Former West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin, of Stone Mountain, has a catchy slogan on his Twitter page that reads, “Trying to reach the top because it’s too crowded at the bottom.”
Irvin is one player in the NFL draft who can speak from experience about touching the bottom.
While a student at Stephenson High, battling to stay eligible to play, he ran with the wrong group — the drug-dealing and dope-smoking crowd. He landed a spot in juvenile jail and not on the football team.
After being arrested and spending three weeks in jail, he decided to turn his life around. Irvin earned his GED and enrolled at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif.
He played there, far away from the trouble he was mired in at home, for two years. He had 16 sacks in one season and attracted 27 major college offers. He elected to attend West Virginia and now hopes he’ll get selected in the NFL draft, set for April 26-28 in New York.
“I beat [the odds] and did exactly what I said I was going to do,” Irvin said via phone from Morgantown, W.Va., on Thursday. “I got my GED, went to college and I always said I wanted to play pro football. Adversity, I feed off that stuff. Now, I’m just keeping the right people around me and not the people that just tell me what I want to hear.”
The notion of playing in the NFL started to sink in for Irvin when he was on his way to Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine in late February.
“I started to tear up in the car because I come from a rough situation,” said Irvin, who interviewed with the Falcons at the combine and has nine team visits set up. “So, just being able to be there and almost be in the NFL was just a blessing.”
Irvin doesn’t mind discussing his bumpy path to the draft. He knew that teams, who are very conscious of character, would want to talk about his trouble as youth.
“Finally, I saw the light, got my GED, took the test and passed all five parts on the first time,” Irvin said. “That January I went to school and have never looked back.”
Was he in a gang?
“I was never associated with a gang,” Irvin said. “I was in jail. I was in jail for two charges. I was only in for about three weeks.”
Teams have asked him about the intimate details of his woes.
“They’ve heard the stories, read the articles,” Irvin said. “They’ve questioned me, which I don’t blame. They want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, the whole situation and how it happened.”
He stressed to them his track record following his jail stint.
“Check my past four or five years. I got a lot of people who can vouch for me. I’m no longer that person,” Irvin said. “I went by B.J., now I’m Bruce. That’s what I tell them.”
There are many kids like Irvin, but in part because of sports and his immense athletic gifts, he got a lifeline tossed his way.
“My mentor is the guy who saved my life, Chad Allen,” Irvin said. “I was homeless, pretty much. And he took me under his wing and let me live with him and train with him. Paid my tuition, and it took off from there.”
Allen, formerly a coach at Carver High, used to speak to Irvin at Ware Prep, a school for troubled youth that has since closed.
Allen saw that Irvin was serious about changing his priorities and getting away from the folks who did not have his best interests at heart.
“I was homeless and he talked to me, and we kind of had a heart-to-heart, and he told me ‘I can’t let you go back to doing what you were doing,’’’ Irvin said. “So he opened up his house to me.”
Irvin never questioned Allen’s motives. It was the simple things that won his trust.
“I started getting free meals,” Irvin said. “I didn’t have to struggle any more, didn’t have to bounce from house to house. Honestly, he doesn’t ask me for anything. He just asks me to work hard and strive to be the best I can be.”
There was a time when Irvin couldn’t go back to Stone Mountain.
“My so-called friends at the time were still involved with that kind of stuff, and I didn’t want to surround myself with that type of stuff or even be in the same state as it,” Irvin said. “That’s why I went to California to be as far away from it as I could.”
Irvin knows that those hard times are behind him.
NFL teams are looking for pass rushers such as Irvin, who was second in the nation with 14 sacks as a junior. He had 8.5 sacks last season as teams tried to slow him.
“The edge pass rushers are something that we [all] covet,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said when asked about the quality of pass rushers in the draft. “They are not always easy to come across. There is a good group of guys that get up the field and turn the corner athletically and burst to the quarterback.”
Irvin is rated as the No. 2 pass-rush specialist according to Pro Football Weekly’s 2012 draft guide. Only Troy’s Jonathan Massaquoi ranks ahead of Irvin.
“I’m a fast guy. I like mismatches,” Irvin said. “So I think that gives me the chance, especially if I have big guys in the middle to occupy the guards. It allows me to go one-on-one with the tackle.
“I usually won those [battles] in college. It’s going to be different at the next level, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
When: April 26-28
Falcons’ first pick: 23rd in second round, 55th overall