By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Hall of fame wide receiver Michael Irvin sent Browns players off on their four-day, bye-week break with a motivational speech that inspired them and prompted self-reflection.
Irvin spoke to the Browns for about one hour, 20 minutes Wednesday morning before their final practice of the week, delivering messages about commitment and accountability being necessities for champions and the importance of avoiding trouble off the field. His goal was to give the players something to ponder this weekend with most of them leaving town to take a breather before returning to work Monday.
“Everything that comes out of his mouth, you have to respect it and listen to it, not only the young guys but the older guys,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “Everybody knows what it is to be in this league, and just to hear how passionate he is about it, it really makes you look yourself in the mirror and be like, ‘Is this that important to me like it is to him?’ ”
Irvin won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s and one national championship with the University of Miami during the 1987 season, so he knows a contender when he sees one. Irvin believes the Browns (4-5) can evolve into champions if they’re willing to make the sacrifices.
“I see the young talent on this team, and it harkens me back to our early days in Dallas where you could see it,” Irvin said. “You started to feel like, ‘Hey, man, we got a chance of doing something, man.’
“So the physical talent, we know it's there. The thing that's going to separate the good from the great and the others from the champions, is if you have the ability to make a commitment one man to the other, ‘Each and every time I step on this field, I will get my job done.’”
Through its player-engagement program, the NFL sends a former player to address each team. Browns coach Rob Chudzinski chose Irvin, an NFL Network analyst and his former college teammate at Miami. Irvin was originally scheduled to speak for 45 minutes, but he went more than a half-hour longer. Chudzinski pushed the start of practice back to accommodate the legend know as the “Playmaker.”
Although Irvin established himself as one of the greatest receivers of all time, his life away from the gridiron hasn’t always been so smooth. He dealt with drug addiction and arrests as a player and after his retirement in 2000.
Irvin, 47, has advised Browns wide receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little since they entered the NFL in 2012 and 2011, respectively. Both of them have encountered their fair share of off-field issues during their young careers.
“I stay in contact with those guys, Greg Little and Josh Gordon and all of these guys, making sure that I try to guide them and lead them,” Irvin said. “I tell them about bad decisions I made and how to make sure you don’t make those bad decisions. … Don’t allow somebody to give you something in 15 minutes that’ll cost you 15 years.
“We have to make sure that we’re not making better decisions for ourselves, [but] that we’re making better decisions for our future and all of our kids. We talk about those things. That gives me peace to the bad decisions that I’ve made, and I can at least talk to people and make sure they don’t make them.”
The NFL suspended Gordon the first two games this season for violating its substance-abuse policy. His understanding is that one more violation will result in him being banished from the league for at least a year. The Browns hope it doesn’t come to that because Gordon is their most dangerous offensive weapon.
“Phenomenal, phenomenal talent, and I’ve talked with Josh quite a few times about what’s ahead for him and the possibilities and all the things that he can do,” Irvin said. “He can be considered one of the best in this league if he’s willing to make that kind of commitment. I talked to the guys, all of the guys, about spending their resource not towards their history, but towards their destiny.”
Gordon said he looks up to Irvin and can relate to him because “our backgrounds are the same.” Irvin emphasized the importance of teammates being able to rely on each other to do the right thing for the greater good.
“He was making a point about guys being accountable for each other,” Gordon said. “It's the only way you're really going to have the tools you need to build a championship team and a championship organization.
“He talked about leaving your mark in the city on the team, how you want to be remembered, about your legacy and creating your own destiny in this league. Not so many people get this opportunity, and guys really took that to heart.”
Irvin’s visit with the Browns was a reunion of sorts. He’s not only a former teammate of Chudzinski, but he also played with defensive coordinator Ray Horton with the Cowboys and adviser Russell Maryland with Miami and the Cowboys. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner held the same role with the Cowboys during three of Irvin’s seasons, and he believes Irvin is an ideal speaker.
“He’s got a great story to tell,” Turner said. “Anyone who knows his background knows it hasn’t all been smooth, and there’s been great moments and obviously three Super Bowls and some unbelievable plays, unbelievable seasons. But he had rough spots along the way. I think a guy who’s been through it, they relate to a little bit better than maybe someone else.”
Irvin told the Browns they’ll be legends if they turn the franchise around.
“I know what football means in Dallas. That’s what football means in Cleveland,” Irvin said. “These people here love football. If you give them a championship, oh, my God, I said, ‘You'll change your life's path and the life path of your kids,’ because they'll be remembered. They'll be talking, ‘Boy, your dad brought a championship, we love you son.’ They'll love everybody that comes out of your loins, because your dad brought a championship to Cleveland. That's just how great the game is, and especially, the fans here in Cleveland? Oh, my God, it will be something.”
Little believes Irvin’s vision of the Browns is genuine.
“It means a lot coming from a guy like Mike because he is not going to shoot you any [crap],” Little said. “He is a straight shooter. You can see in his eyes that he really means what he is saying.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.