LOS ANGELES -- Suddenly, Michael Irvin came out of his slouch and sat up ramrod straight. An important bulb had lighted in his head.
"Hey," he asked, "can we get this deal out in the open once and for all?"
"I don't talk to anyone on the field," Irvin said to a collection of reporters, "unless I get talked to first."
The revelation was met with a stunned silence. "Really," Irvin said.
C'mon, Mike. Talk straight, Money.
"No, I mean it," he said. "I'm quiet now."
This amounted to a major scoop amid the inanity that is Super Bowl week. Irvin, the Cowboys' big-play receiver, is regarded as one of the eminent loud-mouths of his generation. He recently boasted that he invented trash-talking as a collegian at Miami. He couldn't possibly have evolved into a Garbo in cleats. Or could he?
"Let me put it to you this way," said Cowboys safety James Washington, who covers Irvin every day in practice. "Mike's reputation as a talker is way overrated. He doesn't say much."
Can't be. No way. John Madden is always talking about Irvin's mouth. Madden couldn't be wrong. Or could he?
"It's true," said Cowboys receivers coach Hubbard Alexander, who also coached Irvin at Miami. "Michael had a reputation coming out of Miami. It wasn't undeserved. But he was just a kid. He's grown up now, got a family. He's still an emotional player, but he doesn't direct it at other people."
Said Irvin: "How could I still be like that? I've got a wife and a little daughter. I've got a TV show. I represent Kroger supermarkets, Mitsubishi, JC Penney. I didn't have anyone depending on me at Miami, and I was younger, and yeah, I was a wild man. But now I have a lot of people depending on me."
Does he ever. Irvin is one of 17 children (nine boys, eight girls) raised "as poor as it gets" in Fort Lauderdale. His father, a minister, died when Irvin was in high school. His mother somehow supported the family on a domestic's salary until Michael, the second-youngest son, signed his contract. Now he runs the show.
"My wife says we'll never be filthy rich because we have to take care of too many people," he said. "But the day before my dad died, he called me into his room and said it was up to me now. And it's the greatest feeling to be able to take care of my mother, who worked so hard for all of us."
Why did the elder Irvin single out one of his youngest sons? Probably because Michael always seemed destined to have big shoulders. He has a gregarious personality that stands out like neon in the button-down NFL, and an instinctive gift for football that has enabled him to succeed at a speed position even though he lacks speed.
At Miami he made All-America teams, graduated early with a degree in business management and gained a cult reputation among reporters as an interview not to be missed. That part hasn't changed. ("Can I name all my brothers and sisters? Are you kidding? No way.")
"People say, 'You aren't shy about saying anything; where'd you get that personality?' " he said yesterday. "But having 16 brothers and sisters, I've been dealing with different kinds of people and personalities all my life. There's no chance to be shy."
Of course, it would mean little if he weren't among the game's best receivers, particularly at tense moments. Alvin Harper, the Cowboys' other starting receiver, made the headline plays in the NFC title game, but Irvin kept making tough little third-down catches that kept alive the second-half drives that won the game.
"Michael is like Larry Bird in that he wants to take that last shot," Alexander said. "He wants the spotlight, and there's nothing wrong with it."
In other words, he talks the talk, but also walks the walk.
Oh, but wait. He said he doesn't talk anymore.
"Only when someone [on the other team] says something first and gets his blood boiling," Alexander said. "Then he might say something back. He's never at a loss for words. But mostly, that stuff is just leftover hype."
Irvin was in the middle of another polemic yesterday when a reporter piped up that Alexander had just supported his claim of silence.
"See?" Irvin said. "I told you. I'm a quiet man now. A subtle man. Just chillin'."
He smiled. A thousand-kilowatt job.
"Can't you tell?"