It's quite a different demeanor than the one he had the last time he met the media on August 13, 2009. It was only six months ago, but it seems like a lifetime to the Wolfpack's hard-hitting linebacker. That was the day he announced that the injuries he had suffered from a devastating car accident in June would cause him to miss the entire football season.
He was thin and walked with a limp that day in the Murphy Center. His hands were still covered with cuts, scrapes and scratches that were just beginning to heal. His voice was quiet and his face was somber as he spoke to the gathered reporters. He managed to hold it together during the interview, but as he turned to walk away, he unsuccessfully tried to fight back tears.
"It's been a long, long process," says Irving of his rehab and his physical and emotional recovery. "Every time I think that the last time I played football was in 2008, I can't believe it. That was two years ago! But I've had a chance to sit back and watch and realize a lot of things and learn to appreciate a lot of things, so I guess there has been a positive outcome."
Irving suffered a broken rib, a punctured lung, an open fracture of his tibia and fibula and a separated shoulder in the accident that left his huge SUV looking more like a compact car. Although the leg injury has taken the most time to heal, it was the lung that was the most terrifying.
"It was so scary not to be able to breath," he remembers. "And I just kept thinking that if I got hit in the chest, it could happen again."
Irving has no memory of the accident itself and vaguely remembers the overhead lights when he was being wheeled into the emergency room from the ambulance. What he does remember is waking up to see his parents at his bedside – a spot they rarely left over the following weeks.
"My family was right by my side from the time they got that first phone call until the time I left to come back to school," he says. "I got a lot of support from my coaches and teammates and from people I don't even know. But my family, they were everything."
Irving's parents, Jerome and Frances, and his six younger brothers and sisters made sure that he never got too discouraged. "My youngest brother, Haking, sent me paintings and every time I talked to him he would ask, ‘Why were you in a car accident?' After I got out of the hospital I was watching football with him and he would point to every player and say ‘That's you! Right there!' My older brothers, Altonio and Jerome, made jokes and talked trash to me to make sure I stayed upbeat. They kept me motivated."
Irving started his rehabilitation even before he came back to school in August. "When I got home from the hospital, I immediately started working on my shoulder," he says. " I wasn't supposed to, but I had to do something. I couldn't just sit back and not try to get better. By the time I got back here to the Murphy Center, my shoulder had already healed.
"My leg rehab started when I got back here in August. When I first started, I wanted to be able to run on the ground and I wanted my first time running to be 100 percent. But it didn't happen like that. The first time I ran, it hurt and I had to stop early because of the pain. But I tried not to get discouraged."
As Irving recuperated physically, the pain from his injuries subsided. But the pain of watching his teammates struggle on the football field was almost as devastating. "It was hard enough not being able to play, but to see my teammates struggle was even tougher. I'm not sure how much I could have helped, but just knowing I should have been out there with those guys going through it with them was terrible."
Most folks that follow Wolfpack football would agree that Irving would have indeed made a big impact on the team's fortunes had he been able to play last season. In 2008, he was an honorable mention All-ACC performer but would have probably won higher honors had he not missed almost four complete games due to injuries. He led the team with four interceptions that season, a new record for an NC State linebacker.
"My lowest point was during the season, when my guys were losing and the vibe around the Murphy Center was so down," Irving continues. "I was over there every day for hours going through my rehab, but I didn't like the feeling that I wasn't a part of what was going on, good or bad."
Irving adds that watching from the sidelines made him appreciate the gift of being able to play football. "I realize that I can't live without it," he says. "I appreciate the game and the ability to play it more than ever. I love it. I love being out there and having to depend on 10 other guys for success and having 10 other guys depend on me. We all have to come together to be successful in order to win."
As his rehab progressed, Irving began coming out to practice more and more often, standing with the coaching staff and exhorting his teammates. The whole team seemed to take energy from the fact that he was back and obviously in good spirits. "I did that for me and for my guys," he says. "I wanted to be around the guys I would be playing with once I came back. I also wanted to learn more about other positions so I would know how to play around them. But I also wanted to give them my support, give them advice if I saw something, just be a part of what they were going through."
As spring practice draws near, Irving's leg is completely healed. "It's better than new because new bone has grown over the breaks." The pain from the lung and the shoulder are just distant memories. His body still bears a patchwork of scars from the accident, on his hands, his chest and his legs but he's gotten so accustomed to them that he's forgotten they're there. And he has no qualms or hesitancies about getting back on the field. "I know my doctors and trainers wouldn't put me out there unless I was ready, so I have no worries. And I think I will be a lot tougher than I was before. People have different thresholds of pain and after what I've been through, as long as I can still run and hit, a sore ankle or shoulder isn't going to stop me."
The emotional scars, however, are still raw. "That's been the hardest part of the process," Irving says. "Being able to process why this happened to me and what I can take from it and learn from it to prevent it from happening again. I've matured a lot in my decision-making, but that's an ongoing process – I've still got a long way to go. I have really examined the decisions I made off the field – how I approached my academic work, how I didn't take some things seriously – and I've tried to make more mature choices. I've also learned to appreciate things and not take them for granted."
Right now, Irving just has one thing in mind: the start of spring practice on March 9. "I'm ready to hit somebody," he says with a smile. "I can't put into words how it's going to feel the first time I can put on pads and tackle somebody. The first thing I hit? Well, I really feel sorry for it."
NOTE: This story is a release from NC State Athletics.