The scouting report gushed over his senior season at North Carolina State. “Absolutely loves football. Has a physical and violent playing style. Is a relentless pass rusher. If Nate Irving checks out medically, he should be a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft,” wrote the National Football Report.
Irving was indeed taken in the third round. He’s the Broncos projected starting middle linebacker this season. And he’s lucky to be alive.
June 28, 2009 is not only a date that’ll never be erased from his mind, but it’s been permanently tattooed under his left forearm.
It was a cool summer morning in North Carolina, with no hint of rain. Interstate 40 was open and dry for what was expected to be a routine 75-minute drive from his home in Wallace to the North Carolina State campus. Irving just wanted to beat rush hour, so he left at three o’clock in the morning and was feeling fine – or so he thought.
He drove alone without the company of his iPod, which ran out of power on the drive. So he rolled down the windows to keep the air circulating to keep him awake. He remembers passing an 18-wheeler, but that’s about it. His next memory is opening his eyes in an ambulance, telling the paramedics to call his father.
North Carolina Police told him he fell asleep at the wheel, crossed into on coming traffic, swerved back into his lane and lost complete control of his SUV. After just missing a guardrail that would have certainly saved his life, he drove completely off the road, flipped his car and smashed into a couple trees.
“When I woke up, I felt the neck brace on and I felt my legs messed up,” Irving recalls. “I asked the doctor if I would ever be able to play football again. Those were my first words. He told me not to worry about that. And from there, I thought that was a no; I just turned my head and started crying.”
Irving got lucky. He only suffered a separated left shoulder, a cracked rib, a punctured lung and a compound leg fracture.
“I know of two people who had an accident similar to mine. One was in the hospital at the same time and that person died. The other one had to get their leg amputated, just to be able to walk. I’m blessed.”
He started to walk within two days, drawing inspiration from his paralyzed grandfather, who found enough strength to take a few steps.
There was little doubt Irving would walk again. But his mind wandered, wondering if he would ever play on the football field again. His worst fears never came true.
He missed his entire junior season, but recovered quickly enough to play his senior season. And what a season it was. He put up big numbers, shot up the draft board and constantly reminded himself of the mistake that nearly cost him his life.
“I felt like I let myself down, my family down, my teammates and my coaches down because of my poor decision. That night, I could have died; it was selfish of me to do what I did. I was only thinking about myself, not thinking about how anybody in my family would feel having to bury me.”
Irving took the road less traveled to the NFL and his career is on a straightaway as far as the eye can see. The Broncos projected their 2011 third-round draft pick to be a starter and that’s what he is. The team released Joe Mays and decided not to bring back last year’s starter at middle linebacker, Keith Booking.
Irving still has competition from Stewart Bradley, who took first-team snaps Tuesday, but this is his job to lose. He’s expected to not only start in tomorrow’s preseason opener against San Francisco, but in the regular season opener against Baltimore, as well.
What an arduous journey this has been.
“I’m not even supposed to be here because of everything I’ve been through. I just want to take advantage of everything I’ve been given.”
Everything has been earned. Nothing has been given. And as he nearly found out, tomorrow isn’t a given, either.
Eric Goodman hosts Afternoon Drive with Mac and Goodman 3p-6p Monday through Friday on Mile High Sports Radio (AM 1510 | FM 93.7). You can also follow Eric Goodman on Twitter @ericgoodman
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