Bruce Irvin pays close attention to his team’s offseason moves. Raiders fans know that. That’s why they call the explosive edge-rusher “Baby Reggie (McKenzie)” for trying to fit top free agents in silver and black. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes, other money talks.
Irvin follows personnel decisions and what they mean, regardless. Always has. That was certainly true in his second NFL season, when the Seattle Seahawks signed defensive lineman Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency.
The previous year’s first-round pick spent his athletic life on the defensive line. He had eight sacks as a rookie in 2012, but knew Bennett and Avril meant fewer opportunities to impact the quarterback.
“Those guys played my position,” Irvin said. “When they got there, I knew they were coming to play. That put me on a backburner.”
Irvin wasn’t happy about it. Not mad necessarily, just depressed.
That didn’t change when Ken Norton Jr. offered a lifeline. The respected Seahawks linebackers coach asked Irvin to join his position group. Norton saw athleticism, savvy and passion in this lump of clay, something he could mold and then refine into a top-flight player.
Irvin wasn’t so sure.
“My exact words were, ‘I ain’t smart enough,’” Irvin said. “’There’s too much thinking. I’m not smart enough to do that.’”
Norton was shocked by that response.
“What’d you say?” Norton said, per Irvin’s recollection. “Don’t ever let anyone else in the building here you say that. You can do anything, and I’m going to hold your hand every step of the way, until you get the hang of it.”
Norton stuck with Irvin through good times and bad, and there was plenty of both. Norton never gave up on a once-troubled youth who has turned his life around and devotes significant time, effort and funds toward charity work. Norton didn’t turn his back after Irvin was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. And, over time, he turned Irvin into a quality NFL linebacker.
That’s why Irvin jumped at the opportunity to honor Norton as part of this year’s Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, an annual event where top Bay Area athletes recognize coaches important to their lives on and off the field. Irvin presented Norton at a Friday night gala in San Francisco, an event to be televised Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.
Irvin followed Norton from Seattle to Oakland in the 2016 offseason – ‘I heard in his voice he needed me down here’ – and again thrived under Norton’s leadership.
That won’t continue in a professional capacity.
The Seattle linebackers coach turned Raiders defensive coordinator isn’t around anymore. He got fired late last season, a few weeks before Jack Del Rio’s entire staff got let go. Norton was ever-so-briefly a 49ers assistant, before returning to Seattle as Pete Carroll’s defensive coordinator.
Norton’s new career path hasn’t changed Irvin’s affection, respect or appreciation for someone he considers a mentor, a coach, a father and an uncle.
“Ken Norton is all that in one with me,” Irvin said. “I love him and his family…Him not being around here (in Oakland) anymore doesn’t change a thing.”
The bond is strong thanks to Norton’s unwavering support of a unique personality.
“He’s a bully and a best friend. He’s intimidating and really nice,” Norton said. “He’s every extreme. People are supposed to be one or the other, but Bruce is all of that. On top of all that, he’s probably the best athlete and friend you’ll ever have. It was easy early on, and then it became a solid relationship.”
Irvin and Norton first met at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. Norton and Carroll were part of a contingent recruiting Irvin to USC. He went to West Virginia instead, but those coaches eventually landed their guy at No. 15 overall in the 2012 draft.
Seattle gave him No. 51, a number Norton wore during an illustrious 13-year career that included three Super Bowl championships. The bond hadn’t formed yet, but the link was there.
It was forged during Irvin’s position switch.
“When I first got in his room, I had no clue,” Irvin said. “I didn’t know how to get in a stance. He was basically teaching a newborn baby how to walk.
“It started off bad, and that was also the year I got suspended four games. That set me back even farther. When I got back, he never judged me. He just put me back in the rotation.”
The suspension created some tension, frustration, and some pushback. Irvin knew he’d miss the first four games of 2013, but was allowed to participate in offseason and preseason activities. Norton prepared then reserve Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith – he spent two seasons in Oakland – to start. Irvin was talking trash to Smith in a preseason meeting, saying Smith’s starting job would only last as long as Irvin’s suspension.
Norton didn’t tolerate that.
“Man, Norton got on me so bad,” Irvin said. “I can’t use the words he said, but the message was, ‘Don’t act like you’re too good. You can always be replaced.’ We got into it then, but that might’ve been the last, or only argument we got into.”
Boundaries were established, as a real respect was forged. Norton kept Irvin on a proper path after returning from suspension by letting him in. Norton created an open-door policy at home, allowing Irvin to join his family for holidays. He counseled him on a decision to get married. He brought Irvin to Oakland and a great situation working opposite Khalil Mack.
Irvin understands that, and is forever grateful.
“All this football stuff could end tomorrow,” Irvin said. “The relationship I have with Norton, that’s forever, man. The guy has molded me into a great man, a great father and a great pro. Any chance I get to talk about him or help him out, I’ll do it. He’s one of the reasons why I’m here.”