NEWARK — Bruce Irvin walked toward a wall, looked up and began greeting a group of Seattle Seahawks fans. They wanted to say hello and go home with an autograph. Irvin wanted to reflect and enjoy his surroundings — and how far he has come.
“It’s crazy. That’s all I can say: It’s crazy,” he said Tuesday. “From the situation I was in seven years ago when I started this, I never thought I’d be playing in the Super Bowl.”
Irvin is a 26-year-old outside linebacker for the Seahawks. This is who he is now. Nearly a decade ago, his identity was much different: high school dropout and occasional drug dealer and criminal. Then, as he describes it, he was homeless.
But life can turn quickly, and on Tuesday, the Seattle defender with the No. 51 embroidered on his jacket was an example of that.
“You know,” he said, “I think God had a plan for me.”
Irvin dropped out of his suburban Atlanta high school as a junior, and even then, it was a reach to call him a football player. He played in three games as a freshman at Stephenson High, where Washington Redskins linebacker Perry Riley Jr. was a teammate, but he was academically ineligible before quitting school.
His mother kicked him out of her home, and Irvin moved from house to house, often settling in those shared with friends who sold drugs. Irvin tried it too sometimes, and in 2007, he spent three weeks in a juvenile detention center on burglary and weapon charges.
One afternoon, Irvin recalled, he went to a gas station. He was living in a house where drugs were sold, and on this day, he stopped in the store and returned to find police had raided the house. His friends had been arrested, and if he hadn’t stepped out, he would’ve been, too. Irvin believed he had been spared. This was a sign, he told himself, and at age 19, changes needed to be made.
“An eye-opening moment,” he said.
Rather than living with drug dealers, Irvin was instead taken in by Chad Allen, a mentor who saw the youngster’s potential. They talked about life, Allen telling Irvin there always was a way out. At Allen’s urging, Irvin took the test for high school equivalency that December, passing all five parts, Irvin said, on his first attempt. He had once closed doors, and opportunity existed only in the law’s shadows; now, college was an option, and what might lie ahead beyond that?
“I kind of felt like it was freedom,” he said, looking back on the day he read his GED results.
He enrolled in a junior college in Kansas, but still unable to play, he moved farther away — this time to Mt. San Antonio College near Los Angeles. Irvin built himself into a blue-chip junior college recruit, showing extraordinary ability for such an inexperienced player. He was 6 feet 3 and 230 pounds, and recruiters from major colleges noticed his talent for pursuing ball carriers and bringing them down.
Irvin signed with West Virginia, playing defensive end and tallying 14 sacks in 2010 and nine more as a senior.
He was seen as a potential second-day pick in the 2012 draft. His skills were never in question; rather, his inexperience and past were concerns, and scouts wanted to hear how Irvin addressed his background during pre-draft interviews.
“People doubted me coming out last year,” he said, “when I had all the baggage and stuff.”
And so, confronting those doubts, Irvin was honest with evaluators. He told them about dropping out of Stephenson, about the rift with his mother, with the arrest and the raided house. He discussed slip-ups since he left Georgia, including an arrest for disorderly conduct while at West Virginia — and that the charges were eventually dropped. Irvin told them how he recognized his weaknesses, vowing — and then coming through — to overcome them. If he did such a thing with his life, correcting mistakes and improving on weaknesses on a football field would be nothing.
The Seahawks, pleased with his answers and attitude — to say nothing of his ability — drafted Irvin not in the middle rounds but with the No. 15 overall pick. They saw him as a linebacker, and they promised him time to adjust to the NFL’s demands and to adapt to his new responsibilities. If he could keep growing, the team viewed him as a foundation block.
“Athlete. He’s a heck of an athlete, man,” Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril said when asked about his first impressions of Irvin. “I’ve seen him jump over guys; I’ve seen him dunk balls. Just an athlete.”
Time passed, and word of Irvin’s background began spreading through the Seahawks’ locker room. He rarely spoke of where he had been, but the stories were making the rounds.
“If you believe in yourself,” Avril said, “obviously you can get to where you want to go. It shows you that, with somebody like Bruce who’s been through so much through his life, and to continue to work and put his head into it, he’s in the NFL, and he’s at the Super Bowl.”
Irvin, who started 12 regular season games this year, remains in a period of adjustment. This is nothing new for him, and he said change doesn’t bother him. Not after what he has been through. He has made peace with his mother, he said, and he’s engaged to be married.
“I started at the bottom,” said Irvin, who had two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception during the regular season. “Any time I face adversity, I never fold up because I’m used to it.”
As he walked toward the exit Tuesday, his interviews and off-field obligations complete, the group of fans he greeted and signed for began chanting his first name. All the way from there to here, and Irvin stopped and smiled.
“A tough situation, man,” he said. “But I wouldn’t change it for nothing. It made me who I am.”