RALEIGH, N.C. Nate Irving knew he was headed for trouble. Temptations in his hometown of Newark, N.J., surrounded him. Bad choices were a street corner or a phone call away.
So at the age of 13, he made a difficult phone call to his father, Jerome, who had been living away from the family for years, earning a living as a truck driver in Wallace, N.C.
“Dad,” he said, “can I come stay with you?”
Jerome Irving jumped at the opportunity to have his oldest son move in with him. The elder Irving had moved from urban New Jersey to rural North Carolina when he was a teenager, too, to get off the streets and stay out of trouble.
Leaving was hard. Nate Irving, the oldest of eight children, is the family’s self-appointed role model. He’s spent most of his athletic career away from the people he’s trying to inspire. Neither his mother, nor his siblings living in New Jersey have ever seen him play, other than on television.
That only makes him cherish his opportunities even more. He understands that his football talents are a gift that can be taken away quickly, by injury or, worse, poor decisions.
So, ever since he became a well-known football player, he’s had one goal: to keep his name off the scroll at the bottom of the screen on ESPN, so his family won’t have anything to be ashamed of.
“All my brothers and sisters look up to me,” Irving said. “I have to set a positive example and let them know that good things can happen if you work hard and dedicate yourself. If you want something, you have to go get it.
“Nobody is going to give you anything.”
But, Irving knows, someone can certainly take that opportunity away, especially if he gives them a reason to. That’s why he doesn’t want to falter or succumb to temptations.
“I feel that I have a God-given opportunity and I am blessed with a chance that many people don’t get,” Irving said. “To blow it away on something silly or something bad, I would disappoint myself, my family and my friends.”
Irving’s only disappointment this year has been his limited playing time because of an ankle injury he suffered against East Carolina. He missed most of the next four games, spending much of the time watching games from the third floor of the Murphy Center. Even at Duke, Irving played at a limited capacity.
But when he’s healthy, Irving has proved to be one of the ACC’s top hitters, something he showed to Wake Forest’s R.J. Pendergrass last Saturday when he met the running back three yards deep in the backfield on third down. The Deacons had just recovered a fumble at the Wolfpack’s 13-yard line and were ready to seize control of the game. But Irving’s tackle behind the line of scrimmage forced Wake to kick a field goal instead, to take a 17-14 lead.
“That play was just a monumental momentum changer,” Irving said. “After they had they had gotten the fumble, they got the momentum on their side. To hold them to a field goal gave it back to us.”
The Wolfpack offense responded by marching down the field and regaining the lead, on quarterback Russell Wilson’s 8-yard pass to tight end Anthony Hill. It turned out to be the game-winning play in State’s 21-17 victory.
Irving goes into every game looking to make a big hit like that early, to make any ball carrier have second thoughts throughout the game.
“A big hit registers with them,” Irving said. “When you hit someone hard the first time, they are going to think I better brace myself’ or they are going to be kind of wary of you. They won’t be running as much down hill on you.”
Irving does all of his talking with his pads. He tries not to spout off to his opponents. He rarely even gets fired up with his teammates, unless he feels like its absolutely necessary or he needs to add some levity to a tense situation.
That, too, registers.
“Nate is just motivation for us,” said sophomore defensive end Markus Kuhn. “Just having him out there with us you don’t always have to say anything out there. If you watch him playing and making plays, it just motivates you to step your own game up and play on his level.”
But it wasn’t always like that. When second-year football coach Tom O’Brien first saw Irving in spring practice last year, he looked lost. Sure, he was an all-star prospect from Rose Hill High School who came in with good credentials. He just wasn’t a football player yet.
“He wasn’t ready to play,” O’Brien said. “He is a guy who has worked hard. I still don’t know what Nate is [capable of]. He has only started 10 games for us. He has a lot of good football left ahead of him. There is a lot more he can learn to be a good football player.
“He wasn’t dissimilar to a lot of guys last year who were lost. But as time went on, Nate is a smart kid and a quick learner. He figured it out.”
The change is apparent to his teammates, and his performance on the field speaks for itself.
“I saw it in the preseason, how much he has grown from last year to this year,” senior tailback Andre Brown said. “His football IQ is way higher. You can get the sense of how good a linebacker he is going to be. You can see how much of an impact he has on our defense when he is in and when he is not in.”
Heading into Saturday’s game against the Tar Heels, Irving continues to keep his emotions in balance. He knows about half the players on UNC’s roster, but he has not texted or called anyone all week to ramp up the rhetoric.
“The worst thing you can do is be ready to play a Saturday game on Wednesday,” Irving said. “I avoid all of that other stuff so I will be ready to play on Saturday.”
As for his health, Irving says he’s approaching 100 percent.
“The ankle is pretty good,” he said. “I am feeling blessed right now.”
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.