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Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Updated: December 13, 4:20 PM ET
A trip to the threshing floor

By Eli Saslow
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 24 Hall of Fame Issue. Subscribe today!

HE STEPPED TO THE LECTERN for the biggest speech of his life with no teleprompter, no notes and no exact plan of what he wanted to say. Michael Irvin had spent the better part of adulthood running from moments like this -- hiding behind helmets and mink coats, behind bling and bravado so nobody would pay attention to his words. Public speaking had always been his "most vulnerable fear," he said. And yet here he was in August of 2007, a new inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, standing alone at a microphone in a stadium of 22,000. He wore the simple Hall-mandated gold blazer, a white boutonniere and a diamond stud in his left ear. His family sat in the front row, and dozens of his former teammates gathered behind them. Millions more watched a live broadcast on TV.

Irvin spent months preparing obsessively for this moment, just as he had prepared to play in three Super Bowls during his career as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. He hired a language coach to improve his vocabulary. He did enunciation exercises in the shower while the steam opened his lungs. He watched and rewatched tapes of his most embarrassing public comments outside of courtrooms and locker rooms, reliving the many moments when "a self-sabotage with words" left him humiliated.

The only thing he hadn't yet done was settle on a speech. He had sketched out two possibilities and recorded parts of each of them. Nobody had heard either from beginning to end. Even alone in front of a mirror, Irvin never had the nerve to practice them straight through.

The first version was a boilerplate acceptance speech, a resume list of football achievements and expected thank-yous -- a safe way to cement a Hall of Fame reputation.

Michael Irvin
Irvin's drive transformed him from insecure third-grader to pitless assassin.

The second version was a speech less about football than about the self-described "scars and regrets" of a man with one of sports' most complicated legacies. It was an admission of failure in marriage and in fatherhood. It was a declaration of faith. It was a public risk by a man whose public risks had rarely worked out.

Irvin smoothed his jacket, leaned into the microphone and waited for the introductory applause to die down. The Hall of Fame committee had allotted him nine minutes -- nine final minutes at the epicenter of the sports world, nine minutes left to define himself.

A safe speech or a risky one? His first version or his second?

As he surveyed the crowd, he spotted his Hall of Fame classmate, Gene Hickerson, sitting near the aisle in a wheelchair, his brain weakening from Alzheimer's. Here was a man nearing his end, Irvin thought -- a man celebrating a legacy he could no longer remember.

This ceremony was about more than just football, Irvin decided.

He bowed his head and began with a public prayer. "Father, I'd like to thank you for allowing us all to travel here safely," he said. Then he raised his eyes to the crowd and decided to take a risk.


HERE IS THE great irony of the Hall of Fame speech: One of sports' greatest honors necessitates one of its most dreaded tasks.

Players who earned their stardom surrounded by teammates are suddenly marooned onstage alone. The most memorable speeches tend to be honest and raw, like when baseball player Ryne Sandberg spoke about a lack of respect for the game during the steroids crisis in 2005, or when Reggie White's wife, Sara, spoke haltingly on her deceased husband's behalf, weeping while the stadium chanted "Reg-gie."

But many more become memorable for the wrong reason. Duds are many and multiform.

Some speeches end up being too short, like when fullback Joe Perry spoke for 15 seconds in 1969. But so many more go overtime that several Halls of Fame have installed a blinking red light on the stage to indicate when an athlete is out of time. Some are vindictive (Michael Jordan) or profane (Dennis Rodman). Some fail simply by being too honest: "Anytime you want to leave, just leave," shortstop Phil Rizzuto told the crowd in 1994. "This [speech] is absolutely going nowhere."

Irvin feared his speech would be another in a long line of disasters. When had his mouth not gotten him into trouble? There was the time he threw a fit on the sideline of a low-key Pro Bowl game, yelling at teammates because they weren't getting him the ball. There was the 1993 disorderly conduct charge for berating a store clerk who wouldn't sell him a bottle of wine, with Irvin asking: "Don't you know who I am?" There was the low point of his public life, a hotel-room bust in 1996, when he was caught with cocaine and two women who described themselves as "self-employed models."

Ever since his retirement from the NFL after the 1999 season, he had felt more lost than ever. He was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana and ecstasy pills in 2000, cocaine in 2001 and drug paraphernalia in 2005. During his decade as a player, he was able to "switch addictions," he said, by transferring from a routine of cocaine, parties and women in the offseason to maniacal workouts during the season. Now there was no training camp to pull him out of a spiral and no Super Bowl run to redeem him. In his first year of retirement, he sometimes told his wife and four children that he would be gone for 20 minutes and disappeared for two days. Who the hell am I? he wondered.

His self-confidence had been built on football since third grade, when Florida began busing students from his low-income neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale to the affluent suburb of Plantation. He had grown up as the 15th of 17 siblings in a one-story brick house, where cereal was served with water and five brothers shared his bed. His new classmates lived in two-story houses near the water; they already had memorized their colors and learned to spell their names. Irvin hadn't. "From the first day, I just went by 'dummy,'" he said. Then, a year later, his math tutor gave him his first football, and he became "the Playmaker, from inferior to superior," he said.

Now, all these years later, the football had been taken away and he was right back where he started. His only chance to redeem his reputation and reclaim his self-confidence was what had made him feel like a failure in the first place: words.

What could he say to peers, friends, fans and family at the Hall of Fame? He thought about the speech for weeks and came up with nothing. "I had always gone into opposing stadiums as an assassin, as a killer," he said. "I kill your defense, which kills your team, which kills your stadium, which kills your city. Now I am supposed to smile and be charming and make everybody like me? I don't know how to do that."

Irvin feared his speech would be another in a long line of disasters. When had his mouth not gotten him into trouble?

He prayed for guidance. He watched videos of great speeches by John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He spoke with his friend and pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes and internalized some of his aphorisms.

Your greatest promise comes out of your greatest pain.

Bring up old wounds so they don't create new, small wounds.

One afternoon six weeks before his speech, Irvin went to a nearby gym for his daily workout. He was stretching when he began mouthing the sentences of a speech. He had grown up Baptist, gone to Catholic school and become a devoted member of a nondenominational church, but rarely had he heard God's word as clearly as he did in the weight room. A speech came to him "like divine inspiration," he said, in a series of images that felt like scenes out of a movie: his father's death; his wedding vows; the lingering doubt after a hard conversation with his sons.

The words threatened to become scars.

Irvin abandoned his workout, took off his shoes and lay on the floor. He had been speaking with Jakes about a place in the Bible called a threshing floor, where a man could take his private concerns to God for answers and for judgment. It was an especially resonant concept for a celebrity athlete who had lived so much of his life in public: Here was a secret place to confide in God, a place for doubt and vulnerability.

But now, in the gym, he felt as if God were telling him to take those vulnerabilities public and to talk about the threshing floor.

He put his shoes back on, left the gym and drove to a nearby barbershop, where he told one of his closest friends about the Hall of Fame speech he hoped to give.

"The devil had me for years," he said. "But if I pull this off -- if I can get it exactly right -- I'm going to hit the devil right back in the mouth."


HE HAD INHERITED his work ethic from his father, Walter, a roofer who woke at 5 each morning to haul wet cement and lay tile in the Florida heat. One day when Irvin was 13, he ditched school, and Walter punished him by bringing the boy to work. They spent 14 hours together in 110-degree heat, breaking for 15 minutes at lunch to eat sardines and crackers on the roof. By sundown, Irvin's shirt was encrusted in sweat, dust, plaster and mud. He went home and collapsed into bed, vowing to never skip school again. He kept that filthy shirt and brought it with him to hang on the wall of his dorm room at the University of Miami and later in his house in Dallas, a visual reminder of the way hard work looked and smelled. "My dad was a 100-percenter," he said. "All work, every day."

As a player, Irvin became a 100-percenter too, living in perpetual search of every incremental advantage. To compensate for average speed, he played with no pads on his legs. He ran home three or four miles after a long Cowboys practice while wearing a weighted vest, until his concerned wife called the team trainer, who chastised him for overworking. To compensate for fear, he pretended to be fearless, bringing dirt to rub on his mouth guard during games played on turf so he could smile at defensive backs as he dared them to give him a concussion.

And to compensate for his discomfort with language, he hired Arthur Joseph.

They were introduced for the first time at Fox's NFL studios in 2001. Joseph was a consultant and a renowned voice coach who tutored celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pat Riley and Pierce Brosnan. Irvin was a rookie broadcaster fighting a heavy tongue, a gravelly voice and a tendency to speak in the grammatically indifferent colloquialisms of South Florida. "He was ready for some help," Joseph said, so he and Irvin began weekly lessons in person and over the phone.

The day after his vision in the gym, Irvin invited Joseph to visit him in Dallas. For six hours in Irvin's study, they poured his ideas into a recorder. They spoke about his fears. They spoke about the threshing floor. Joseph asked questions, and Irvin answered. "It was always his words, not mine. This can't work if I'm interpreting," Joseph said. He transcribed the recording, highlighted Irvin's themes and ordered his thoughts. He sent the pages back to Irvin with a piece of advice. "The goal isn't to make you into something you're not but to bring out what you're capable of being," he said.

Irvin made copies of the transcript and read them for hours in his steam room, until humidity soaked the pages and they tore in his hands. He listened to Jakes' sermons to internalize the pastor's pacing and principles. He called Joseph for tips about posture, deep-breathing exercises and a daily vocal warmup routine. Together, on the phone, they yawned and sighed and spoke while holding two fingers under their tongues. Irvin started going to bed earlier to preserve his voice, which no longer fell flat at the end of sentences. He stopped saying "umm" or "I think" or "we was."

His longtime friend Deion Sanders criticized him for trying to talk white, Irvin said. "Why does talking right have to mean talking white?" Irvin replied. "We are stuck on failure, man. I spent so much time trying to get out of the ghetto, now I'm getting the ghetto out of me."

The devil had me for years. But if I pull this off -- if I can get it exactly right -- I'm going to hit the devil right back in the mouth.

-- Michael Irvin

Two days before his speech, Irvin left for Canton with his family, still with two possible speeches in his mind. Joseph joined him there. They met for a warmup session one night. Less than an hour before Irvin was to speak, Joseph saw him again backstage.

"Do you have a transcript?" he asked.

"No," Irvin said.

"Notes?"

"No."

"Did you memorize it?"

"No. I don't want to go up there and just recite something."

Joseph looked back, incredulous. "So you don't have anything?" he said. In all his years of voice coaching, this was something he'd rarely seen. Irvin had become a trusted friend, one of the three or four most devoted clients of the thousands Joseph had tutored. But no notes? He implored Irvin to change his mind and offered to scramble together a 4-by-6-inch note card with some of the speech's key themes.

"Be sensible," Joseph begged.

"No," Irvin said. "I don't need it. The speech is imprinted on my spirit."


HE STOOD AT the lectern for a long moment and waited for the crowd to fall silent. The Hall of Fame had always held a mystical power for him, and he had been too superstitious to visit it until his induction. Once, in 1999, he had paid a team fine instead of attending a mandatory Cowboys event at the Hall of Fame before a preseason game. "I only want to go in when I can do it right," he said. This was his chance.

He searched out family members in the crowd and reminded himself to breathe. As he began to speak, he thought back to some of Joseph's advice.

Your mouth forms words.

He relaxed the corners of his mouth and spoke from his core, a deep and resonant voice that carried into the stadium. Irvin thought to himself: Don't rush. Hold them.

Your eyes tell a story.

He located each person before he thanked them, turning around to tell his friend and quarterback Troy Aikman that he loved him, then holding eye contact with his mother while sharing a story about how she had gone from feeding 17 children to traveling on his tab of unlimited room service. "Mom, you always said, 'God has promised me my latter days will be better than my former days,'" he said, smiling at her as her shoulders began to shake and she buried her head in a towel.

Your breath is emotion.

He paused and then inhaled as he looked at his wife, Sandy. "It is easy to live with the 'for better,' but rarely can you find someone who sticks around and endures the 'for worse,'" he said. He took another breath and held it. Then he looked down and shook his head. "Sandy, my beautiful wife, I have worked tirelessly, baby, to give you the 'for better,' but I also gave you the 'for worse.' And you didn't deserve it." His words were slow and deliberate, a steady drumbeat; they filled the stadium with tension.

"You didn't deserve it," he said. "I thank you from a place that I can't mention -- that I can't even express, baby -- for keeping our family together. I love you so much."

Now Irvin had begun to cry, the tears forming pools under his eyes and nose, but he didn't seem to notice. He had achieved a level of focus he had known only on the football field, so immersed in the task at hand that he was oblivious to his own pain and emotion. He spoke about topics that he had buried for years: the Cowboy fans who had stuck by him through the drugs and disappointments; the injury that threatened his career and then the one that ended it; the friend and quarterback, Aikman, who had always forgiven him first.

He spoke of his greatest memory as a broadcaster, covering a game in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. He spent most of the day walking the concourse and visiting with fathers and sons, blowing off a producer who wanted him on set. The wide receiver who had so often disrespected the game thought about how much he had taken fans -- and football -- for granted. "You see, the game flexed its greatest muscle that day: the ability to heal," he said.

He took a deep, cleansing breath and began to reach the climax of his speech, recalling the sentences that had first come to him six weeks earlier during his workout.

"You know, the Bible speaks of a healing place," he said. "It is called a threshing floor. The threshing floor is where you take your greatest fear and you pray for help from your great God ... I want to share something with you today. I have two sons: Michael, he's 10; and Elijah, he's 8. Michael and Elijah, could you guys stand up for me? That's my heart right there. That's my heart."

The boys stood up side by side in their No. 88 Irvin jerseys and looked at their dad. He was about 22 minutes into his nine-minute speech. The red light was blinking on the podium. Nobody cared.

"When I'm on that threshing floor, I pray. I say, 'God, I have my struggles. And I made some bad decisions. But whatever you do, whatever you do, don't let me mess this up. Please, help me raise them for some young lady so they can be a better husband than I ... a better father than I.' And I tell you guys to always do the right thing so that you can be a better role model than Dad."

He dabbed his nose with a tissue. His voice had gone up an octave, and he slowed down to make sure emotion didn't swallow his final sentences. He looked back at his sons. It was time to close. And he would finish with his clarifying moment on the threshing floor.

"I was voiceless, but my heart cried out. 'God, why must I go through so many peaks and valleys?' ... I wanted to stand in front of my boys and say, 'Do it like your dad,' like any proud dad would want to. Why must I go through so much? And at that moment, a voice came over me, and it said, 'Look up, get up and don't ever give up.'"

And then he repeated it.

"Look up," he said. "Get up. And don't ever give up."

He thanked the crowd and stepped to the side of the lectern as the applause built, standing in place for nearly two minutes to accept the ovation. In the days ahead, he would "feel inspired, lifted," he said.

Irvin now thrives as an analyst for the NFL Network, with a lucid and confident voice. His friends would heed his example and give deeply confessional Hall of Fame speeches: Deion Sanders about his sacrificing single mother, Shannon Sharpe about his unlucky brother and Curtis Martin about his father's abuse. Irvin would travel the world to speak about his own missteps in front of church congregations, professional bull riders, rugby players in Australia and NFL rookies at the league's annual symposium. He would tell friends that talking honestly about his past had become "the only thing that relieves the regret, my purpose, the one chance at peace that I have."

But first, in Canton, he walked offstage and fell into the arms of his wife and four kids. Dozens of friends and ex-teammates surrounded them -- a silent processional of hugs, handshakes and knowing nods. Joseph, the voice coach, was among them. He embraced Irvin and then stepped back to admire him.

"You're different now," he said.

"Yes," Irvin agreed, and that one word was enough.

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