The calls in the night were the worst.
Bessie Lee knew they brought bad news about her son, Bruce Irvin; she just never knew how bad. They also brought tears, and the weight of it all forced her to her knees.
Ask her about those times, and Bessie Lee taps her heart, eyes growing moist.
“You wear out your knees asking God to take care of him,” Lee said of those painful moments when she feared for his life. “When the call comes through, it’s, ‘Is he shot?’ Sometimes your mind runs deeper than jail. I have watched other people’s kids get shot, even die. You worry about those things. Oh, my Lord, is this call for my child?”
The extent of Bruce Irvin’s life reversal can be measured by the nature of the phone call regarding him this week, when the Seattle Seahawks informed him he was their first-round draft pick.
Irvin met the media Saturday morning at Seahawks headquarters in Renton. At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, he looks more like a receiver or safety than a defensive end. But with his dreads pulled straight back, as if from the force of the wind, Irvin looks like he’s running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, even when he’s standing still.
When the phone rang on Thursday with news he was picked by the Seahawks at No. 15, Irvin had not even started watching the draft broadcast, not expecting to be involved until later in the round.
His selection has been called a reach, and he has been labeled a risk considering his off-field troubles. Irvin recognizes that Seahawks general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll are taking a chance on him.
“I’m not going to let them down,” Irvin said. “I promise you that.”
Five years ago, Irvin was caught burglarizing a drug dealer’s home. He spent two weeks in jail, and then lived in drug houses or on the street.
A point had been reached when all the praying and phone calls in the night forced Lee to make a decision.
“My husband told me, ‘Bessie, he’s got to want it for himself … you can’t want it for him,’ ” his mother said. “I had to let him go. It was very hard because we were so close. It was tough love; it had to be.”
What must that moment be like for a mother? She nodded and pinched her lips.
“It hurt … I hurt … I cried a lot, but I prayed a lot, also,” she said. “I just knew God had something for him.”
At a time when he carried his belongings in a plastic trash bag, Irvin met the man he calls his “mentor” – Chad Allen, an ex-player at Morehouse College.
“There were some dark nights,” Allen said of his early days befriending Irvin. “Not really knowing what he needed to do and where he needed to be. All he needed was the blueprint. He already had it in him … that fight. He had come from such a rough background, he knew how to fight.”
The questions at the time were not where he would go to college or what position he would play, but where would he sleep, how would he eat.
“Those were the real-life situations that he faced,” Allen said.
Allen got Irvin back on track, and reconnected him with his family.
“Chad called me one night,” Lee recalled. “He said, ‘Miss Bessie, Bruce is with me, he wants to talk to you.’ And Bruce said, ‘Mom … if you let me come home, I’ll get my GED.’ ”
She did, and Irvin lived up to the promise. They all sacrificed to get him into a junior college in Kansas, and when football was not an option there, they got him on the team at Mt. San Antonio College in California.
There was still no money. Lee sent him food packages when she could, and Irvin stayed in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment with nine other football players. He showed so much promise as a defensive end, Carroll – then USC’s coach – took particular interest but could not get him enrolled. Irvin ended up at West Virginia, where he became a fearsome pass rusher.
“I’ve made mistakes,” Irvin said Saturday. “But that stuff is behind me … I’m a good guy.”
He gestured in the direction of his mother, sitting nearby.
“I brought her a lot of stressful nights,” he said. “But she never gave up on me. There’s no better feeling than seeing her being happy in the morning. I’m looking forward to making my life – and her life – much better.”
She was asked to translate the message of her son’s journey, from jail and homelessness to the first round of the NFL draft.
“If you want it bad enough … go get it,” she said. “Let the young people know that even though we all fall short, and can get in trouble, you can still overcome it.”
And for a mother to witness such a turnaround?
She nodded and smiled.
“You know,” she said. “I slept good last night.”firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8440