Tuesdays with Michael

They were from different worlds, the math tutor and the student. All these years later, could a big star possibly count the ball they had among his cherished memories?

January 15, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

"Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back."

-- From "Tuesdays with Morrie," Mitch Albom's best-selling book about his weekly sessions with his college mentor.

In a swollen Nike shoe box, the hand-written note was still in mint condition. (Does pencil fade?) In 24 years, I had read the note four times. Last month, I took the shoe box down from my closet shelf because I felt like feeling nostalgic. Memories of old friends and dead relatives don't age well; occasionally I like to refresh my memories.

As a high school junior in 1976, I tutored a fourth-grader in math. This was some kind of fraud, since I barely passed fourth-grade math myself. My pack of friends then was obsessed with 1. girls and 2. sports, so I can't imagine what prompted me to spend an hour with a fourth-grader each week. Yet, each Tuesday, I spent my lunch hour at Mirror Lake Elementary, down the street from my high school in Plantation, Fla. There, I got to know a kid named Michael, who would later write me the note.

Each week when I showed up, Michael's two teachers would stop everything. Self-consciously, the 10-year-old boy would walk with me to the library so we could work with math flash cards. He was a happy, chatty kid, with chubby cheeks and a fat smile.

For Christmas, I bought him a football. When we should have been multiplying or dividing, we sometimes threw around the football -- one of those fat ones with wide white laces. I had Michael run pass routes in the parking lot and near the portable classroom buildings. Throwing the football around beat flash cards any day.

The school year ended, and I believed I had taught Michael nothing about math or football or life. I had simply shown up and had fun with him. At the end of the school year, Michael wrote me this:

"Dear Rob,

Thank you for coming to help me this year. Mrs. Rachman and Mrs. Weldon want to thank you too for helping with my work you help me a lot with my work Rob this year Rob you have help with a lot of my work so we thank you very much Rob and we wish you a nice summer vacation."

I had never thought twice about the note, until last month when I took a hard look at the signature:

"Love, Michael Irvin."

Michael Irvin? It couldn't be that Michael Irvin -- the greatest receiver in Dallas Cowboys history and one of the NFL's best ever?

If it's Michael, would he remember me? Does he remember the football I gave him? Could there be a book deal in this for me? Call it "Tuesdays with Michael" and Nick Nolte could play me in the made-for-TV movie. Denzel Washington could play Michael; Cameron Diaz could play Michael's fourth-grade teacher.

The questions goosed me -- nearly enough to come into work before the weekend was over. But I waited until Monday to scan the Cowboys' media guide. Irvin, it said, besides holding nearly every Cowboy receiving record, was raised in Fort Lauderdale. In 1976, black children from Fort Lauderdale were bused into the western suburb of Plantation, my hometown. It certainly was possible that Irvin, who is black, went to an elementary school in Plantation, which was white.

Next, with the difference in our school grades, he needed to be born in 1966. He was. I called Mirror Lake Elementary. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack, but he did attend school here," said assistant principal John Savage. "He was one of ours."

In fact, each year the school tells the kids about their famous alumnus. They have a lot of kids who are interested in football, Savage says, "so it's a thrill." But the school has stopped short of putting up any sort of Michael Irvin commemoration. Irvin has had some celebrated off-the-field problems with the law, so "there was debate whether a plaque would be appropriate or not," Savage says.

Still, my Michael Irvin was the Michael Irvin. The kid I'd tossed a football to had grown up to play alongside running back Emmitt Smith and quarterback Troy Aikman and lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships.

Why wouldn't he remember me?

Paging Michael Irvin

Your timing couldn't be worse, the public relations people at the Cowboys' compound in Irving, Texas, said when I called. Irvin hadn't played football since Oct. 10, after he slammed his head into the ground after his 750th career catch, which tied him for the ninth spot in league history.

Irvin had sustained temporary paralysis; tests later showed he has a genetic spinal condition called cervical stenosis -- narrowing of the spinal canal. He had started his 12th season by signing a six-year contract extension worth $22 million (you do the math). But now his season was over and, perhaps, his career.

"He's very hard to pin down," a club spokesman said. "He changes his phone number every week."

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