The early afternoon sun finally pierced through the fading gray skies of Hilmer Lodge field. Far across the campus of Mt. San Antonio College on the grassy gridiron stood a partially-torn tent with a small bench sitting beneath it.
Bruce “BJ” Pernell Irvin Jr., 21, sat sinking his head forward, with his heavy, black dreadlocked hair dangling over his eyes as he skimmed through his cell phone. Irvin was looking for video footage of himself on the Internet.
A rare grin appeared from the six-foot-four-inch, 235-pound Atlanta native after finding his latest video shown on a football web site. Instantly, Irvin called up his mother, Bessie and gave her the good news of his recent exploits on the field.
Bessie, while always happy to hear good news about her son, calls to check up on Irvin.
“I talk to her at least three times a day,” Irvin said. “She always tells me she loves me … she’s proud of me and is just real happy.”
However, life in Atlanta was not so happy for Irvin during his early childhood.When Irvin was 3, his mother and father, Bruce Sr., got divorced.
With older brother Chad Allen, 26, and younger brother Brandon, 19, Bessie had to work long hours to help support the family.
As a child, Irvin would come home seeing his mother in tears.
“I would often come home seeing mom with puffy eyes and I could tell that she was crying,” he said. “She was hardly at home working two jobs to support us so my older brother would always look out for us.”
Bessie spent most of her time working at an office job during the day and a cashier at a grocery store in the nights.
While living in a two-bedroom apartment, family life was difficult for the fatherless sons. After seeing his mother work long hours at work, Irvin wanted to do something to show his appreciation for Bessie.
“I always buy something for my mom on mother’s day and father’s day,” he said. “She was always playing both the mother and father to us.”
When Irvin was 6, Bessie remarried and is now wife to former Florida State offensive tackle Rufus Lee.
But life was not a happy ending after Lee joined the family. Irvin grew more apart from everyone and was involved with trouble in the streets.
“He [Rufus] wasn’t my biological dad and most kids don’t really listen to their stepdads,” Irvin said. “I was trying to live my own life growing up too fast and the streets almost got me—the money, the girls, everything.”
Irvin attended Stevenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga. He played football during his freshman year but only played three games during his sophomore year when he found himself in trouble with the law.
Irvin was out of football and out of high school never having graduated. After doing time in jail, Irvin spent the next couple of years on the streets never to finish high school.
Irvin needed his GED to resume his education and move on to college. On Dec. 3, 2007 Irvin signed up to take a GED test and successfully passed the five-part test.
But on Jan. 20 the following year, Irvin was back playing football again and went on attending Butler Community College in Kansas, trying out for the team as a walk-on.
During the tryouts, the college only allowed 12 out-of-state players to be on the team. Irvin was not chosen from the 12 and was asked to sit out a year as a red-shirt. Irvin did not want to be a red-shirt during his community college years but decided to migrate west to Walnut where a friend referred him to play for Mt. SAC.
“My friend Julio Sanchez told the Mt. SAC coaches about me and got me to meet with them,” Irvin said.
Mounties head coach Robert Jastrab and assistant coach Iona Uiagaleilei took Irvin in and were surprised at his speed and his tall frame.Uiagaleilei said he was not knowledgeable of what Irvin’s skills were coming to Mt. SAC so he wanted to find out what he had to work with.
“I wanted to see what he could do, just to see what he’s capable of doing by himself,” Uiagaleilei said. “He just went out there, faked outside, clubbed back inside and I asked him, ‘How did you do that,’ and he said, ‘I watch football coach.’”
The coaches immediately put Irvin to work developing his skills and getting him up to speed with the rest of his teammates. Irvin was assigned to play in special teams as well as safety last season.
The turning point of Irvin’s junior college football career came this past spring when he went to the So-Cal combine workouts in Costa Mesa and gave an impressive performance, most notably running 4.36 seconds in a 40-yard dash.
News of Irvin’s performance was so widespread around the nation that USC football head coach Pete Carroll took notice as well as other major universities like LSU and Tennessee. Currently, Irvin is verbally committed to play for Tennessee and may be headed that way after his season at Mt. SAC ends.
Shane Poulter, academic counselor for student-athletes, met with Irvin on many occasions about his schooling and said Irvin was slipping in his grades when he first came to the college. Today, Irvin has only 12 units remaining this fall and will be moving on to his four-year school to continue his education and football career.
“He’s really turned things around,” Poulter said. “He talked with me about the struggles in his past and it’s incredible to see him make a turnaround in his life.”
Jastrab was choked up as he spoke highly of Irvin and also took notice of his academic progress as well as his work ethic.
“I love to watch him play, he makes things happen,” Jastrab said. “He practices hard and plays hard but he’s making that same effort in the classroom and it’ll all pay off for him … I’m ready to tear up because I’m just real proud of him,” he said.
Irvin said that he has a few goals that he’s looking to achieve in the future.
“My first goal is to win every game and go win the state championship,” he said. “My second goal is to get 30 sacks this year.”
His long term goal is to play for the NFL and to be the best at his job.
“I go in the game with a mindstate saying, ‘I’m the best on the field and there’s no one better than me,’ my brother taught me to think like that,” Irvin said.
With his older brother and mother as his role models, Irvin has focused on being a model student-athlete himself ‘taking care of business on and off the field,’ Jastrab said.
“Academically, I’m most proud of him,” Poulter said. “I say to these guys, ‘there’s 360,000 collegiate players that make up the NCAA—less than 1 percent will ever go on to play a professional sport. It’s likely that Bruce might or might not make it to the NFL but one thing I can assure him is that his degree is going to last him for the rest of his life, and his education—no one will take that away from him. Once he has it, he has it—and that’s the biggest gift that you can give somebody at Mt. SAC—is his education.”
Irvin said his time at Mt. SAC was more like a family experience with the people around him.
“They have the best facilities, the best coaches … it feels like family over here man,” he said. “This isn’t about Coach Jastrab wanting to win to secure his job—they took me under their wing and made me feel at home … I will always remember Mt. SAC, if God blesses me to go to the pros, I will give back to Mt. SAC.”
NOTES: Since the beginning of the fall 2009 season, Irvin has continued to play exceptionally. His first game against Pasadena, Irvin led the team with 8 tackles and 4 sacks. While Irvin only came with 2 tackles and a sack against Golden West the following week, he came away with 2 tackles and 2 sacks against Victor Valley this past weekend.
Currently, USC, LSU, and now Miami are taking interest in Irvin but he remains committed to Tennessee.