By John Boyle Herald Columnist
Seahawks rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin makes his first NFL start today, and it comes in a playoff game in his home town. But let’s get one thing straight right away, this is not your typical homecoming story.
Yes, Irvin will have friends and family in his native Atlanta pulling for him today, but unlike most athletes who get a chance to play at home, Irvin is returning to a city that, not too long ago, he couldn’t leave fast enough.
You see, trouble found Irvin a lot in Atlanta, or maybe he found trouble. Either way, after dropping out of school, after being kicked out of his house, after being arrested and spending a couple of weeks in jail, Irvin realized Atlanta wasn’t the place for him.
With the help of Chad Allen, a former college football player who became a mentor to Irvin in 2007, Irvin earned his GED and reconnected with his mother, who had felt she had no choice but to kick her son out of the house after he dropped out of high school. Irvin briefly attended Butler Community College, then ended up at Mt. San Antonio College in southern California.
When he arrived at Mt. San Antonio, Irvin shared a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with 12 other football players — anything to get him on a road that led him toward a Division I college and away from the troubles of his past.
“I was looking for any way to get out my situation in Atlanta,” Irvin said. “If that was me having to play kickoff team for 13 games in junior college, so be it. It was a way out of the ‘hood and the environment I was in. If it took me sleeping in a two-bedroom with 12 people, I was going to do it, as long as I could wake up a free man the next day.”
Now, more than four years after getting out of Atlanta, Irvin is back and in a very different situation. He’s not just a free man, he’s a man who has beaten some pretty long odds to become a key part of an NFL team that sits two wins from a Super Bowl berth.
Irvin still has his doubters, to be sure, but he has spent his rookie year proving that Seattle head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider just might have known what they were doing when they made Irvin the 15th pick in April’s draft. His eight sacks this season set a Seahawks rookie record and were the most among NFL rookies, but starting today, even more will be asked of him.
With starting defensive end Chris Clemons out with a torn ACL, Irvin goes from being a situational pass rusher to a starter who will be on the field for nearly every defensive snap.
“This is Bruce’s opportunity,” Carroll said. “That’s what we drafted him to play, and we’ll see how he does, and we expect him to do really well as he steps up.”
Clemons’ absence means the pressure is on for Irvin to disrupt Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who leads one of the league’s most potent passing attacks. Seattle’s secondary is undoubtedly one of the best in the NFL, but without a pass rush, even the likes of Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor could be in trouble against a Falcons offense that is loaded with weapons.
“If we don’t get to him, he’ll sit back there and have a field day,” Irvin said. “… If we don’t get back there and pressure him, it’ll be a long day for us.”
For Irvin, this trip home, in addition to being a chance to stand out on a playoff stage, also gives him an opportunity to do one of his favorite things: prove his doubters wrong. Back in April when Seattle made Irvin a first-round pick, there were plenty of raised eyebrows, but being doubted is nothing new to Irvin, and in Atlanta, he’s looking forward to showing a thing or two to “the people who were the first to doubt me.”
Irvin has come a long way since he left Atlanta, but he still feels like he has a lot to prove. No matter how much he accomplishes, Irvin figures he’ll have doubters, and that would be just fine with him. While people close to him have told Irvin to tune out the negative attention, he actively seeks it out on places like Twitter.
“I always got a chip, man,” he said. “I love when y’all Tweet negative stuff. Not y’all, but media in general. I love reading all the negative stuff. Chad will be like, ‘How do you read stuff like that?’ That’s the type of person I am, I love to see what people say about me, because it’s funny. I take that to mind and bust my butt, it just makes me work harder.”
That hard work has taken Irvin a lot of places, from an over-crowded apartment, to West Virginia, all the way to the NFL, and now, today, to a homecoming that is anything but typical.
“It’s just another game to me, it just happens to be where I’m from,” he said. “The stage is set.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.