The two lives of Bruce Irvin

Drugs. Guns. Homelessness. Jail.
Bruce Irvin's past doesn't haunt him.
It fuels him.
And now it fuels the Raiders, too.

By Tyler Dunne

Sept. 7, 2016

Bleacher Report

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."


Christian Petersen / Getty Images


"I don't want to get into details, but I was doing a lot of crazy stuff out there."

Bruce Irvin knows this much: He should be dead or in jail right now.

Not here. Not in the NFL.

As a high school junior at Stockbridge (Ga.) High, 20 minutes outside of Atlanta, Irvin dropped out, and then his mother kicked him out of the house. So he lived in the streets. Irvin wandered couch to couch, floor to floor, street to street, night to night for about six months. He'd stay at one friend's house until wearing out his welcome and then try to move to another's. When he had nowhere to turn, he'd nestle up against a bus ramp at a local school and use his backpack as a pillow.

He was homeless, carried a gun, hung out with drug dealers.

Though in the past Irvin has said he sold drugs, today he says he was only the one taking drugs and "getting it by any means."

After growing up in Ellenwood, Georgia, Irvin was languishing in the rough streets of the Decatur-Lithonia area. When Mom knew where Irvin was sleeping, she'd bring him a home-cooked meal.

"I enjoy this life way more than that life."

— Bruce Irvin

Yes, at points he has been in the crosshairs of bullets. Who? When? How? Irvin won't go there, only saying he quite literally lived "one day at a time."

And quite literally dodged bullets.

"You never know when it's going to be your last day," Irvin says. "You're taking chances every day to get money, to survive just to make it to the next day. You're taking chances, whether it be penitentiary chances or life chances. You've got to get it by any means. That's the mindset that I was living.

"No matter how I did it or when I did it, I had to get it. You know? That was the mentality."

His only punishment, mercifully, was two-and-a-half weeks in jail.

In May 2007, with two others, Irvin broke into a drug dealer's house in suburban Atlanta to steal cash. A neighbor who witnessed the break-in called police, and Irvin was charged with burglary and carrying a concealed weapon. Nobody testified against him because, you know, dealers aren't in a rush to show up in court.

But behind bars, Irvin wondered what would've happened if those dealers were in the house. He could've been, would've been, shot dead.

"Another chance at life," Irvin says. "Anything could've happened. I took that as an eye-opener that you need to get your life together before you don't have any more chances."

"We're not bringing up the past, but..." says his mother, Bessie Lee, realizing the past is inescapable. "But when he did get locked up, that's when he said, 'I can't do this, Mama. I'm getting this together.' And I said, 'You need to.' I didn't want to bury him."

It'd take one more wake-up call to reroute his life.

On Nov. 13, 2007, Irvin was playing video games inside a drug house when a former Stockbridge teammate showed up, recognized him and said Irvin should join him at Ware Prep Academy to play football. "Go home," he told Irvin. Irvin threw everything he had into a trash bag and joined him.

The very next day, police raided that exact house. Over the phone, one friend arrested provided a final jolt.

"God got you out that house for a reason," he told Irvin. "Live your dream."

So Irvin returned home to Mom. The night he should've graduated, Irvin cried in her bed and told her she was right all along. The same people who were laughing with him as a kid were now laughing at him. "They won't laugh long," she told him.

The kid pulling a 0.86 GPA before dropping out got his act together. He got his GED. When Ware Prep shut down, he attended Butler (Kan.) Community College, then Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) College, then West Virginia University. His first season with the Mountaineers, Irvin finished second in the nation with 14 sacks. Then the Seahawks made him the 15th overall pick in 2012.

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Bruce Irvin (second from right) poses for a photo with (from left) his mentor, Chad Allen, his now-wife, Alyssa Hackworth, and his mom, Bessie Lee, at the draft in 2012 (Ted S. Warren / AP Photo).

"It was a decision," Irvin says. "Do I want to continue to go down that road and end up where I knew I was going to end up? That's either dead or in jail. Or did I want to use my God-given ability and just leave it all out there and take a chance? I made a decision to go for it, and there's no turning back."

BJ was forced to find his way when Mom gave him the boot.

"It really showed me how to be a man, how to be a survivor," Irvin says. "Most guys don't grow up until they're 21. I grew up when I was 16."

He pauses.

"But I've lived two lives."


Focus on Sport via Getty Images


"It's easy to survive on a football field when you have to survive day to day with your life."

Bruce Irvin terrorizes offenses with 4.4 closing speed and wince-inducing collision power.

Bruce Irvin got married in 2014 to Alyssa Hackworth, a star collegiate tennis player, and the two have a three-year-old son, Brayden.

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bruceirvin51 on Instagram

Bruce Irvin now owns a mansion in Florida, rents in Dublin, California, and rarely ever visits Atlanta.

Bruce Irvin also, yes, slugged tight end Rob Gronkowski with a right cross in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLIX.

Even Bruce must admit BJ permeates his game. Maybe he couldn't flourish in a cubicle, but on a football field? He thrives. His job is to punish.

Welcome to his sanctuary.

There's Khalil Mack, working one-on-one with a Raiders coach for 35 minutes. He synchronizes each step with each punch until he resembles Mike Tyson in pads. There's Irvin, chopping his 33 3/8-inch arms through the line. And, after practice, there's Malcolm Smith with blood stained between the "5" and the "3" on his uniform. The linebacker stares down at more phantom blood on his cleats with no clue where it came from.

When he was in Seattle, with Irvin, Smith remembers head coach Pete Carroll used Irvin's life story to inspire the team.

"You're like, 'Man, that is crazy! How are you here?'" Smith says.

One reason: A violent game provides a cathartic release. Off the field, Irvin learned "boundaries." Raising a family, he says, provided structure. On the field, he can still be a damn menace.

It's the perfect profession for him.

"This is one of the only places you can do something like that," Smith says. "Football. Just because of the physical nature. And especially on this team, you can express yourself however you want to."

Earlier this day, Smith ribbed Irvin for his Super Bowl ejection. Irvin was quick to snipe back, "Where were you in the clip?" This is Irvin's nature—he's fiercely loyal. Gronk swiped at his teammate, so he needed to retaliate.BJ needed to retaliate. He swayed outside his boundary, and a brawl ensued—and yes, Smith was on the field but stayed far, far away from the wreckage.

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Andy Lyons / Getty Images

"He's a teammate," says defensive tackle Kevin Williams, a Seahawk that 2014 season. "He loves you. He has your back. You can't find anyone better than Bruce.

"He plays with a natural aggression. I won't say 'hatred,' but he has a natural ability to just want to play aggressive. You don't have to teach that. Sometimes you get guys and tell them, 'You've got to be meaner! More physical!' With Bruce, he's going to knock the guy in front of him on his butt.

"That's his personality. He's a hard-nosed guy."

Not all hard-nosed guys can assimilate, though, which may be the NFL's No. 1 problem. So many others from rugged backgrounds cannot leave the streets for good or quarantine their violence to the field. For Irvin, the on-field brawling 114.4 million viewers saw against the Patriots does not spill into the streets.

"You've got to be able to turn on a switch and turn it off when the clock's not running," Williams says. "The guys who are able to harness that and use it like Bruce has done, you see him have some success. That aggression you put out on Sundays is nothing you want to take into the mall."

So when Irvin returns to Atlanta, it's only for two or three days. This offseason, he bumped into an old friend bumming on the street and gave him $100. That was the extent of his interactions with his past. Cutting out his old crew was easy.

Irvin heard echos of insults for a while. He ignores it all. The old crew can call him whatever they'd like. 

"I just try to stay away from it, bro. I enjoy this life way more than that life."

Because Irvin saw firsthand where "that life" leads.


Christian Petersen / Getty Images


"This is who kept him going. This was his inspiration."

Mom wasn't going to talk. Three times over mac 'n' cheese with shrimp 'n' crab at Gordon Biersch in Midtown Atlanta, she admits she wasn't going to meet up. Not after Bruce instructed her—repeatedly—to avoid digging up his past.

Nobody understands the blend of BJ and Bruce like the woman who kicked his butt to the street. Indeed, Bessie Lee is a no-bull, tough-love IRS employee who tells anyone thinking about cheating the system, "I don't play!" in a thick Southern drawl.

Whenever Irvin acted up as a kid, she'd grab his collar, body-slam him to the ground and stick her knee in his chest.

"I was so quick!" says Lee, re-enacting the move across the dinner table. "You ain't expectin' it! Whatchutalknbout boy?!'"

A few moments later, Lee slides her cellphone over.

"I've got to show you this right here. Look at this."

It's an old picture of her brother next to a new picture of Bruce. The resemblance is freaky. Squinting her eyes, scrunching her nose, scowling her eyebrows and biting her tongue, Lee imitates "The Look." She saw it then in her brother, Charles Bigby, and sees it now in her son.

Mom is convinced that her brother—shot dead in the streets 15 years ago—lives on in her son. Like Bruce, Uncle CC dropped out of high school in 11th grade, lived in the streets and was a hyper-competitive athlete. Unlike Bruce, he never escaped the streets. Eventually, at 34, Bigby was shot and killed by a 21-year-old.

As Lee recalls, the shooter said he killed Bigby over $10.

To death, Charles was the one who kept BJ in football. In his nephew, he saw his own vanquished potential. The speed. The strength. The Look. He'd sock young BJ in the ribs and say, "Get your butt out there!" when he complained. He'd have him run laps. He paid his tuition to play football in park leagues when Mom's bank account ran dry.

Irvin was 14 years old when he lost his Uncle CC.

Bigby didn't deal drugs, Lee says, but "he was street." She loved him to death, but Bigby also "was just scary to me."

"Oh my Lord!" she repeats. "These two are identical. They were street. Deep! I mean, they don't back down. My brother would tell you that he's not losing for anybody. He's not going to lose nothing."

Uncle Charles' death was crushing. One year later, Irvin dropped out of school himself. But now, here he is, living out his uncle's dream. Somehow. Some way.

Lee shakes her head.

"BJ loved that pain," Lee says. "He just loved it. He could let out all that frustration on that field."

Uncle CC doesn’t only live through Irvin. No, Mom is 100 percent convinced her brother lives through her dog, Max, too. Why else would Max walk neighborhood kids to the bus stop each morning and back to their homes at 3:30 to save them from bloodthirsty pit bulls lurking? Why else would Max sit on the edge of her porch the exact same way Charles did, butt halfway off, legs down?

Sadly, Max, 99 in dog years, is dying. She's been contemplating putting him down, though has decided to give him another month.

Also, her mother-in-law has cancer. And her husband is having eye surgery. She makes sure the point of all this is clear.

Where Bruce comes from, it's always something. That's in Bruce.

"Charles is in Bruce. Make sure people know that."


Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images

Then & Now

"You need a boomer. If you have a consistent boomer, that will jack a man's testosterone level past 750!"

They drank (heavily). They smoked (everything). They threw punches (at themselves). They'd party with 20 strippers at a time after games and practices. And, oh, there's John Matuszak shooting a stop sign near the Raiders facility with his .44 Magnum. Yes, the Raiders of the 1970s were renegades to the bone, and the net result was the most beautifully belligerent defense the NFL has ever known.

No wonder they can't contain their excitement. This doormat of a franchise harbors realistic playoff hopes once again, and Bruce Irvin's arrival is a big part of the reason why. He's precisely what made those Raiders so feared.

A badass.

In raspy, emphatic enunciation, former cornerback Lester Hayes shouts…and shouts.

"You need butt-whippers!" Hayes begins. "You need men who legally whip another man's butt on Sunday. You neeeeeed moooore than one legalized butt-whipper on a successful National Football League team!"

The Raiders had one. Now they have two.

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Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack at Raiders training camp (Eric Risberg / AP Photo).

In theory, Irvin and Mack force offensive coordinators to pull all-nighters. Which edge-rusher do you double-team? How do you compensate for a pocket that'll inevitably cave? League MVP Cam Newton wasn't dabbin' with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware barreling down on him. He coiled in the fetal position.

And unlike Seattle in 2015, the Raiders of 2016 will unleash Irvin as a pass-rusher. Mack assures this defense will use Irvin correctly. Glowing, he imagines either one of them being single-blocked.

"We're looking forward to dominating," he says. "You know what I'm saying?"

Hayes does. Domination in his day meant safety Jack Tatum would clothesline receivers across the middle. Then, he says, "It mutates." Big hits multiply. Such borderline decapitations are banned today, but these Raiders envision that Irvin will inject a Tatum-like attitude up front.

That's where there are still legalized "butt-whippers" in the sanitized version of football they see today.

Resident bruisers George Atkinson and Monte Johnson can still picture the pale horror in opponents' faces. The intimidation factor alone made Johnson feel like Oakland started every game ahead 10-0. His teams were full of players rough around the edges—"Where do you want me to start?" he laughs, reeling off a half-dozen names.

"Go out there, give the guy a snot bubble," Johnson says. "Make him think he's blind because you twisted his helmet and he's now looking out his earhole."

On one side is Mack and his streams of veins snaking from shoulders to forearms. On the other is the street-tough Irvin, now liberated in a defense that'll green-light the best BJ.

Atkinson repeats that Oakland, finally, is ready to win the AFC West.

"Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack?" he says. "Come on. You can't leave both of them one-on-one. You've got to double-team somebody, so who will that be?

"The era I played in, we tried to set a standard. For a number of years, the tradition was there. Now, it's fallen off. Now, it's time for the Raiders to come back and be the Raiders."

For the millennials, the ones who rely only on grainy John Facenda-dramatized clips of the Raiders, Hayes provides the bloody imagery.

"So, so many nuclear explosions!" he says. "When you watch that on film, it plants a seed in a man. … When I watched Jack Tatum knock people's jockstraps off of their bodies, that fired me up and fired up the entire team. You need a legalized butt-whipper!"

Mack had 15 sacks and 82 pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Irvin had 22 sacks through his four seasons. Now, they're a tag team. Any Raider revival starts with them.

Says Mack, "I'm looking forward to doing some great things with the big dog."


Bruce Irvin talks to former teammate Jimmy Graham before a preseason game (Tony Avelar / Associated Press).


"When I go out on the field, I try to just release. Block out everything. Be free."

He won't discuss how he broke into buildings, when he was shot at or why he hung out with drug dealers, but those memories still run through his mind. Isolate on Bruce Irvin between plays. Chances are, he'll be gazing into the stands at some point.

"I go out there and stare," Irvin says. "Look around like, 'Damn, I'm really in the National Football League,' when seven, eight years ago I was robbing people and doing a lot of this crazy stuff.

"It's a surreal moment."

Irvin insists, in front of a Raiders PR staffer, that he'd like to chat more about his future over the phone, but subsequent emails to the Raiders go unanswered. Mom was going to set up another conversation with Irvin, too, but those messages are also unanswered. Irvin's personal cellphone number has changed over the years.

No question, he wants to shield his past best he can. And his mother admits Irvin has "trust issues."

"I would never change the way it went. Me going to jail. Me getting shot at. Any of that. I'd rewrite it the same way."

—Bruce Irvin

Over the years, his inner circle has gotten smaller and smaller, and it's understandable. His own relatives beg the family to pay their electric and water bills. Others demand handouts. There are no "Bruce Irvin" banners on his hometown street. When Lee walks past other parents on the sidewalk, they drop their heads in jealousy.

Indeed, it's much wiser for Bruce Irvin to be paranoid, shut out.

Still, underneath the hard exterior are scars that won't go away. He'll never completely lose who he was.

"There's no way you can lose that!" Mom says. "I mean, he slept on the floor. He went through a lot. … He's one of those types of people who doesn't want a lot of people to know what he's going through.

"A lot of it was his fault. You don't have to be in the street. You chose to be in the street."

Whenever her son is in town, Lee is overwhelmed with anxiety.

"There are so many killings," she says. "I mean, you can get killed anywhere, but there's just something about Atlanta. I don't want him here."

Instead, she visits him out west, where one person absolutely in his inner circle is Khalil Mack. The two have been "like magnets" since they met, Irvin says. Instant "best friends," as if they were destined for each other.

A cool breeze sweeps through Napa Valley. Bruce. BJ. BJ. Bruce. His facial features curl again into an Uncle CC-like bust.

"I would never change the way it went," he says. "Me going to jail. Me getting shot at. Any of that. I'd rewrite it the same way."

He won't fully connect the dots between then and now yet. Mom tells him he needs to write a book one day.

Until then, Irvin finds himself. His way.


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @TyDunne.