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Broncos LB Irving's life changed by horrific car crash

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Nate Irving, a middle linebacker from North Carolina State who was drafted by the Denver Broncos, can trace the exact date he turned the corner in his football career and his life.

It was the night 22 months ago when he fell asleep at the wheel and drove his SUV into a ditch and two trees, totaling his truck, breaking his body and nearly losing his life.

"I felt like God had better plans for me than to sit in that ditch and die," said Irving, who sustained injuries that included a collapsed lung and a compound fracture in his left leg and was charged with careless and reckless driving after emerging from surgery looking like a half-wrapped mummy.

Irving, who was selected in the third round to serve as Denver's defensive play-caller in coach John Fox's 4-3 scheme, has a cross and the date of the one-car accident tattooed on the inside of his left forearm.

June 28, 2009.

"It's not a reminder to me," Irving said. "It's a day I will never forget. It's just part of my story. When someone asks what it's about then I can share what I went through and maybe they're going through something and realize that if I could make it through that, then they can make it through whatever they're going through."

Irving also keeps a photo of his crumpled Chevy Tahoe on his cell phone and an image of his mangled body etched in his mind from the time he first forced himself to look in the mirror at the hospital.

"I had to, that was just something that my family wouldn't let me run from. They wouldn't let me get depressed but they wouldn't let me hide from the truth, you know?" Irving said. "I had to sit down and talk with them about what I did and how those decisions affected everybody. It was tough. I didn't like it at all."

He peered beyond the broken body staring back at him in the reflection and saw much deeper, to a person he didn't really like anymore.

"It was nasty. Very immature. Selfish. Kind of complacent," Irving said. "I'm happy that I'm not the same person that I was before the accident."

In a weird way, Irving insists he has no regrets over deciding to get on Interstate 40 and drive back to North Carolina State from his home in Wallace, N.C. at 3 a.m. He actually sees the auto accident that also left him with a broken rib and a separated shoulder as a blessing camouflaged in pain.

At first, he beat himself up over the near fatal mistake he made, feeling he had let down his teammates and coaches by robbing them of their top defender, his family -- he's the oldest of seven children -- and especially himself.

"It was an accident and I felt like my decision-making on my part could have been way better," he said. "Instead of driving back so late, I could have left earlier or I could have just stayed the night and left in the morning instead of just going at 3 o'clock in the morning. I felt that was kind of selfish on my part."

Now, he traces his growth as both a person and a player to that horrific night that nearly killed him and led to months of painstaking rehab and self-reflection.

"I'm a lot more appreciative about everything on and off the field," Irving said. "I try to work as hard as I can whether it be in practice or off the field. It can be in the weight room, in the film room.

"I just do everything 100 percent, 100 miles per hour."

After the accident, he reflected on how his ego was careening out of control, much like his truck was on that fateful night.

"It humbled me a great deal," Irving said.

It changed him on the football field, too.

He sat out the entire 2009 season and was only able to stand on his mended leg and patrol the sideline during the final two games. Although he attended practices and helped the coaches, the year off was a nightmare.

"It was terrible. My body and everything got to heal up," he said, "but mentally it was probably the toughest thing I had to deal with, about how I felt about the decision that I made, (how it) was kind of selfish and affecting a lot of people around me."

Although the crash had robbed him of his speed, strength and physical progress, Irving returned last season with a newfound appreciation for life and football, and he found himself at a new position, too.

The Wolfpack's first-year linebackers coach, Jon Tenuta, capitalized on Irving's leadership traits and football instincts and moved him from weakside linebacker to the middle, putting him in charge of making all the defensive calls.

"Our new linebackers coach told me the way I go about teaching the defenses he wanted the leader of the defense to be in the middle," Irving said. "I don't think it was to protect me or anything because if you really look at it, the middle linebacker takes on more than the outside linebackers, it's a different angle so there was no protection behind that."

Irving embraced his role as the Wolfpack's defensive play-caller and playmaker, which ultimately made him more attractive to NFL teams that would poke and prod him all spring.

"I controlled what the guys beside me did, what the guys in front of me did and part of what the guys in back of me did. I made the calls," said Irving, who led the nation's linebackers with 21.5 tackles for loss last year, an NCAA-record eight of which came against Wake Forest.

"I just enjoyed taking on that role, being that guy on defense," said Irving, who was equally capable of making plays in coverage and in opposing backfields, earning first-team All-ACC and third-team AP All-America honors.

Now, the Broncos are asking a lot of him, too. They want him to step in and start as a rookie.

"I think it'll be a difficult task but it's something I look forward to because I don't want to shy away from the opportunity to be out there going against the best," Irving said.

If you want to see a rookie who can't wait for the NFL to get its labor situation settled, look no further than Irving, who has a perspective way beyond his 22 years, one born from the crash he still can't remember but which he'll also never forget.

"I noticed that within a snap of a finger it can all be taken away," he said. "And I want to go out and play every play as hard as I can, every practice as hard as I can, be at every meeting and do every workout. Just to be out there and take full advantage of it and appreciate the game for what it's really worth."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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