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Wednesday, January 1, 1997

Michael Irvin: from stardom to scandal

By JAIME ARON / Associated Press (Jan. 1, 1997)

IRVING - Michael Irvin has always been the showman. Everything about him says so: from the sunglasses he wore indoors to his "Playmaker" license plate to his mink coat-wearing, Bible-autographing courthouse appearance.

But now the captivating swagger that defined the Dallas Cowboys receiver has been replaced by serious questions.

Having avoided jail this summer, Irvin goes into 1997 under a new threat of a prison sentence that would end his Hall of Fame-caliber career in its prime.

Just five months into a four-year probation for felony cocaine possession, Irvin was accused Tuesday of holding a gun to a 23-year-old woman's head while teammate Erik Williams and another man forced her to have sex.

If Irvin is charged in any wrongdoing, Judge Manny Alvarez could revoke Irvin's probation and put him behind bars for the felony drug charge he pleaded no contest to in July.

Alvarez made his stance clear during sentencing July 16: "If you come back before me ... I will find you guilty of this offense and you're looking at 20 years in the penitentiary."

By all accounts, Irvin has faithfully begun the 800 hours of community service Alvarez also assessed.

And, on the field, Irvin has been his usual reliable self.

After returning from a five-game suspension, he caught nearly 1,000 yards' worth of passes as Dallas recovered from a 2-3 start to win its fifth straight NFC East title.

He played a vital role in last Saturday's 40-15 playoff victory over the Minnesota Vikings, catching eight passes for 103 yards as the Cowboys began their hunt for a fourth Super Bowl in five years.

Yet, Irvin has never fully escaped the shadow of doubt.

Rumors - none of which were published - swirled a few weeks ago that he was doing drugs again. Irvin's response was an impromptu news conference in front of his locker Dec. 16.

"I have not done anything in any way, shape or form to violate my probation or in any way, shape or form to violate the NFL drug policy," said Irvin, who otherwise has spoken only after games.

Irvin isn't the first high-profile athlete to undermine his on-field career by off-field woes, but he is among the most successful. Other notables on rap sheet include boxer Mike Tyson and baseball players Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.

Irvin's scandal - along with other recent Cowboys woes - is building into one of the biggest in NFL history, rivaling the 1963 banishment of superstars Alex Karras and Paul Hornung for gambling.

What makes Irvin's fall so steep is the aura he created for himself.

He burst onto the national scene in college as a hometown hero at Miami. It was his era of Hurricanes that began the program's brash image.

His NFL career took off once Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith joined him in Dallas. Together, they lifted the Cowboys back to their glorious past. Along the way, his smiling face and glib mouth always found the cameras.

Adding to the fascination of Irvin was his background.

The 15th of 17 children, he was extremely close to his father and took off on a Forrest Gump-like run upon news of his dad's death. Once he hit the big-time, Irvin became the family's main man, taking care of relatives' needs as well as lavishing them with gifts.

Irvin brought up the memory of his father, Walter, during a tearful news conference the day after his drug trial ended. He spoke about a conversation with his brother where he mentioned having disgraced the family name.

"I'm not the man my father was," said Irvin, his barely audible voice cracking.

Less savory memories include a burst of profanity on national television following the NFC championship game, the motel room drug bust in the wee hours of his 30th birthday that led to the trial, and the arrest of a Dallas police officer whose girlfriend Irvin allegedly had threatened not to testify against him.

Other images include a lawsuit by Toyota claiming Irvin violated an endorsement deal (part of the roughly $1 million in endorsements he's lost) and the raunchy stories told by topless dancer Rachelle Smith, the arrested cop's girlfriend who spent months partying with Irvin and another topless dancer.

As he walked out of the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters Tuesday, attorney Royce West in tow, Irvin was adamant about his innocence and blamed the media for the uproar.

"I don't even know what anybody is talking about," Irvin said. "I have not done anything in any way, shape or form to violate my probation. I'm tired of it."

Added West: "We're getting sick and tired of every time something comes up, Michael Irvin's name is the first to appear at the top of list. ... I wish the media would allow Michael to go ahead and take care of his business on probation and do what he wants to do - play football."

Unless something more conclusive on the investigation develops by Sunday, expect No. 88 to be lined up against the Carolina Panthers in the second round of the playoffs.

All content copyright 1996, AP, KRT, The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine

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