“I wasn’t mature enough to handle that type of a friendship, knowing I also had to compete against him,” the wide receiver says.
In sports, personal happiness is often interlocked with professional output. The thin line between personal and professional is often blurry, though. During the 1992 season, Green missed eight games with a broken arm. The December home game against Dallas was Green’s third since he returned from the injury.
“I’m gonna hit him right on that arm,” Irvin told reporters. When reporters expressed disbelief toward the showman, Irvin refused to retreat. “I’m not joking,” he said. “I’m going after his arm.”
Back in Washington, Green wouldn’t take the bait. He always saw the best in Irvin and deflected the taunts with a smile. “Tell him if he hurts me, my wife is going to come out of the stands and get him,” he told reporters.
That Sunday Irvin topped 100 yards, but late in the game Green stripped the ball from Irvin, helping to preserve the Redskins’ win. Rather than allow a threat to damage the budding relationship, the resulting game only deepened the respect between the two men.
Irvin laughs at the memory today. “What ignorance,” he says.
In December 1993, the Cowboys were en route to defending their Super Bowl title and faced the Redskins at home. Irvin was a bit too aggressive blocking Green, and the cornerback had warned Irvin to calm down. The receiver didn’t listen. Green’s forearm poked through Irvin’s facemask and broke the receiver’s nose. Blood started streaming, and Green followed Irvin to the sideline, apologizing the whole way.
“Let me go get this fixed,” Irvin said with a smile, “and I’ll be right back.”
With a large bandage on his nose, Irvin returned a few plays later and caught a touchdown over Green. The Cowboys won handily.
Off the field, the relationship evolved. They exchanged phone numbers and played basketball in the offseason. They talked about family and faith. Publicly, their mutual admiration was evident.
‘If you need me, I’m here’
Their friendship grew and after years of lining up across from each other, football was just a conduit and their postgame chats became more focused on family. Late in both men’s careers, Green made sure his son met Irvin. Jared Green was just 7 or 8 years old at the time, a future pro receiver himself who enjoyed watching Irvin play.
Irvin talked to the young boy and didn’t hide from his troubles — addiction, arrests, suspensions. That honesty and accountability made Green and his son appreciate Irvin even more.
“People may not understand, but he’s a great role model,” Green says. “He’s modeling truth, he’s modeling the reality of life — the struggles, the triumphs, the victories, the defeats.”
After a long talk, Green agreed to let his son decorate his room with a photo of Irvin, plus a Cowboys jersey and helmet from the receiver — banned symbols of an enemy in Redskins Nation. The friendship between the cornerback and the receiver came to overshadow the rivalry between two teams.
“I wouldn’t let my son put any poster on the wall,” Green says. “But we talked and he understood that Michael Irvin was moving in the right direction. . . . When he met him, this man wasn’t completely cooked, but you could see where he’s headed, you could see his spirit, you could see his heart.”
Irvin said he was at his lowest shortly after he retired in 1999. Football, for him, was an addiction and without it, other addictions took over. As the limelight faded and he spiraled downward, Irvin said he started to realize which friendships would outlast the game of football.
“It’s a dangerous time,” Irvin says. “To have people like Darrell, real friends, saying, ‘This is who you are, this is what you need to be doing, God is with you,’ that makes a difference. Even him just saying, ‘If you need me, I’m here’ — that means the world. He’s there with an ear and without judgment, which is a very difficult thing to do when you’ve been pristine like him.”
Irvin and Green don’t talk much about football these days, and certainly not about rivalries. Irvin chuckles at the absurdity of the impeccable cornerback and the troubled receiver becoming so close in retirement, a friendship built by years of victories and defeats on and off the field.
“God just chose this,” Green explains. “He put us on a football field together.”