"I'm basically trying to get my life together," he told Allen.
The two had met a few days before. Allen, a former player at Morehouse College, sensed something about Irvin that he liked. Unlike a lot of the other prep school kids, he listened. He seemed determined, desperate to get out of the life he had been living. He seemed to want to succeed.
Eventually Allen had Irvin move into his home. They called Bessie Lee and told her where he was and then set about trying to get Irvin to school.
"I can get you anywhere you want to go," Allen told him. "But it's not about football. You've got to prove you're committed."
Allen told Irvin he needed to find a junior college to go to for academic reasons, that he had to research the GED exam, prepare for it and pass. If Irvin could get himself to a college and survive a semester, Allen would do everything he could to help. So Irvin found a place to take the GED. Then he studied.
Dec. 12, 2007
The day Irvin took the GED. More than a week later he learned he passed. Then he found Butler Community College in Kansas, and with the financial support of his mother and stepfather, who were delighted to see him in school, he enrolled the following January.
"We did a lot of work [to pay for school] – a lot of overtime," Lee says. "We had to forgo some of our bills so he could pay his rent and eat. But you know how hard it was to watch him struggle? Why not have his back? I would have given my left arm to help him do right. He had a lot to give."
Irvin's life at Butler was short-lived. Kansas has a rule limiting the number of out-of-state athletes who could be on teams. He had a good year academically but realized he'd have to go elsewhere if he was going to play football.
After everything Irvin had done to get this far, the last thing either of them wanted was for him to tumble backward. It worked.
Irvin went to California where he played football for the first time in years. Even though he had been a running back and receiver growing up and does not have the natural body of a defensive lineman, the Mt. San Antonio coaches tried him at defensive end. A raw but promising pass rusher emerged, going from zero sacks the first season to more than 15 his second. This intrigued major college football coaches who flooded him with phone calls and mail.
He visited Tennessee and accepted when the school offered a scholarship only to renounce the commitment later when coach Lane Kiffin left to go to USC. In a way, this was a blessing.
"I wanted to go somewhere where they needed me as much as I needed them," Irvin says.
When West Virginia brought him in to look at the campus, he knew it was home.
"I wanted to come here and play right away," he says. "West Virginia saw me as the missing [piece of the] puzzle and I had 14½ sacks my first year so I became a fan favorite. You know what? This was the best decision of my life."
On a Friday morning in mid-March Irvin stood inside West Virginia's indoor practice facility listening as NFL coaches and scouts barked instructions. "Cut left!" "Go right!" "Hands up!" "Run in place." More than 30 teams had come to West Virginia's pro day and this was an important chance for Irvin to show he's worth a high draft pick.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith stood nearby as did several defensive line coaches – a sign of real interest.
"Show us you want to be a first-round pick!" one shouted as Irvin moved through an agility drill.
When they were finished, Smith and Tomlin both approached as did a few of the scouts, some who asked him to re-tell "his story." When he was finally done, he laughed nervously. So many questions. So much speculation.
"I've never been taught how to pass rush, but I've had 40-some sacks in three seasons – all of that is on natural ability," he'd say two days later. "I feel like I have a lot of upside and with a lot of coaching the sky is the limit."
March 18, 2012
The day he got arrested, again. A silly thing perhaps: misdemeanor charges of destruction of property and disorderly conduct. According to the police report, Irvin knocked a magnetic Pita Pit sandwich shop sign off the top of a delivery car. He was arrested when the driver said the sign was damaged.
Irvin will not discuss the incident publicly, even to correct an erroneous report that he had shattered a sign inside a Jimmy John's shop. The most he has said came two days after his arrest when he posted on his Twitter account: "If u honestly believe I would blow my chances destroying jimmy johns after all the hard work I put in to get in my situation ur crazy!"
Does the arrest matter? Should it? Irvin has 11 visits scheduled with NFL teams, two of which actually came to Morgantown to see him. This seems to indicate the league remains interested.
Sitting in the hotel lobby, Irvin slowly nods his head. Around him, people are scurrying to beat a morning checkout. He smiles. Despite the pending misdemeanor charges, he seems to only be staring into the future.
"I beat the odds and I did what I said I was going to do," he says. "I left the house. I got back in school. [I got to] junior college, and when I got to the junior college I said I was going to go to a Division I school, and when I got to a Division I school I said I was going to kill it and go in the draft. I did what a lot of people said I wasn't going to do. A lot of people wrote me off and said I couldn't do those things [and those] are the same people who hit me up on Facebook and Twitter today."
He laughs again.
"Adversity – I live by that word," he continues. "I faced a lot of adversity. I feed off that type of stuff."
So remains one more date: April 27, 2012. This is the second day of the NFL draft – when Rounds 2 and 3 will be held. While the first round was always too long a shot for the player who never should have been here, the second and third are not.
That alone should make him the story of the draft.
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