Eric Risberg / AP Photo
NAPA, Calif. — Rays of sunshine peek through the redwoods that border a football practice field tucked away in America's wine country. The beat of "Return of the Mack" thumps as players trickle out of the Raiders' training camp locker room, some hooting, many hollering, others jiving.
At 10:58 a.m., Bruce Irvin is the last to emerge, surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills instead of drug dealers and gunfire. He has a haunting strut. His eyes scowl. His upper lip snarls. He clips on his shoulder pads, and this next act in life continues.
Today, he's "Bruce," the fifth-year pro Oakland signed to a four-year, $37 million deal. The first half of his life, he was "BJ," a high school dropout who lived on the streets of Atlanta with drug dealers. Simply, there's no Bruce without BJ. No 6'3", 250-pound menace—no ripsnorting pass-rusher added to, once and for all, reverse the fortunes of a team that's gone 63-145 since 2002—without the delinquent who robbed strangers to survive.
Irvin's past made him, hardened him, even if Bruce would love stories of BJ to stay buried forever.
After practice, Irvin takes a seat underneath a nearby tent.
He's asked to relive his past, and does, but is inflamed in the process.
"My history and s--t, I don't want to talk about that," he says. "I'm trying to get away from that s--t. I didn't even know you were going to ask me that. If I would've known, I would've said I don't want to talk."
He holds his glare.
"The street s--t, I'm just over it. That life is gone. This is Bruce now. That was BJ. Those are two different people."
But not really.
The pristine 180-degree turnaround, regurgitated ad nauseam in the sports media business, is fundamentally impossible. Anybody who has lived how Irvin lived doesn't undergo a complete metamorphosis. That's Disney. Not reality. In reality, even after his football career took off, Irvin was arrested for knocking a Pita Pit sign off a delivery vehicle while it was driving, got suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and became the only player ever ejected from a Super Bowl.
When the Seahawks didn’t pick up his fifth-year option before last season, he tweeted, "Worked for everything I got in my life this s--t will b no different! I earns my keeps!" and "Faced way tougher adversity getting outta them streets coming up! That's s--t is nothing! F--K THAT OPTION!"
He's got some rage, yes. So this is Bruce Irvin's challenge: fusing the personas.
Combine the best of BJ then—violent, edgy, a survivor—with the best of Bruce now—mature, a father—and he can help the Raiders contend in 2016.
At his core, Irvin knows his past differentiates him from every pass-rusher in the NFL.
"I wouldn't change my situation, my story for anything," Irvin says. "I've faced adversity. I've been at the bottom. Anything I face now, it'll never be as hard as what it was."