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Seahawks' Bruce Irvin overcame adversity in unlikely road to NFL

One day last summer, West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich stood on a second-floor balcony of the Puskar Center, the football facility that adjoins the Mountaineers' stadium. Defensive end Bruce Irvin walked onto the field. He wore shorts and flip-flops. Not realizing that two pairs of eyes were watching him, Irvin casually jumped over a six-foot football dummy and then continued on his way.

That's not the sole reason the Seahawks chose Irvin with the 15th overall pick in the NFL draft -- they're not expecting him to leap over offensive linemen in a single bound -- but his athleticism surely played a part. Irvin was the most surprising selection in Round 1: Most NFL pundits had him going in the second round or, at best, possibly late in the first. But as general manager John Schneider put it, the Seahawks draft for themselves, not for the rest of the league.

The Seahawks have a plan and a vision for Irvin, 24, who played only two years of Division-I football following a checkered adolescence. He'll back up end Chris Clemons (11 sacks last season) at the "Leo" position, then play opposite of Clemons on pass-rushing downs.

The Leo position is similar to the old elephant position that Leslie O'Neal (Chargers), Fred Dean (49ers), Charles Haley (Cowboys) and Bryce Paup (Packers) played. Essentially, it's a 3-4 outside linebacker who rushes the passer about 75 percent of the time. The Leo lines up on the open side, away from the tight end.

Raheem Brock played that position for Seattle last season -- Schneider estimates Brock was on the field for about 65 percent of defensive snaps -- but his contract expired in the offseason and he became a free agent. Hence, the need for Irvin.

"I guess you could say they're looking at me as a pass-rushing specialist," Irvin said over the phone last Sunday, just minutes after finishing the last practice of his first NFL minicamp.

Rushing the passer is what Irvin does best. As a reserve end for West Virginia in 2010, he tallied 14 sacks, second in the nation. Though he started just five of 13 games last season, he had 8.5 sacks, two quarterback pressures and three forced fumbles.

"I heard the media refer to him as a one-trick pony," said Kirelawich, now an assistant coach at Arizona. "I told the guys in Seattle that the golden goose was a one-trick goose. We'd all like to have one, wouldn't we?

"If you had a guy you thought could get you off the field on third down, and be pretty damn effective at it, that's the guy I want on my team. He'll learn to play the run. He'll get better."

The Seahawks have measured Irvin at just over 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds -- 75 pounds less than Red Bryant, their run-stopping end. While Irvin is too light and too raw to anchor against the run, he has the speed to make pass protectors quiver in their stances. His 4.46 40-time at the NFL Scouting Combine was the fastest among defensive linemen, and his 6.70 in the three-cone drill was the fastest of any player.

"He's an edge rusher with cornerback skills," NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "If you look at all his numbers from the Combine, they compare favorably with just about any corner. He runs in the 4.4s. His get-off is extremely quick. It's not Dwight Freeney quick yet, but it's extremely quick.

"If you're an [offensive] tackle and this kid is lined up with his hand in the dirt, a couple of yards outside your outside shoulder, you're immediately scared to death."

Schneider called Irvin the best pure pass rusher in the draft. Pressed by reporters, Schneider and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll compared Irvin's first step off the snap to those of former premier pass rushers Derrick Thomas, Chris Doleman and Jevon Kearse. While acknowledging that Irvin has plenty of work to do in developing his technique, he envisions his No. 1 pick giving offensive linemen fits.

"You're talking about a guy who can change direction and work his way back underneath," Schneider said. "He can get guys off balance and bull rush them. From an athleticism standpoint, he's pretty rare."

The most remarkable thing about Irvin, however, has nothing to do with his speed, athleticism or appetite for sacks. ("I love eating quarterbacks," he said.) The fact that he has survived and arrived at this point at all is beyond improbable. Not many years ago, Irvin's life was in a downward spiral, one that could have ended in disaster.

*****

A native of Atlanta, Irvin attended Stockbridge High for two years, his organized football experience consisting of just three games as a sophomore playing wide receiver. After his sophomore year, Irvin transferred to Stephenson High, believing that he would have a better chance at more playing time and a coveted Division-I scholarship.

Midway through his junior year, however, Irvin became academically ineligible and dropped out of school. Not long after, his mother, Bessie Lee, banished her son from the house.

"My mom gave me a choice: either get a job or go to school," Irvin said. "I didn't want to do either, so I had to get out."

Thus began a miserable 18 month-span for Irvin. He became a teen nomad, moving from one friend's house to another. He hauled around his personal belongings -- usually consisting of some shirts, a couple pairs of shoes and underwear -- in a plastic bag. At one point, Irvin was charged with burglarizing a drug dealer's house and had to spend two weeks in jail.

Irvin wound up at an Atlanta prep school for troubled students, but the institution had to close its doors before he completed his time. That's when Chad Allen came into Irvin's life -- and promptly turned it around.

A former football player at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Allen visited the prep school and spoke with the students. According to Irvin, since he was the last student to leave the school -- he had nowhere else to go -- Allen invited him into his home, where Irvin lived for three months.

"I don't know what I would have done," Irvin said, asked what would have happened had Allen not intervened.

With Allen's help, Irvin made peace with his mom and earned his GED. Irvin then enrolled at Mt. San Antonio Junior College in Walnut, Calif., where Irvin first lived with nine other football players in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. Carroll, then the head coach at USC, unsuccessfully tried to recruit Irvin. After two years of JUCO football, Irvin instead wound up heading across the country to West Virginia.

Allen preceded Irvin to West Virginia, where according to his LinkedIn bio, he enrolled in grad school and took a job in the athletic department. He has since followed Irvin to Seattle, where he will live with Irvin for approximately a year while Irvin establishes roots as an NFL player. The two men are practically joined at the hip, and if Irvin continues to turn his life around and become a successful football player, Allen will be largely responsible.

"What we have seen over the years is Bruce mature, and he's become who he is supposed to become as a man," Allen told reporters at Irvin's introductory press conference in Seattle. (He declined an interview for this story.) "Right now, Seattle is getting a great player, but more importantly they're getting a great person, and he's going to do a lot in the community and he's going to do a lot to support everybody out here."

Irvin called Allen "a mentor, a big-brother type. He's taught me how to be a man, to take on responsibility, how to face adversity and adapt to certain situations when your back's to the wall."

*****

Last March, Irvin's comeback took a brief detour. He was charged with destruction of property and disorderly conduct after an incident at a sandwich shop in Morgantown, W.Va. Those charges were recently dismissed.

It's not like Irvin was arrested for DUI, tested positively for marijuana or was involved in a late-night altercation at a gentleman's club. Still, many NFL talent evaluators saw some red flags on his résumé before the draft. How would Irvin respond to teams that thought he was a risk because of his off-field issues?

"I would say, if I'm a risk, then other people must be headaches," Irvin said. "I could see it if I was at West Virginia failing drug tests, getting suspended and getting in trouble. That recent hiccup (the sandwich shop episode) was the first time I've been in trouble in six years.

"I would say I'm a guy who has changed, and coach Carroll and John Schneider and [Seahawks owner] Mr. [Paul] Allen know that."

Irvin described himself and Allen as "football junkies." They watch a lot of tape together and talk football. That's his singular focus now. There's no time for anything else.

"The football gods are watching, so you have to pay your respect and put in the work like you're supposed to," Irvin said. "Football saved my life. I'm going to bust my butt and work hard in everything I do. I'd rather die than prove [the doubters] right."

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