"The Playmaker"

It's now a part of the everyday football vocabulary. It's used to describe a player who at all costs helps his team win game after game. Despite whatever shortcomings they might have physically or whatever obstacles are put in their way, all they do is make plays. Coaches tell the media of the need to find them. General managers speak of drafting them every April in New York.

Draftniks label the special players with this moniker. It's not about running a 4.3, benching 225, 40 times or being blessed the prototypical physical features. It's about making a difference when the chips are down.

They're called 'Playmakers'.

And the word is synonymous with Michael Irvin, who was given that nickname back in 1985 on the Greentree Practice Field as an untested and unknown redshirt freshman with big shoes to fill.

"I had that from Winston Moss, that's where I got the name," explained Irvin, of being given that tag by his former teammate. "How that really came about, we had just lost Eddie Brown, Stanley Shakespeare, they had just left and Eddie was a first round draft choice and I was stepping in and taking Eddie's place.

"We were in spring practice and Jimmy said, 'I don't want to hear anything about Eddie Brown or Stanley Shakespeare. All I want to hear about is I need some playmakers. A couple of guys that want to play wide receiver and make some plays. A couple of playmakers, that's all I need. I'm looking for a couple of playmakers starting today.'"

Quickly, Johnson who was looking for some playmakers, soon found 'the Playmaker'.

"Now, I got go out on the practice field and I'm catching everything, I'm diving all over, I'm catching everything and Winston Moss goes, 'There goes your playmaker right there!!! That's the Playmaker'!!!' And from there, it just stuck with me from there on out."

And now, the word is associated with the games most dangerous players. It's ironic to note that Irvin was a part of this years ESPN crew that covered the NFL draft, talking about getting these exact types of players. The name has become so ingrained in the culture of football, that ESPN's critically acclaimed drama of a fictional pro football team was entitled, 'Playmakers'.

"We joked all year, ‘Should I make ESPN pay me for taking my name for their television series?'" said Irvin, with a chuckle. "I wonder if that's why they hired me? I tell you what's great, in all seriousness, to actually be known and have that nickname, that just says you made plays. That's a serious, serious, nickname. It's something great."

And make plays he did. Irvin ranks fourth in all-time receptions with 143 grabs, third in all-time receiving yardage with 2,423 yards, and first in career touchdown receptions with 26( which is good for seventh overall).

All this, in only three seasons.

In leading the famed 'Bomb Squad' which also featured standout performers in Brian Blades and Brett Perriman, Irvin would lead the 'Canes in receiving in all three of his years in the orange and green.

But the numbers only tell part of his impact. They say that, 'Big time players, make big time plays.' Well, nobody did that better than Irvin. When the lights were on and the nation was watching, that's when he was at his best.

From 1985 through 1987, the Oklahoma Sooners were 33-0 against the nation, 0-3 against the Hurricanes in that same stretch. In those three Hurricane wins, he would grab four touchdown passes. The bottom line is that the 'Canes had the Sooners number, and Irvin owned Sooner All-American Ricky Dixon.

"Owned him, owned him, it was great, absolutely owned him, "Irvin says with conviction. And for him it was all about the challenges of playing the best. "I had pretty good games against Oklahoma and it was great because Ricky was such a highly recruited, highly scouted, highly loved, everything, defensive back. And I always thought, 'I need somebody.' I had Deion, but I needed a couple of big bills a year. I need a couple big ones a year. I need a couple of those battles that I HAVE to come out on top off. I have, I have to."

It was like a Muhammad Ali needing a Joe Frazier or an Affirmed needing an Alydar.

"It was the same thing when I got in the NFL, I took it with Darrell Green, Rod Woodson or Aeneas Williams," Irvin explained. "You need a couple of the great ones that are going to be great battles- but you gotta win. So I looked forward to those match-ups. I never lost to Florida St. and Deion in all my years. I took those games personal."

But where Irvin really burst onto the scene and cemented his status as 'the Playmaker' was on a warm autumn afternoon in Tallahassee at Doak Campbell Stadium against the rival Seminoles of Florida State in October of 1987.

Behind the strong running of Sammie Smith and a swarming defense, FSU would build a commanding 19-3 lead late into the third quarter. A normally high-powered Miami offense was being stifled in front of a national audience watching on CBS.

An incensed Irvin would get on the phone upstairs to the offensive staff, demanding the rock. "GET ME THE BALL!!!," he would scream at coordinator Gary Stevens and anyone else within earshot. But he was being told by his main adversary and friend to give up the fight.

"'Hey man, what's going on, man? This game is over man. I don't know why you're playing this hard, this game is over,'" recalls Irvin, of what 'Primetime' said to him in the second half." And we're not doing anything all game long. And I looked at him and I was blocking him, he was telling me to ease up because I'm blocking him so hard and the game is over, let's ride it out.

"And I was telling him, 'No, I don't think so buddy. Hurricanes don't ever quit and I'm gonna show you that we don't ever quit.'"

A 49-yard hook-up from Steve Walsh to Mel Bratton and then a subsequent two-point conversion would cut the lead to 19-11 coming into the final quarter. Then after a screen pass was intercepted by Danny Stubbs, well, we'll let Jimmy Johnson explain what would happen from there.

"And then Michael Irvin went wild," wrote Johnson, in his book 'Turning the Thing Around'. "This was the quarter that would seal him as a household name (in any household that knows much about football). His 26-yard touchdown catch, followed by our second two-point conversion, tied the game. Then came the game winner: The Play. From our 27, Walsh threw. At about midfield, Irvin caught. To this day, Deion Sanders, FSU's All-American cornerback (and later All-Pro with the Atlanta Falcons) will shout down anyone who implies that he, Sanders, was in any way responsible for what happened. All I know is, Michael ran by everybody. It was a total 73-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. We led 26-19."

Eventually Miami would hold on for a pulsating 26-25 win. It would be FSU's only loss of the '87 campaign and it was the defining moment of Miami's second national championship campaign.

The sight of Irvin streaking down the sideline is one of the most unforgettable in Hurricane history. He wasn't considered a burner and certainly not the fastest player on the field at that time. But somehow, someway he would outrace Dedrick Dodge and the rest of the Florida St. defense to the endzone.

Hey, that's what 'Playmakers' do.

(In Part IV, Michael tells of his days in Dallas, from the toilet bowl to Super Bowls)

Steve Kim is an avid Hurricane fan, who runs his own website at MaxBoxing.com. He has been logging onto Canestime since 1998. If you have any questions or comments, Steve can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com

Part I with Michael Irvin
Part 2 with Michael Irvin

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