"You can do a lot of things in life. You can’t stab a teammate with a pair of scissors."
— Kevin Smith, Cowboys cornerback
Michael Irvin knew he was screwed.
There, dangling in his right hand, was a pair of silver scissors, bits of shredded brown skin coating the tips. There, clutching his own throat, was Everett McIver, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 318-pound hulk of a man, blood oozing from the 2-inch gash in his neck. There, standing to the side, were teammates Erik Williams, Leon Lett and Kevin Smith, slack-jawed at what they had just seen.
It was finally over. Everything was over. The Super Bowls. The Pro Bowls. The endorsements. The adulation. The dynasty.
Damn — the dynasty.
How ’bout them Cowboys?
The greatest wide receiver in the history of the Dallas Cowboys — a man who had won three Super Bowls; who had appeared in five Pro Bowls; whose dazzling play and sparkling personality had earned him a devoted legion of followers — knew he would be going to prison for a long time. Two years if he was lucky. Twenty years, maximum.
Was this the first time Irvin had exercised mind-numbing judgment? Hardly. Throughout his life, the man known as the Playmaker had made a hobby of breaking the rules. As a freshman at the University of Miami 14 years earlier, Irvin had popped a senior lineman in the head after he had stepped in front of him in a cafeteria line. In 1991, Irvin allegedly shattered the dental plate and split the lower lip of a referee whose call he disagreed with in a charity basketball game. Twice, in 1990 and ’95, Irvin had been sued by women who insisted he had fathered their children out of wedlock. In May 1993, Irvin was confronted by police after launching into a tirade when a convenience store clerk refused to sell his 18-year-old brother, Derrick, a bottle of wine. When Gene Upshaw visited Dallas minicamp that same month to explain an unpopular contractual agreement, Irvin greeted the NFL union chief first by screaming obscenities, then by pulling down his pants and flashing his exposed derriere.
Most famously, there was the incident in a Dallas hotel room on March 4, 1996 — one day before Irvin’s 30th birthday — when police found the Playmaker and former teammate Alfredo Roberts with two strippers, 10.3 grams of cocaine, more than an ounce of marijuana and assorted drug paraphernalia and sex toys. Irvin — who greeted one of the on-scene officers with, "Hey, can I tell you who I am?" — later pleaded no contest to a felony drug charge and received a five-game suspension, 800 hours of community service and four years probation.
But stabbing McIver in the neck, well, this was different. Through the litany of his boneheaded acts, Irvin had never — not once — deliberately hurt a teammate. Did he love snorting coke? Yes. Did he love lesbian sex shows? Yes. Did he love sleeping with two, three, four, five (yes, five) women at a time in precisely choreographed orgies? Yes. Did he love strip clubs and hookers and house calls from exotic dancers with names like Bambi and Cherry and Saucy? Yes, yes, yes.
Was he loyal to his football team? Undeniably.
Throughout the Cowboy reign of the 1990s, which started with a laughable 1-15 season in 1989 and resulted in three Super Bowl victories in four years, no one served as a better teammate … as a better role model, than Michael Irvin. He was first to the practice field in the morning, the last to leave at night. He wore weighted pads atop his shoulders to build muscle and refused to depart the complex before catching 50 passes without a drop. Twelve years after the fact, an undrafted free agent quarterback named Scott Semptimphelter still recalls Irvin begging him to throw slants following practice on a 100-degree day in 1995. "In the middle of the workout Mike literally threw up on himself as he ran a route," says Semptimphelter. "Most guys would put their hands on their knees, say screw this and call it a day. Not Michael. He got back to the spot, ran another route, and caught the ball."
That was Irvin. Determined. Driven. A 100-mph car on a 50-mph track. Chunks of vomit dripping from his jersey.
Following the lead of their star wide receiver, Cowboy players and coaches out-practiced, out-hustled, out-everythinged every other team in the National Football League. Sure, the Cowboys of the 1990s were bursting with talent — from quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith to defensive backs Deion Sanders and Darren Woodson — but it was an unrivaled intensity that made Dallas special. During drills, Irvin would see a teammate slack during a play and angrily lecture, "Don’t be a f—–‘ pussy! Be a f—–‘ soldier! Be my soldier!" He would challenge defensive backs to rise to the highest level. "Bitch, cover me!" he’d taunt Sanders or Kevin Smith. "C’mon bitch! C’mon bitch! C’mon!" When the play ended he’d offer a quick pat on the rear. "Nice job, brother. Now do it again." Irvin was the No. 1 reason the Cowboys won Super Bowls in 1992, ’93 and ’95, and everybody on the team knew it. "The man just never stopped," says Hubbard Alexander, the Dallas wide receivers coach. "He was only about winning."
And yet, there Michael Irvin stood on July 29, 1998, staring down a new low. The scissors. The skin. The blood. The gagging teammate. That morning a Dallas-based barber named Vinny had made the 2½-hour drive to Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, where the team held its training camp. He set up a chair inside a first-floor room in the Cowboys’ dormitory, broke out the scissors and buzzers and chopped away, one refrigerator-sized head after another.