The threats of bodily harm and broken bones, the touchdowns, penalties and interceptions, the big wins and devastating losses, the blood, sweat and jeers — it all could have led anywhere. Anywhere but here, really.
“I wasn’t fighting and cussing and all that stuff, but trust me, I was gonna show up every play,” says Darrell Green, the former Washington Redskins cornerback. “When I saw Michael Irvin across from me, I was gonna show up to play.”
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Green and Irvin epitomized the fierce combativeness between the Cowboys and Redskins, a rivalry whose latest chapter will be written Sunday night when the teams play for the NFC East title at FedEx Field.
Sports rivalries are fueled by inexplicable emotions and can grow in unpredictable directions. But few evolve like the relationship shared by Green and Irvin, two Hall of Famers, ferocious competitors who literally bloodied each other on the football field.
Now retired, they have become confidants. More than two decades after first meeting, they do speaking engagements together. They’ve visited schools, hospitals, churches, anywhere they believe their message of faith might be heard.
“We have two different deliveries, two different experiences,” Green says, “but we end up at the same place.”
Green, 52, takes the stage first and talks about his walk with God: one of eight siblings, raised in Houston, playing for a small college, undersized but filled with determination and almost always resisting temptations and choosing right over wrong.
Then Irvin, 46, takes the stage.
“Hey, if you can do it, that is the way to go,” he says. “Do it like Darrell Green did it. He was one of the best on the field and certainly one of the best God made off the field.” Irvin offers a dramatic pause. He was raised in South Florida, one of 18 children; his path to greatness almost consumed by potholes. “I wasn’t able to do it that way.”
By the time Irvin entered the National Football League as a brash, outspoken rookie in 1988, Green was already 28, with five full seasons under his belt, including three Pro Bowl appearances.
“The idea to have a Darrell Green walk out and say, ‘I’m covering you,’ that’s almost like being christened, ‘Okay, now you’re an NFL player. Welcome,’ ” says Irvin, today an analyst for the NFL Network.
Green had studied the 22-year-old receiver on film. He saw a rookie who was bullying opposing defensive backs. When the two finally met for the first time in December 1988, Green made sure Irvin knew his limits. The two got into a scuffle and despite giving up a six-inch height advantage, Green got the best of the young receiver.
“I said, ‘Hey, young guy, I saw you on the film. Dude, it’s not gonna happen like that here,’ ” Green recalls.
But Green fractured a bone in his left hand and spent most of the day on the sideline, watching Irvin tally 149 yards and three touchdowns, a breakout performance.
“It was easy,” Irvin told reporters after the game. “I was overpaid today.”
At the conclusion of a game, players usually retreat to their respective locker rooms, then their respective cities. Green remembers chatting with Irvin on the field after the game and says the seeds of a friendship were sown then. Irvin, though, said he had a healthy respect for Green but had trouble reconciling his feelings on and off the field. To get himself worked up for an opponent, Irvin said, he “had to put true hatred in my heart” — a limitation that prevents many opposing players from ever becoming close.
“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.
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.”
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