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Former HS dropout now excelling at WVU

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va.

Bruce Irvin once didn't care about school.

In high school, he didn't do his class assignments or study for tests. Instead, he was focused on making money in the streets and hanging out with friends.

By his sophomore year at Stockbridge (Ga.) High School, his disregard for education had tackled the then-promising wide receiver. Because of poor grades, Irvin's season ended after three games.

Bruce Irvin

West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin recorded 14 sacks and 22 tackles last season.

Stew Milne

Following that school year, Irvin transferred, but what he didn't know then was that he would never play a down of high school football again. After arriving at his new high school in 2004, he started skipping classes and running the streets in the Atlanta area.

By the middle of his junior year, Irvin had quit school altogether.

He was a dropout at the age of 18.

For the next two years, Irvin was lost in a world of drug dealing and robbery. During that time, he was arrested for robbery and spent 2 1/2 weeks in a county jail.

But even that didn't slow down Irvin. It wasn't until one of his closest friends, whom Irvin declines to identify, was arrested for cocaine trafficking that Irvin decided to change his life.

The day after the arrest, November 14, 2007, a date Irvin has never forgotten, his friend called and pleaded with him to make the most of his raw athletic ability.

"You're blessed with something that a lot of dudes don't have," Irvin recalls his friend telling him. "Man, go to school and whatever you do, don't look back."

Ever since that conversation, Irvin never has during an improbable, nomadic journey that's transformed him from a troubled teen into an undersized star defensive end for West Virginia and major college football's top returning pass rusher entering the season

Last season, he finished second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 14 sacks, despite not starting and primarily playing on third downs — about eight to 10 snaps per game.

This season, first-year West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is hopeful the 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior can be more of an every-down player for his team, which is favored to win the Big East and is a long-shot pick by some to claim the national championship.

West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel envisions Irvin playing 30 to 35 snaps a game this year.

"Just think," Casteel says of Irvin, "he's still learning how to play the game."

Yet, Irvin is already a folk hero in this rowdy college town, where Mountaineers fans chant "Bruuuccceee!" after his sacks. One Internet message board already has more than 1,380 messages dedicated to the lead-up to his first sack this season.

Among their claims are that sharks have one week a year named after Irvin, Bigfoot reported a sighting of him and that during the last presidential election, President Obama voted for him.

"He's definitely a force," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano says of Irvin, who had two sacks against the Scarlet Knights last season.

And while Irvin decided to turn around his life in November 2007, saying it was simple, actually doing it would be difficult.

STARTING A NEW LIFE

Washington Redskins linebacker Perry Riley has known Irvin since fourth grade and considers him his best friend. He transferred with Irvin after their sophomore year from Stockbridge High School to Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., which at the time already had three future NFL players.

"He's always been the greatest athlete I've ever seen or known personally," Riley says of Irvin.

Riley says he has constantly told Irvin he was a better athlete than himself, but Irvin never expressed interest in his potential while in high school.

"He was just doing his own thing," says Riley, a fourth-round pick by the Redskins in 2010. "You couldn't really tell him nothing at the time."

But drugs and violence spoke to Irvin, who declined to provide specifics about his past.

"I'm not really sure how it pulled him in or what made him go down that route," Riley says. "He definitely started going down that route."

While in high school, and later at Louisiana State, Riley says he constantly worried Irvin would be shot or end up dead. He says he became even more concerned when Irvin once called and told him he had been arrested for robbery.

"Jail isn't the place for me," Riley recalls Irvin telling him.

But it still took the telephone call from his friend who had been arrested for cocaine trafficking for Irvin to take his first significant step on his path to redemption. Just over a month later, he received his GED on December 21, 2007, a date he recites as if it were his birthday.

A month later, Irvin headed to Butler Community College, a junior college in El Dorado, Kan., where he tried to walk on to the football team. Unhappy with the opportunities walk-ons at Butler received, he opted not participate in football, but stayed at the college and took classes the spring semester of 2008.

Butler coach Troy Morrell, who has coached at the college for 15 years, says he doesn't remember Irvin. He also didn't know he currently plays at West Virginia.

"I'll check him out," Morrell says.

While at Butler, Irvin became friends with a player named Julio Sanchez, who decided to leave for Mt. San Antonio College, a junior college in Walnut, Calif., for the 2008 season. Sanchez recommended Irvin to the Mt. San Antonio coaches, and Irvin sent them video of himself working out.

It showed Irvin running ladder drills and bleacher steps, but Mt. San Antonio defensive coordinator Iona Uiagalelei only saw the part in which the then 6-foot-3, 225-pound Irvin showed off his massive wingspan.

"This guy's a beast," Uiagalelei recalls saying.

WHATEVER IT TAKES

Like other junior colleges in California, Mt. San Antonio does not award athletic scholarships, which meant Irvin not only had to pay for school, but at an out-of-state tuition rate of $3,500 per semester.

Irvin didn't have the money, but with him committed to changing his life, his family took a leap of faith. It pooled its money and started making payments for his tuition.

His stepfather, Rufus Lee, saved money from his job as a truck driver, and his mother, Bessie Lee, did the same while working for the IRS. His uncle, Roderick Irvin, also chipped in from his job as a barber along with his Aunt Pat and numerous other family members.

"That's what family's for," Irvin says. "I'm grateful."

The money Irvin's family raised also had to pay for Irvin's living expenses. To keep his costs as low as possible, Irvin moved into a two-bedroom apartment with eight other teammates.

That meant Irvin often slept on the floor of the apartment's living room and slapped away large cockroaches that prowled at night. Money was so scarce that his only meal some days was Ramen noodles and barbecue potato chips.

"I was hungry," Irvin says. "But I did the best I could do."

Irvin's situation and his family's sacrifice gave him plenty of motivation in the classroom and on the football field, but Irvin wasn't an immediate star at Mt. San Antonio.

He arrived just a week before the team's first game of the 2008 season and told coaches he was a free safety. He struggled to pick up the pass coverage schemes, but his long-striding speed was undeniable.

Instead of playing in the secondary, he played special teams and became the team's best gunner. Uiagalelei just had to figure out a way for Irvin to play regular snaps on defense.

HE'S A NATURAL

Finally, two days before Mt. San Antonio's fifth game of the season, Uiagalelei decided to try Irvin at defensive end, a position where Uiagalelei had been concerned by a lack of speed. Irvin didn't like the idea initially before agreeing to give it a try.

"Coach, I'll do whatever I've got to do if I can get on the field," Uiagalelei recalls Irvin telling him.

For the first time in his life, Irvin lined up and stuck his hand on the ground as a defensive end. Across from him in the one-on-one drill was mammoth 6-foot-5, 300-pound starting left tackle Manase Foketi, who now anchors Kansas State's offensive line.

Before Foketi could even start to get in position to pass block, Irvin raced past him untouched and was two yards upfield.

"What the?" Uiagalelei recalls saying. "Do that again."

So, Irvin and Foketi lined up again. Because Irvin had never been coached to play defensive end, Uiagalelei wanted to see his raw athleticism again.

By then, Foketi knew Irvin was a speed rusher. The second time they faced each other, Irvin again attacked Foketi with a speed rush to the outside before turning inside and racing past him.

"Oh (expletive)," Uiagalelei recalls saying. "This kid is special. It's a natural for him."

From then on, Irvin played defensive end and began to learn the position. He also started to open up about his past to Uiagalelei, who considers Irvin an adopted son.


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Uiagalelei said Irvin talked to him about drugs and robbery.

"Coach, I can't go back home," Uiagalelei recalls Irvin telling him. "I did some things in my past that has some people looking for me."

Uiagalelei encouraged Irvin to stay in California and not return home for his own safety. He only recalls Irvin going back home once while at Mt. San Antonio.

"He comes from a rough, rough background," Uiagalelei says. "He's overcome a lot."

FINDING A NEW HOME

Following his first season at Mt. San Antonio, Irvin showed off his speed at a junior college combine by running the 40-yard dash in a stunning 4.37 seconds. Afterward, scholarship offers began to pour in and Irvin initially committed to Tennessee in May 2009.

Five months later, he changed his commitment to Arizona State in the middle of a season in which he racked up 16 sacks and 72 tackles at defensive end for Mt. San Antonio.

But throughout the process, Irvin kept thinking about then-West Virginia wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway, who he had met while working out at an Atlanta-area high school just before leaving for Mt. San Antonio.

"Keep an eye on me," Irvin recalls telling Galloway, now Wake Forest's wide receivers coach.

Galloway told Irvin he would and stayed in contact with him. That fulfilled promise meant plenty to Irvin and ultimately led to him signing with West Virginia.

"I met him way before anybody else knew about me," Irvin says of Galloway.

Once at West Virginia, Irvin admittedly had his struggles adjusting to major college football. Last season, he wasn't prepared for the speed and strength of opposing blockers, watching video in preparation for games, or playing in front of large crowds.

Irvin had so much to learn that West Virginia abandoned thoughts of him playing linebacker and primarily used him on third down to rush the quarterback. Even then, he struggled initially and failed to record his first sack until he had three against Maryland in the Mountaineers' third game of the season.

By the end of the year, Irvin's 14 sacks were second in the FBS behind only Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, who had 16 and was a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April's NFL draft.

"I rocked off," Irvin says.

Yet, Irvin is low key off the field. Older than most college students at age 23, he doesn't go out socially.

Instead, Irvin works to shed his label of being undersized. The sociology major with a 2.8 grade-point average is also focused on getting his degree, which he is on pace to receive in December.

"It's all really hard to believe," Irvin says. "I'm just thankful."

Irvin's college experience has given him a different perspective on education. No longer the high school dropout who hustled to make money in the streets, he wants to help those who don't care just like he once did.

"It sounds strange," Irvin says. "I know."

But Irvin is serious. So much so that he's thinking of cutting his dreadlocks that stretch to the middle of his back.

He wants to improve his image, that way, someday, he can become a teacher.

Tagged: Virginia, West Virginia, Kansas State, Bruce Irvin, Manase Foketi

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