Bruce Irvin had just made the play to clinch another NFC West title and top seed in the conference playoffs for the Seattle Seahawks.
The zooming linebacker had just intercepted a pass and sprinted 49 yards for the touchdown, sealing Seattle’s 20-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams in the regular-season finale Dec. 28.
“Dang,” Irvin said to himself, on the Seahawks’ sideline amid the roars of more than 68,000 at CenturyLink Field. “I never thought I would be pick-sixin’ with an interception in The League.”
Not many teens jailed and without a high-school degree — or much hope — think that way.
There’s a reason No. 51 in blue will running like he’s escaping something Saturday night when the Seahawks host the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
He’s escaped from a dead-end life.
“Oh, man, sometimes I am in a game, during a timeout break, and I just look into the crowd. A lot of people said I wasn’t going to be here, you know?” Irvin said this week in his fancy locker room inside the Seahawks’ even-fancier Virginia Mason Athletic Center. “Sometimes I doubted it myself — to think I was going to be more than what I was.
“I mean, it’s a blessing. I thank God every day. I thank God when I go out here to practice.
He was once in jail, for two weeks as a 19-year old in the spring of 2007. He had dropped out of Stockbridge High School 20 minutes outside Atlanta, and his mother Bessie Lee had kicked him out of their Atlanta house. Then he and two other waywards broke into a drug dealer’s house in Georgia to steal cash. He was arrested and jailed but set free when the drug dealer didn’t come forward to testify against him — for obvious reasons.
He eventually saw his life spiraling to nothing. Having never graduated from high school, he took and passed the GED test. That and acquaintances he made got him out of Georgia, to junior colleges in Kansas and then to Mt. San Antonio, a community college east of Los Angeles. Mt. San Antonio turned the high-school running back, receiver and defensive back into a defensive end.
Brilliant move. In his only season playing there, 2009, Irvin had a state-leading 16 sacks in his new position. His team won the junior-college national championship.
That’s how West Virginia found him.
At WVU, Irvin had 221/2 sacks in 26 career games. He was an All-Big East Conference blur, a defensive end that relentlessly blew past flat-footed linemen. At the 2012 NFL Draft Combine he ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, the fastest time of any pass rusher. Yet most in the NFL saw him as an act with just one trick entering that year’s draft.
Many teams also worried that Irvin was already 24, had been in jail and never graduated from high school. You know, a “character issue.”
“Really, he’s made his mistakes along the way,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Thursday. “But probably more obviously than any of the other guys we have he has grown through what he’s faced.”
Carroll’s never met a hard case he didn’t think he could solve, through his own eternal optimism and will. He and general manager John Schneider were in their third year running the Seahawks when Irvin was coming out of college. They saw him as more than a one-dimensional player — and proved it by shocking the league and drafting him 15th overall.
To most, drafting Irvin that high was more than a “reach.” It was a complete, irreparable detachment of the Seahawks franchise’s entire draft arm.
But Carroll and Schneider did it for what Irvin has become: a vital, every-down linebacker who has his first two career interceptions this season — both for touchdowns. He has 61/2 sacks while doing, as Carroll said, “a ton of stuff for us. He’s all over the field.”
“That was the biggest knock on me, that I was situational and I couldn’t play the run,” Irvin said. “These coaches, and Pete and John, they never wavered. They pulled (the reigns) from me, believing in me.
“I can’t ask for a better supporting cast and situation than I am in now. I have to keep working hard and not let those guys down.”
He isn’t. He’s been so good that he’s pushed the Super Bowl’s most valuable player from last season, Malcolm Smith, to the bench.
“We drafted him with the thought that he would play every down. He could play the Leo, (the weak-side rush end), from the day he got here,” Carroll said Thursday of Irvin. “We wanted to find out what we would find in him as a linebacker, as well — which we did in the second year (2013); we tried not to do that in the first year.”
Focused one his familiar, specific role, Irvin led all rookies with eight sacks and 19 quarterback hits in 16 games in 2012. But Carroll, linebackers coach Ken Norton and incoming defensive coordinator Dan Quinn — who returned to Seattle from the University of Florida after Gus Bradley left the Seahawks’ defense to become the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach before the 2013 season — yearned to maximize Irvin’s freakish athleticism and speed. They moved him from “Leo” end to outside linebacker, giving him pass-coverage responsibilities and the true chance to play on every down, against the run or pass.
“Making me a linebacker, that’s probably saved my career,” Irvin says.
Par for Irvin’s life, the change hasn’t always been easy.
Irvin got suspended for the first four games of the ’13 season for a performance-enhancing drug violation believed to be Adderall. Then his sacks dropped from eight to two last season. Some labeled him a one-year wonder.
He had hip surgery before this season. That freed his mobility and increased his speed even more. He bulled through another setback, a rib injury that had him out of the Week 3 Super Bowl rematch with the Denver Broncos.
He validated Carroll’s and Schneider’s belief.
“It was an experiment,” Carroll says now. “And it worked.
“It’s worked out great.”
Not just in football.
The kid who got jailed robbing a drug dealer has grown into a man in the third year of a four-year contract guaranteeing him $9.3 million.
Irvin got married in May to Alyssa Hackworth-Irvin, “a helluva of a tennis player,” her husband says, proudly. She is a former star tennis player at George Washington University and the University of Charleston.
They have a son, Brayden. He turns 2 this spring. Brayden is a frequent visitor to Seahawks’ headquarters.
“Yeah, his son comes around here all the time,” said K.J Wright, the fellow linebacker whom Irvin also credits for helping him mature. “B.I.’s always playing with him, picking him up, throwing the football with him.
“And he just got a dog. Yeah, he has a dog. A real family man. He’s calmed down, a lot.
“Bruce is cool, man.”
Irvin knows how cool this all is for him.
“Just for me to be able to practice every day and come out and watch film is a blessing, man,” he said, smiling. “I try to make the most of it, and let everybody else know it ain’t guaranteed. It can be taken away from you just like that.
“It’s just a dream, you know. I need to do my best — and I will — to keep my nose clean and continue to prove that John and Pete were right by taking me.”
For Carroll, the appreciation is mutual.
“I am glad to hear him say that,” Carroll said. “He’s grown a tremendous amount. He’s had great support group around him. His teammates have really been there.
“It’s a remarkable story. He’s really in command of his world right now. He’s got things going in the right direction.
“We absolutely count on him. And he’s having the time of his life.”
The Seahawks practiced indoors Thursday. Afterward Carroll said TE Tony Moeaki has a “very slight” calf strain that he sustained in Tuesday’s practice. That will keep his availability uncertain until Saturday. “We’re going to find out on game day,” Carroll said. “ Cooper Helfet (the third TE) is ready to go if we need him.” … Carroll reiterated C Max Unger (knee/ankle) is fine and will start for the first time in seven games. CB Byron Maxwell was fine after being sick Wednesday. … Carroll dismissed several media questions about the Seahawks’ status as 11-point favorites. “The only place we’re heavy favorites is outside of here,” he said. “That’s somebody else’s concern and gauge.” … Referee Terry McAulay is assigned to Saturday’s game. The last Seattle game he worked was last February’s Super Bowl. That worked out OK for the Seahawks.