If you knew nothing of Bruce Irvin's life prior to his NFL career, Sunday's game would still represent a pretty cool story for the veteran linebacker.
A former first-round pick who won a Super Bowl and played in two for the Seahawks before leaving in free agency, Irvin spent the past four seasons in Oakland, Atlanta and Carolina, but re-signed with the Seahawks this offseason where he's expected to both bolster Seattle's pass rush and provide veteran leadership on defense. Back with the team that drafted him, Irvin will kick off his ninth NFL season playing against the team he rooted for growing up in nearby Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Pretty nice story, huh?
Now, if you do know the story of Irvin's past, a topic which he has been unflinchingly honest discussing over the years, then him kicking off a ninth season in the NFL anywhere, let alone in his hometown, is downright remarkable.
"I could not have imagined that," Irvin said this week. "… Coming up in my situation, I never thought I would be going back to Atlanta playing my ninth year, 32 years old. It's a great moment. I have times where I doze off and just think about how much it took to get here, to get in this situation. It's a blessing and I'm just happy I can experience it."
For Irvin, "my situation" includes an adolescence that, as he wrote for The Players’ Tribune in 2017, included "hanging out in trap houses and selling drugs. I've been homeless. I've been in the driver's seat of a car that got sprayed with bullets in a drive-by, and somehow I didn't get hit. I've sat in a jail cell and watched a guy make a burrito out of bread, Cheetos and ramen noodles."
As the Seahawks were headed towards a second-straight Super Bowl in January of 2015, Irvin told reporters, "I thank God every day when I got out there to practice, because Lord knows I was supposed to be in jail or dead somewhere."
There's no need to rehash every harrowing detail from Irvin's past; he's told those stories enough, including in that Players' Tribune article. But his lengthy NFL career, and even more importantly his role as a husband and a father, and the impact he has made in the community—Irvin was the Raiders' nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2017—serve as a powerful reminder that a person's life doesn't have to be defined by decisions made as a teenager. A reminder that, given a second—or third or four or fifth—chance, people who too often written off by society or by the legal system can become unambiguous success stories when given the opportunity.
"Bruce is an amazing young man," said Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who was Irvin's position coach during his first stint in Seattle, then his defensive coordinator in Oakland. "I'm sure we all know his story, and from where he started to where he is now, it's really, really awesome to watch his development."
One of the most influential people in Irvin's life was Chad Allen, who at the time the two met was a high school coach who also helped mentor young men in Atlanta. Allen met Irvin at a time when Irvin was trying to turn his life around, having enrolled at a school called Ware Prep in Atlanta where he was going to play football for the first time since he was in ninth grade, but the school closed down just before his first game.
After Irvin's potential re-start to a football career at Ware Prep fell through, Allen asked Irvin a blunt question: "What are you going to do now? Here's another road block, you didn't get what you thought you were going to get, so are you going to give up and go back to what you were doing, or are you going to move forward because you now have an opportunity?"
With Irvin at a crossroads, Allen helped Irvin pass his GED, get enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College, and get on the path that led to the NFL.
Allen, who is now the director of student-athlete development at Morgan State, was obviously excited to see Irvin become a star at West Virginia and a first-round pick with the Seahawks—Irvin even brought Allen to Seattle for his introductory press conference after the 2012 draft—but what really makes Allen proud is what Irvin has become since finding that initial success.
"As a mentor, these are the moments you're proud of—him not only getting drafted, but lasting until Year 9," Allen said in a phone interview. "And he's gotten married, he's a father, he's a graduate from West Virginia—he didn't have to go back and get his degree, but that was important to him, that was important for his son to see… Bruce is at that stage of developing himself continually. I don't think he's the best version of himself yet, he's still a young man, to see where he was and where he is now, that's how you measure success."
As Allen notes, Irvin's development didn't stop when he turned things around, went to college then eventually became a first round pick. As he detailed earlier in camp, he's a much different person now than when he left Seattle, one more motivated by providing generational wealth for his kids than by accumulating material goods.
"My family grew, I've got more kids—my 'why' kind of transitioned," Irvin said last month. "As a younger B.I., my 'why" was cars, jewelry, stuff like that. And my 'why' now is my wife, my kids, my family, generational wealth. It's just a different mindset now. I'm just thankful that I was able to mature and see that. Most guys are 31 or 32 years old, still out here chasing women, buying a lot of cars, stuff like that. I was fortunate enough to really see the light and kind of transition away from that, and just focus on what really matters. I'm on the back end, so the jewelry and stuff won't matter when I'm done. My kids and my wife, that's the stuff that that's going to matter, so that's the whole reason why I've matured and really transitioned to who I am now."
Said Allen, "You get authenticity from Bruce. That's one thing I've always loved about Bruce, he's willing to be vulnerable, and he's willing to be honest with other people and himself, knowing when he's made mistakes and where he needs to grow. So to see him put those things in action over a nine-year career, I'm super proud of Bruce. He couldn't have done it any better."
Usually, if an athlete said he was proud of the money he had made and not just of what he had accomplished in the game, it might come across as materialistic or shallow, but after all he has seen and experienced in his life, Irvin is unabashedly proud to have not just made millions, but saved enough money to make sure his family is set up for a long, long time. Besides, like Allen notes, you get authenticity from Bruce.
Asked what he was most proud of in his career, Irvin said, "I would say, being able to have longevity in this league. Probably making as much money as I have, most importantly, being able to save as much as I have. That's the biggest thing for me. People always ask much money you make and talk about money you make, but it's really, at the end of the day, it's how much money you saved. You know how it is with these football players, no financial literacy, especially coming from where I come from. My parents didn't even have financial literacy. So for me it's just continuing to be successful, and after football knowing that I'm financially stable and my kids will be financially stable for years to come."
Of course, for as amazing as Irvin's journey has been, the Seahawks didn't sign him this offseason because it made for a nice story; they signed him to help upgrade their defense. Irvin is, as both Pete Carroll and Norton have noted, the best strongside linebacker they've had in Seattle, and even more important than his role in the base defense might be Irvin's role as an edge rusher in nickel and dime packages. The Seahawks had only 28 sacks last season, tied for the second fewest in the NFL, and the addition of Irvin and defensive end Benson Mayowa, as well the selection of two ends, Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson, were big steps Seattle made hoping to improve in that area.
"He's probably the best Sam linebacker we've ever had in our program from the day we came here," Norton said. "His toughness, his ability to set the edge. He's probably one of the most amazing athletes you've seen on defense… Going back in his history, he's played safety, he's played linebacker, he's played D line, he's played so many different positions. This this kid is amazing in his ability. So there's no question about what he's capable of doing. It's really good to have him here. He's at really good place in his career and his life right now, and we have really high expectations for him to really be a leader, a playmaker, and a pass-rusher for us."
Irvin, who in a recent practice decided to casually leapfrog a six-foot tackling dummy just so nearby reporters would know he still had his absurd athleticism at 32, is coming off a career-high 8.5 sacks with Carolina last season, and feels like he is in a lot of ways a better player now than the one that left Seattle as a free agent in 2016, calling himself a more polished player.
"When I first came in the league, guys labeled me as a speed rusher," Irvin said, "'He doesn't have a move, he just wants to get off the edge and run past people.' Which was true, the first couple of years, but this is Year 9, so I got a couple of new things in my toolbox that I've been working on. That just came with maturating and comes with seeing the game and being out there, taking a lot of reps and stuff like that. So I just think that's me maturing, and really focusing on my craft more really."
More mature, more polished and still one of the most athletic players on the field, Irvin will open his ninth season Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday, a half-hour drive from the high school he dropped out of as a junior, and in the city he was, by his own admission, lucky to escape alive and without a lengthy stay in prison. As Irvin wrote three years ago, just stepping on the field Sunday can serve as an example to so many teenagers who, like him, might need a little help getting on the right path.
I know they're out there — kids who are doing all the wrong things just like I was. And maybe all they really need is somebody who can be a positive influence on them. That's all they need to get out of the hood and make something of themselves.
And maybe they just need somebody who understands where they're coming from.
That's where I think I can have the greatest impact. Because I think that if there's one thing that kids can learn from my story, it's that no matter how bad things might seem, it's never over. And if they ever doubt that, or they think it's too unlikely or not even possible for them….
Sh--, they can just look at me.