When we left LeRoy Irvin last November, he was cleaning out his locker at Rams Park, waiting to hear where he'd be shipped next. He'd gone from cornerback, first-rate, to trade bait. It was a done deal. Irvin, following in the gloomy shadow of Eric Dickerson, had leapfrogged over lines of contract diplomacy and seemingly played his last game as a Los Angeles Ram.
Coach John Robinson suspended Irvin Nov. 4 for "conduct detrimental to the team." He told players at a team meeting that week that Irvin would never play for him again. Robinson had watched all summer as Irvin, unhappy with his contract renegotiation, nursed a bruised ego and a sore hamstring. Robinson watched as Minnesota receiver Hassan Jones ran by Irvin to catch a game-winning pass in Week 2. Robinson listened when Irvin called in sick with the flu just days after Dickerson was traded.
Surprisingly, Irvin returned after his suspension and the trading deadline passed and he played out the season. Then he said goodby again after the most lopsided loss in team history--a 48-0 beating by the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.
Irvin had seemingly burned every Ram bridge, crossed every coach, perturbed every player. Irvin even fired his agent, Ernie Wright.
Yet here he is in 1988, still a Ram, starting his ninth season. Irvin, who will turn 31 this month, shocked many in July when he signed a three-year, $1.65 million contract extension through 1990. Do you believe in miracles?
Now, Irvin is trying to forget his lost season and recapture the form that led him to back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances in 1985 and '86. During a recent break in training camp, Irvin sat down and discussed his strange 1987 season, his face-to-face encounters with Ram Vice President John Shaw and his future as--can you believe it?--a Ram.
Question: I think everyone is surprised, shocked perhaps, that you're with the Rams this year. How surprised are you?
Answer: I'm really surprised I'm here, because last year when the season was over I just knew for some reason I was going to be in a different uniform this year. I didn't think I was going to be able to play for the Rams anymore after last year. John Shaw told me he wasn't going to trade me, but I didn't know what to believe. Deep down, I wanted to be here, I spent a lot of time here. I made a lot of friends in Orange County. I didn't want to be traded, but I had a gut feeling that I had played my last game in a Ram uniform.
Q: Why were you able to work something out?
A: My agent, Charles Chin, told me, "Look, you're underpaid, but you're not that underpaid. The Rams are not going to trade you. You have two choices, you can sit out and lose all the money and slip into oblivion, or work out something that for both sides is a win-win situation."
Q: Are you finally happy?
A: I'm happy in the sense that I don't want to go through another year like last year. I lost a lot of respect. Monetarily, I might have gained, but the way people around the league, coaches, fans, looked at LeRoy Irvin, I lost. It took me eight years to build the reputation of being the kind of guy I was, and it took me just one year to drop out of sight. I lost so much last year. I don't want to go through another year like that."
Q: How close were you to permanently alienating your coaches and teammates?
A: I didn't know who was on my side, if John Shaw liked me or if John Robinson liked me or the players liked me. One thing I did know was that (defensive coordinator) Fritz Shurmur liked me. In the end, Fritz was one of the big reasons why I wanted to come back and play. Fritz brought me up through my career, I respect him a lot, and the things he said to me were genuine. That's when I said I wanted to play for the Rams, let's work out something in the off-season. Then when he changed the defense, I was really excited about that. It lets me come back here and take back what I lost.
Q: Will you look back in 10 years and regret the problems you caused in 1987?
A: It doesn't have to be 10 years from now, I'm sick at myself for what I did last year. I had a chance to go three times straight to the Pro Bowl. Now, it's like pre-1985, when I had to battle just to be considered one of the top guys again. I lost far more than I ever could gain. I had to do what I had to do. But I look back on it as being a mistake, a mistake in strategy.
Q: John Shaw is often portrayed as a villain, a bottom-line negotiator with little compassion. Yet, you've always said how much you liked Shaw as a person. How can this be?
A: I think it's like a game and he's a receiver, but he's also a friend of mine. When the bell sounds, we have to go at each other--that's business. I try to get as much as I can. His job is to keep me for as low as he can. I think when the game's over, I can go shake John's hand. To me, he's a nice guy, he's never done anything wrong to me and he's always respected my ability. I was always able to call him and talk to him. He always calls me back when I call.