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The Things I’ve Done

Dec 11 2017
Photo by
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
Bruce Irvin
Atlanta Falcons
Dec 11 2017
I

shouldn’t be here.

I should be locked up … or dead.

Yeah, probably dead.

I turned 30 years old a few weeks ago, and it’s something I keep thinking about.

That I shouldn’t even be here.

But I am.

And I want to tell you how I got here. How I went from B.J. — which is what people used to call me back in the hood — to the man I am today.

Bruce Irvin.

But I have to be honest: I can’t tell you everything, because … well … people never forget. You gotta understand: My family still lives back in Atlanta. And I used to do a lot of bad stuff, man — stuff I would never forget if a person did it to me. So there are some things that I’m not going to put out there. I just can’t.

What I will tell you is that back when I was 17, I was 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.

And you know what? If you would have asked me at any of those moments if I believed that I would one day make it to the NFL, I would have said yes.

Bruce Irvin

No bullshit.

I swear to God I would always tell people that. I’d be sitting on the couch in a trap house, puffin’ a Swisher and playing video games, and through a cloud of smoke, I’d tell the other guys that I was gonna go to the NFL one day.

They’d be like, “Nah, man. You trippin’. You can’t be out here doin’ all this and expect to be goin’ to the league.”

But I swear I believed it. I just thought I needed the right people around me to help me and then I could really take off, you know?

It’s crazy because at that time, I had only really played two years of football. I started playing when I was in middle school, then after my freshman year in high school, I was ineligible because I didn’t have the grades. I tried transferring schools, but it didn’t pan out. Then I just kind of stopped going to school. I basically dropped out my junior year. I was spending most of my time out on the streets, surviving by doing … whatever I had to do.

I’ll never forget one time when me and a couple of guys I had been hanging out with broke into this house. It was a drug dealer’s house. We had our guns on us — just in case somebody was home — and we kicked the back door in, took whatever money we could find, ran out of the house and went to the gas station up the street. There was a police officer at the pump, and I remember he was kind of eyeing us. I was like, Dang, why he lookin’ at us like that? So I got in my car and drove off.

The police car pulled out behind me.

You know how when you got a cop behind you, even if you done nothing wrong, you try to change lanes or turn off to make sure they’re not following you?

Well, I turned into a neighborhood, and the cop turned with me. Maybe two seconds later, a bunch of police cars came out of nowhere with their lights flashing. They surrounded me. All the cops all got out of their cars, took their guns out, pointed them at me and yelled, “Get out of the car!”

I guess one of the neighbors had seen us breaking into that house and called the police. So I got locked up for burglary and for carrying a concealed weapon.

I was 17 years old.

I had been locked up a few times before that, but it was always for minor stuff, and I always got out a few hours later.

This time, though, my mom and stepdad refused to bail me out. They wanted me to learn a lesson. So I spent like three weeks in the DeKalb County jail in Atlanta.

That’s when I saw the dude making the burrito — bread, Cheetos and ramen noodles. He would wet the bread and make it soggy and then wrap it up tight around the Cheetos and noodles. And I remember just watching him like … this was what this dude’s life had come to: locked up, eating a soggy-ass makeshift burrito. And I was like, That’s crazy. I can’t let that be me.

That whole situation — being locked up for that long — was really eye-opening. So I made a promise to my mom and everybody that I wouldn’t put myself in that position again. I was gonna get out of jail, get back home with my mom and stepdad and really try to get my life back together.

But when I got out, I found out that I didn’t have a home to go to.

My mentality about it was really the only mentality you can have in that situation: It was either starve, or go out there on the street and make a wage.

For my stepdad, me getting arrested was the last straw. I had already dropped out of school, and now I was hangin’ out in the streets, carrying a gun, breaking into houses and doing other things I’m not even comfortable talking about, even today.

So he told my mom straight up, “That’s it. He gotta go.”

They basically kicked me out.

And my mentality about it was really the only mentality you can have in that situation: It was either starve, or go out there on the street and make a wage. So I was basically thrown right back into the game.

I needed a place to stay, so I hit up my homie Kevin. He’s from Nigeria, and his family had like seven or eight people living at his tiny house. I stayed with him for a while and things were cool — until his mom kind of realized, “Why is this B.J. kid always here? Doesn’t he have parents to go home to?”

And then one day I guess she just had enough and she was like, “Alright, that’s it. B.J. gotta go.”

Now I had been kicked out of two houses.

And this time, I didn’t really have anyplace else to go.

Right behind Kevin’s house, there was an elementary school. It had a big playground, and there were some benches where the parents and teachers would sit to watch the kids play.

So that night, I waited until it got dark and I went to the playground and laid down on one of the benches. I had nothing but the clothes on my back — actually, they were Kevin’s clothes. I had borrowed them. I had no blanket. Not even a hoodie I could ball up into a pillow. And I just laid my head down on the hard bench and went to sleep.

It was my first night of being completely homeless.

That was the loneliest night of my life.


I spent two or three nights on that bench before I met this guy — I’m not gonna tell you his name because I ain’t tryin’ to out nobody, but he helped me out a lot. He had a little trap house he was selling drugs out of, and he let me stay there.

That’s the place where I’d be sitting on the couch telling the other dudes that I was gonna make it to the NFL one day. There was actually this one guy I knew who used to always come by the house. He was playing football at a prep school, and every time he came by the house, he’d be like, “Man, you shouldn’t be hangin’ out here, bro. You should come to this prep school with me and play ball. I know that’s what you really wanna do.”

And I’d be like, “Nah, nah. I’m good, bro. I’m chillin’….”

I was chillin’, too. I wasn’t motivated to do shit. I was just hanging out with the wrong people, you know? I mean, life wasn’t good or anything. But as far as I was concerned, with all the things I was doing … as long as I wasn’t dead or locked up, everything was cool.

Then one day, I’m sitting on the couch playing video games. I get up and tell the guys I’ma run to the store and grab a box of Swishers. So I ride out, solo. I’m gone maybe 10 minutes, and on my way back, as soon as I pull around the corner to the house, I slam on my brakes.

I see police cars everywhere. They got the whole street blocked off.

I look down the road at the house and I see the cops going in the front door and pulling my homies out, one by one.

The police had raided the house.

They confiscated everything.

And they arrested everybody.

I was so freaked out that I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I just turned around and started driving.

That was when I called my mom.

I had kept in contact with her since she and my stepdad kicked me out of the house. She would sneak behind my stepdad’s back and come by the trap house to check on me. I remember the guys would have drugs out, doing deals or whatever, and I would have to tell them, “Yo, stop what y’all are doin’ and clean up. My mom’s about to come!”

I was so freaked out after that raid that I called her and told her everything that had happened, and she said, “Just come home. We’ll figure this out.”

And for the first time since I got kicked out a year and a half earlier, I went home.

Bob Carr/Image of Sports/Newscom/ZUMA Press

A couple of days later, I got a phone call from one of my homies who was at the house the day it got raided. He had gotten locked up with the rest of the guys. He was calling me from jail, and he told me straight up, “You got out of that house for a reason, bro. Go turn your life around. Go live your dream. Go play football and don’t look back.”

He was right. I honestly felt like I had been spared. I was inside that house with him, and I was only gone for like 10 minutes. I should have gotten locked up, too.

I felt like I was given a second chance. But for me, it was really like a sixth or seventh chance. I thought, Man, if I got nine lives, they’re running out fast. I gotta get the hell away from here.

I remembered the guy who was trying to get me to come to his prep school to play football. I didn’t have his number, so I found him on Facebook and hit him up. We got to exchanging messages.

He told me the place was called Ware Prep in Atlanta. It had a football team. It had dorms. And it was basically a place for kids who were trying to play sports and get their lives together.

I asked him if there was there any way possible that I could still go, and he was like, “Heck yeah, come on!” So he talked to the coaches and the people at the school for me, and he got them to take me in. That was in the fall of 2007.

I was so excited. I mean, I hadn’t really played football since the ninth grade, and this place felt kind of legit. We were in downtown Atlanta using the Morris Brown College campus, so we had dorms, full football facilities and everything. I moved in, started going to class and was practicing with the team. It was the complete opposite of the life I had been living on the streets.

The first week I was there, we had an away game. I was hanging outside the dorms with the rest of the team, waiting for the buses to pick us up, just thinking about how ready I was to ball the fuck out. I wanted to show everybody that I could play. This was like … my moment, you know? This was gonna be the beginning of me finally turning my life around.

I couldn’t wait to get on that bus.

I couldn’t wait to play.

But the buses were taking forever. Me and the other guys started talking, like, “What’s goin’ on? Where these buses at?”

Come to find out, the buses weren’t coming.

Ware Prep had shut its football program down.

And nobody had told us.

You gotta remember: This was a group of pretty bad kids. Most of them had come off the street. So when we found out they were shutting us down … man, dudes got mad. We all went back into the dorms, and people went crazy. I’m talking throwing furniture, breaking windows — just tearing stuff apart. It was like a riot. The police had to come and break it up. They arrested like three players, and then everything settled down and everybody went home.

Except me.

I didn’t have anywhere to go. I was sitting on the front steps of the dorm, the windows behind me all busted out. I had a black trash bag next to me with a couple of shirts, some pants and a couple of pairs of Fruit of the Loom drawers stuffed in it. That was everything I had.

I was just sitting there, alone, with my elbows on my knees and my head buried in my hands, thinking, Damn … what now?

That moment right there — that was rock bottom.

Then, out of nowhere, I saw this guy walking up the sidewalk. He totally startled me. I thought I was alone.

He walked up to me and said, “How are you doing?”

And it was like everything hit me all at once.

I just broke down crying.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do, man. I ain’t got nowhere to go.”

I didn’t even know who this guy was, or what he was doing there. I just started sobbing and told him everything.

“I came here to change my life and now this thing is shut down. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

He looked at me and said, “It’s O.K. Here’s what I’m gonna do for you….”

And he laid it all out for me.

I’m looking at this man like he’s my guardian angel. Like, Where you been the last three years?

The first thing he did was call my mom. He told her what was happening, who he was and that she didn’t have to come get me — he was going to let me stay at his house that night. The next day, he took me home, met my mom and he told her that he was going to let me live with him. He was gonna help me turn my life around.

The guy’s name is Chad Allen. He’s from Baltimore, but he went to Morehouse College in Atlanta and had decided to make the city his home. He was coaching high school football at the time, and he would occasionally come to Ware Prep to check on some of the kids. He’s one of those guys who mentors young men and helps them out however they might need.

So he’s telling my mom all this stuff, and I’m looking at this man like he’s my guardian angel. Like, Where you been the last three years?

To this day I’ve never asked him why he did it. But I’m telling you, the things this man did for me — he opened his home to me, fed me and took care of me. He got me on the right path, too. He told me right away that if I wanted to play in the NFL, I had to go to college. So he set me up to take the GED — paid the $96 fee and everything.

Problem was, the test came so quick that I didn’t have any time to study. And I hadn’t even been enrolled in school in almost two years.

I was positive that I was gonna fail the test. But the plan was for me to take it anyway, get a feel for what it was like, and then come back and pass it on the second try after I’d had time to study.

It was a five-part test.

I passed all five parts on the first try.

I was like, Damn, maybe I’m not as dumb as I thought.

So everything was happening fast, man. As soon as I passed the GED, me and Chad started googling junior colleges.

I basically got turned away by two schools — College of DuPage, in Illinois, and Butler C.C., in Kansas — before I landed at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California. One of the guys I met who had been playing at Butler had transferred out to Mt. SAC and had talked to the coaches for me. Then me and Chad made a video of me working out and took some pictures — like my wingspan and stuff like that to show how big I was — and the coaches liked what they saw enough that they told me to come on out.

Chad took care of my tuition, gave me money for food and paid my rent. He took care of everything. So I went out there with the mentality that I was gonna bust my ass for two years and make the most of the opportunity.

It was tough, though. It was lonely because my mom, my family and Chad couldn’t come all the way out there to watch me play.

But I did what I had to do.

In 2010, after two years at Mt. SAC, I was getting recruited by some big programs like USC and LSU. But I didn’t want to go anywhere that was too too big, you know? Like, I didn’t wanna be just another guy. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. I wanted to stand out. I also wanted to be close to home so my mom, my family and Chad could come see me play.

That’s kind of why I thought West Virginia was the perfect fit.

Jeff Gentner/AP

That first time my mom came to see me play at WVU … man, that was a big moment. I remember we played Coastal Carolina. My mom hadn’t seen me play since I was in the ninth grade. She was just really happy because I had overcome so much.

But the goal wasn’t just to play Division I football. The goal was to make it to the NFL. So after two years at WVU, I declared for the draft. After everything I had been through, I was basically one step away from living my dream.

I remember when I was on my way to the airport to fly to Indianapolis for the NFL combine. I just remember we were driving, and I had this feeling like … I felt like a newborn. I had come so far — from sleeping on an elementary school playground and selling drugs out of a trap house — and now I was going to the combine.

I thought about it all, and I just broke down.

I cried all the way to the airport.

I brought all that emotion with me to Indianapolis, too. I fucking killed it at the combine. I went into the draft process with a third-round grade, and now I was shooting up the board. I had some people saying I could go as high as late in the first round.

But then, about two weeks before the draft, I went out in Morgantown with a couple of my homies, and I was buzzing on some drinks. To this day, I don’t know why I did this, but for some reason, I swatted the sign off the top of a pizza delivery car. I was just being reckless … and drunk.

It was a stupid decision.

But the worst part was that there was a cop pretty much right there, and he saw me do it.

I pleaded with him: “Please don’t do this. Don’t arrest me. I got too much to lose!”

But he wasn’t hearing it. He put me in the back of the car, took me down to the station and locked me up.

I was like, Damn, that’s it. I blew it. I worked so hard, and now because of one stupid decision.…

Jeff Gentner/AP

I was in a really dark place, man. If any team was looking for a reason not to draft me, I felt like I had just given it to them. Now, I was the dude who got arrested two weeks before the draft. I was considered high-risk.

When I got bailed out, I went straight back to my hotel, and I swear I didn’t leave my room for the next two weeks. Not until draft night. I didn’t want to risk even putting myself in position do make another bad decision.

Then, on draft night, I was back home in Atlanta and it was just me and my family — and Chad. There wasn’t no ESPN at my house. No media. Just family.

During the first round, while everybody was inside watching on TV, I was outside just kind of chillin’. I was really just trying to kill some time until the end of the night, holding out hope that a team might take a chance on me with one of those final first-round picks.

Then my phone rings, and it says on my screen that it’s a 425 area code — Renton, Washington.

I’m like, Who the hell is this? I ain’t never heard of no Renton.

So I was pretty surprised when I answered the phone and it was Pete Carroll.

I had known Pete from when I was at Mt. SAC and he was trying to recruit me to USC. But I hadn’t really talked to him before the draft. I hadn’t met with the Seahawks, either. So it was kind of a shock.

Then, Pete straight up says, “You ready to be a Seahawk? We’re about to take you with the next pick.”

And I swear to God I say, “No fucking way….”

I’m still outside, so I’m not even watching the draft. I don’t even know what pick it is. And I don’t even care.

“Yeah,” he says. “We’re about to take you. Go inside.”

And when I get inside, I see it on the TV. My whole family sees it.

The Seahawks took me with the 15th pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft.

Jon Ferrey/AP

I don’t think I could have been drafted by a better team. I had a lot of great mentors in Seattle who taught me how to be a pro, how to win and how to lead. So in 2016, after four years there, the opportunity came up to go to Oakland and help lead a young team, I was ready.

I’m six years into my NFL career now, and I honestly couldn’t have pictured things working out any better than they have.

But right here, I want to remind you that this story isn’t about football. I mean, football has given me everything. And all the stuff that’s happened in my life since draft night has been amazing.

But it’s the things that happened before that — where I came from, how I came up, how I survived, how I turned my life around — that I want people to take away from this story.

I always tell people that the person I was growing up when I was doing all that bad stuff — that was B.J. Now, I’m a different person.

Now, I’m Bruce Irvin.

I’m a grown man. An NFL athlete. A Super Bowl champion.

And I’m a father. I have a four-year-old son named Brayden. And when somebody asks him about his dad, I want him to be proud. Not because I play in the NFL, but because of how I made it from where I was to where I am today.

I mean, I’m about to be a college graduate. I’m scheduled to finish my degree at WVU in the spring. And that’s something I don’t think I would have believed back when I was 17 and homeless — that I would be the first from my family to graduate from college.

There are a lot of people who helped me get to this point, but it all comes back to Chad Allen. Without him, I don’t think I would even be alive today. And you know what? He’s never asked for anything in return.

Nothing.

So I think the best way to pay him back is to be the same positive influence he was for me, for other kids. I haven’t started my own foundation just yet because I understand what a big responsibility that is and how much time and work goes into that, and when I do it, I want to make sure I’m in position to do it right. But I’ve been ramping up to it, helping coordinate different events for some of my teammates and me to visit children’s hospitals and talk to kids, provide food for the homeless — anything that I can do to help other people and share my story.

And all that work I’ve been doing has led to me being nominated for the NFL Man of the Year award, which to me is just … crazy, right? I mean, it’s a real honor just to be nominated. And I really think it’s another indication of how far I’ve come in my life.

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

And my next focus is to spend more time with kids in the inner cities.

Kids like B.J.

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….

Shit, they can just look at me.

Bruce Irvin
Atlanta Falcons