Broncos draft pick overcame horrific car crash

Nate Irving, a middle linebacker from North Carolina State who

was drafted by the Denver Broncos, can trace the exact date he

turned the corner in his football career and his life.

It was the night 22 months ago when he fell asleep at the wheel

and drove his SUV into a ditch and two trees, totaling his truck,

breaking his body and nearly losing his life.

”I felt like God had better plans for me than to sit in that

ditch and die,” said Irving, who sustained injuries that included

a collapsed lung and a compound fracture in his left leg and was

charged with careless and reckless driving after emerging from

surgery looking like a half-wrapped mummy.

Irving, who was selected in the third round to serve as Denver’s

defensive play-caller in coach John Fox’s 4-3 scheme, has a cross

and the date of the one-car accident tattooed on the inside of his

left forearm.

June 28, 2009.

”It’s not a reminder to me,” Irving said. ”It’s a day I will

never forget. It’s just part of my story. When someone asks what

it’s about then I can share what I went through and maybe they’re

going through something and realize that if I could make it through

that, then they can make it through whatever they’re going

through.”

Irving also keeps a photo of his crumpled Chevy Tahoe on his

cell phone and an image of his mangled body etched in his mind from

the time he first forced himself to look in the mirror at the

hospital.

”I had to, that was just something that my family wouldn’t let

me run from. They wouldn’t let me get depressed but they wouldn’t

let me hide from the truth, you know?” Irving said. ”I had to sit

down and talk with them about what I did and how those decisions

affected everybody. It was tough. I didn’t like it at all.”

He peered beyond the broken body staring back at him in the

reflection and saw much deeper, to a person he didn’t really like

anymore.

”It was nasty. Very immature. Selfish. Kind of complacent,”

Irving said. ”I’m happy that I’m not the same person that I was

before the accident.”

In a weird way, Irving insists he has no regrets over deciding

to get on Interstate 40 and drive back to North Carolina State from

his home in Wallace, N.C. at 3 a.m. He actually sees the auto

accident that also left him with a broken rib and a separated

shoulder as a blessing camouflaged in pain.

At first, he beat himself up over the near fatal mistake he

made, feeling he had let down his teammates and coaches by robbing

them of their top defender, his family – he’s the oldest of seven

children – and especially himself.

”It was an accident and I felt like my decision-making on my

part could have been way better,” he said. ”Instead of driving

back so late, I could have left earlier or I could have just stayed

the night and left in the morning instead of just going at 3

o’clock in the morning. I felt that was kind of selfish on my

part.”

Now, he traces his growth as both a person and a player to that

horrific night that nearly killed him and led to months of

painstaking rehab and self-reflection.

”I’m a lot more appreciative about everything on and off the

field,” Irving said. ”I try to work as hard as I can whether it

be in practice or off the field. It can be in the weight room, in

the film room.

”I just do everything 100 percent 100 mph.”

After the accident, he reflected on how his ego was careening

out of control, much like his truck was on that fateful night.

”It humbled me a great deal,” Irving said.

It changed him on the football field, too.

He sat out the entire 2009 season and was only able to stand on

his mended leg and patrol the sideline during the final two games.

Although he attended practices and helped the coaches, the year off

was a nightmare.

”It was terrible. My body and everything got to heal up,” he

said, ”but mentally it was probably the toughest thing I had to

deal with, about how I felt about the decision that I made, (how

it) was kind of selfish and affecting a lot of people around

me.”

Although the crash had robbed him of his speed, strength and

physical progress, Irving returned last season with a newfound

appreciation for life and football, and he found himself at a new

position, too.

The Wolfpack’s first-year linebackers coach, Jon Tenuta,

capitalized on Irving’s leadership traits and football instincts

and moved him from weakside linebacker to the middle, putting him

in charge of making all the defensive calls.

”Our new linebackers coach told me the way I go about teaching

the defenses he wanted the leader of the defense to be in the

middle,” Irving said. ”I don’t think it was to protect me or

anything because if you really look at it, the middle linebacker

takes on more than the outside linebackers, it’s a different angle

so there was no protection behind that.”

Irving embraced his role as the Wolfpack’s defensive play-caller

and playmaker, which ultimately made him more attractive to NFL

teams that would poke and prod him all spring.

”I controlled what the guys beside me did, what the guys in

front of me did and part of what the guys in back of me did. I made

the calls,” said Irving, who led the nation’s linebackers with 21

1/2 tackles for loss last year, an NCAA-record eight of which came

against Wake Forest.

”I just enjoyed taking on that role, being that guy on

defense,” said Irving, who was equally capable of making plays in

coverage and in opposing backfields, earning first-team All-ACC and

third-team AP All-America honors.

Now, the Broncos are asking a lot of him, too. They want him to

step in and start as a rookie.

”I think it’ll be a difficult task but it’s something I look

forward to because I don’t want to shy away from the opportunity to

be out there going against the best,” Irving said.

If you want to see a rookie who can’t wait for the NFL to get

its labor situation settled, look no further than Irving, who has a

perspective way beyond his 22 years, one born from the crash he

still can’t remember but which he’ll also never forget.

”I noticed that within a snap of a finger it can all be taken

away,” he said. ”And I want to go out and play every play as hard

as I can, every practice as hard as I can, be at every meeting and

do every workout. Just to be out there and take full advantage of

it and appreciate the game for what it’s really worth.”

Arnie Stapleton can be reached at

http://twitter.com/arniestapleton