Michael Irvin Saved His Football Career By Not Playing Football at His Prep School

For fans, NFL players emerge almost fully-formed. For the athletes themselves, preparing to be a pro athlete is a lifelong sprint toward a thin hope of being drafted at all. Few athletes can afford to take a different path. Michael Irvin, the Cowboys wide receiver who helped define a dynastic period for Dallas, is one of them. He took a year off sports entirely — and it may have saved his future career in the NFL.

Michael Irvin’s sad wake-up call changed his life

Irvin grew up as something of a problem child. His family was poor but lived in a largely middle-class community in Fort Lauderdale. For him, it was normal to compete with his siblings for the biggest portions at dinner. To wear clothes that were handed down from child to child across many years.

As he got older, he became more aware of this difference between him and his peers at school. His way to cope, according to Sports Illustrated, was to simply take what he wanted. The implication is stealing, perhaps some level of more pointed criminal activity, but he has never cleared up exactly what went down.

Irvin had to strike a deal to achieve his goals

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Irvin’s misdirected malaise abruptly changed when his father fell ill. The subsequent cancer diagnosis shook Irvin out of his self-centered worldview entirely. He realized — in a decision beyond the years of even the most privileged children — that he couldn’t stay on the straight-and-narrow at his public school, according to a 1993 Sports Illustrated profile. He put out feelers for alternatives.

On the Great Dane Nation podcast, Irvin reflected on this period. His friends, mostly from the local youth football community, all seemed to point to a local private school called St. Thomas Prep. That school took their academic programs seriously. They saw in Irvin a student who wanted to join their successful athletic program, but not their academia.

Irvin insisted that he wanted to become an all-around improved person, athletically and academically. So he cut a deal. He would take an entire year off football in order to attend the school. If his grades proved he was just as capable of preparing for college on his academic success alone, he would be able to join the football team. 

He became a great student, making the honor roll. The turnaround, of course, earned him a spot on the school’s football squad. That left him with just one year left of high school to polish off his football resume for scholarship opportunities. Schools, understandably, approached Irvin with some pause at his missing year of football. But his academic success, and his undeniable maturity that went with it, came through. The University of Miami offered him a scholarship, and he is in the school’s Football Hall of Fame today.

How Michael Irvin’s year away from football paid off in the NFL

NFL player Michael Irvin in Las Vegas in 2002
Michael Irvin in Las Vegas in 2002 | Denise Truscello/WireImage

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For a football player who had several years prior missed a full year of playing, he entered the NFL draft with a great deal of negotiating power. He even made it clear, behind the scenes, that he had no interest in playing for the Green Bay Packers. His preferred team was the Dallas Cowboys, and with a little luck and not a little salesmanship on his own behalf, he managed to land there.

He was a Dallas mainstay from 1988 to 1999. Those were the Cowboys Dynasty years, and he hoisted the Lombardi trophy three times during his run. It could’ve lasted even longer, but his career was cut short by a neck injury. Today he’s an analyst for the NFL Network, and as the Dallas Morning News reports, even appeared on Dancing With the Stars.