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ALAMEDA — The smile was a fixture on the face of Bruce Irvin Tuesday, much like it was on social media earlier this month when he received his degree in sociology from West Virginia.
He puts it up there with winning a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks.
The Raiders’ defensive end has made enough money that he doesn’t need to be a college graduate. The same goes for teammates Amari Cooper and Gabe Jackson, two other prominent Raiders who graduated from college in May.
But considering where Irvin came from, the thought of having that degree is satisfying in the present and important to the future of his family.
Irvin imagines people approaching his son Brayden, who turns 5 in June, to talk about their dad the football player. And he takes pride in what he expects will be Brayden’s response.
“He wasn’t only a football player. He put education up there right along with his job,” Irvin said as the Raiders began a three-day organized team activity. “It was bigger than me. It was for my son and his kids and generations after me.”
From a kid that was told he would never be anything to a college graduate! It’s never too late to change ur life! pic.twitter.com/2QQQIKo6KT
— Bruce Irvin (@BIrvin_WVU11) May 12, 2018
Coach Jon Gruden, who preaches “finishing” daily when it comes to football practice and all walks of life, said Irvin’s degree is “an unbelievable accomplishment. I hope a lot of young people out there can research Bruce Irvin, see where he’s come from and his life to get that piece of paper.”
Irvin can still run his mouth, talking smack with the best of them whether it’s on the field, in the locker room or on Twitter. But to say he’s older and wiser at age 30 is an understatement.
Growing up in Atlanta, Irvin was known as B.J. (his full name is Bruce Pernell Irvin Jr.) and B.J. was trouble. He participated in break-ins, carried a gun and lived in “trap houses” where drugs were sold. He’s spent time behind bars.
As Irvin wrote in his remarkable Player’s Tribune piece “The Things I’ve Done” in December: “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.”
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Now Irvin is a team leader and respected veteran, held aloft as an example of someone overcoming bad choices and worse circumstances.
“Guys don’t often get second or third chances, but I was one of those guys who was fortunate enough to get it,” Irvin said. “I’m just happy that I didn’t blow it and I learned in time. Guys can learn from me. It’s never too late. You can mess up but just get the right people around you and it’ll take care of itself.”
Irvin had nowhere to go when the prep school he was attending canceled the football program. It was then he meet his mentor, Chad Allen. Allen, as Irvin detailed in his Player’s Tribune Story, helped Irvin get his GED so he could attend junior college.
The plan was to take the test more than once, but Irvin surprised himself and passed it on the first attempt. “I was like, `Damn, maybe I’m not as dumb as I thought,” Irvin wrote. That helped Irvin get to Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California, which led to a football scholarship at West Virginia.
Irvin came out for the NFL draft after his junior year and following a strong showing at the scouting combine, made a dumb mistake. After a night of drinking, Irvin reached up and swatted the sign off a pizza delivery car — in the presence of a police officer.
He spent the night in jail — back to where Irvin once spent three weeks at age 17 for burglary and carrying a concealed weapon.
Irvin figured his draft dreams had been crushed — until coach Pete Carroll called him the night of the draft and told him the Seattle Seahawks were taking him at No. 15 in the first round.
At that point, Irvin wasn’t thinking about finishing his education.
“My first check was $2.5 million,” Irvin said. “I wasn’t thinking about going back to West Virginia after that.”
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There was also a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances in 2013.
“I was always a guy who had to get burnt a couple of times and learn,” Irvin said. “That didn’t change when I got in the league. I got locked up two weeks before the draft. I got the suspension. I was still immature . . . I was still young-minded. I was still a kid.”
Marriage and fatherhood helped change that. Included in Irvin’s graduation requirements was community service work. He found it was something he actually enjoyed, and Irvin was the Raiders’ winner of the Walter Payton Award this year.
“It just goes to show you, you can’t judge a man’s character just because he’s made a mistake when he’s 21 or 22 years old,” Gruden said. “Young people can develop and mature and become great. Bruce Irvin is a great example of that.”
And Irvin is relishing the opportunity to set that example.
“I’m a leader now,” Irvin said. “Guys look up to me. If we have 10 reps in the weight room, guys are looking to see if I do seven or eight or if I’m doing the whole 10. That’s big, so I have to carry myself different. I have to talk different. I have to motivate different.”
We see you, @AmariCooper9 .