Updated Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 12:39 AM
RENTON — Bruce Irvin hasn't played a football game in the state where he grew up for a while.
Almost a decade in fact. He has been homeless since then, spent three weeks in jail and for a few months back in 2008 he was one of 12 players living in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment when he began attending a California junior college.
On Sunday, Irvin will be one of Seattle's important players on the field at the Georgia Dome, starting the first game of his NFL career at defensive end.
"The stage is set, pretty much," Irvin said.
It's quite a story. One that goes back all the way to Irvin's freshman year of high school, when he played exactly three games for Stockbridge, all of them at receiver. It was the only time he was academically eligible, later dropping out of high school and getting kicked out of the house by his mother.
And now Irvin, 25, is the oldest rookie on one of the league's youngest teams. He's being asked to replace defensive end Chris Clemons, who only led the team in sacks three successive seasons before suffering a season-ending knee injury at Washington last Sunday.
"This is Bruce's opportunity," coach Pete Carroll said. "That's what we drafted him to play, and we'll see how he does."
And for Chad Allen — a mentor whose help proved so pivotal to Irvin — Sunday's game gives him the most concrete example for anyone who asks what he's gotten out of helping Irvin.
"This is it," Allen said. "To see him be able to live out his dream. He had that dream in his head, and he just needed to know how to get it."
The lost years
Irvin wasn't in school by the time he bottomed out as a teenager.
He stopped going to class his junior year at Stephenson High School, and in May 2007 — at the age of 19 — he was arrested on suspicion of burglary and for carrying a concealed weapon.
He was not in a gang, Irvin said, but he was living a life on the streets. He carried a gun. There were times, he told ESPN, that he sold drugs.
But when those charges were eventually dropped, it opened the door for a turnaround that was aided by Allen, who had worked with other young men — some of them athletes — to get turned around.
"I was homeless, pretty much," Irvin said. "And he took me under his wing and let me live with him and train with him."
Irvin earned his GED on his first crack at the test, headed to a community college in Kansas in January 2008 without realizing the football team was allowed only a limited number of out-of-state players. He stayed for a semester, and the next fall arrived in California at a junior college that became his launching pad.
Fast first step
Irvin began his college-football career as a defensive back, one of nine guys sleeping on the floor in an apartment that had two bedrooms and a dozen occupants.
"I was looking to find any way to get out of my situation in Atlanta," he said. "If that was me having to play kickoff team for 13 games during college, so be it. It was a way out of the 'hood and the environment I was in."
Irvin had previously headed to a community college in Kansas for a semester, but was unable to play, then headed to California where he enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College without the coaches ever having seen him play.
"All I saw was a profile," said Iona Uiagalelei, Mt. SAC's defensive coordinator and associate head coach. "A profile of his picture, standing with his arm stretched out, that wingspan."
Taylor Mays. That's who Uiagalelei thought of — USC's big thumper of a safety from O'Dea High School in Seattle. Irvin was athletic enough to be a special-teams standout right away, but he was a little raw in the secondary.
"The nuance and technique you need as a defensive back, he didn't quite have it," Uiagalelei said. "But the kid was a hard worker, a tenacious athlete."
That prompted Uiagalelei to suggest an idea that would prove as pivotal to his playing career as that jail stint was for his personal life. He suggested Irvin line up at defensive end, matching him against the team's best offensive tackle, Manase Foketi, who later played at Kansas State.
First snap, Irvin showed his speed outside, rushing around Foketi before there was much of a chance to backpedal.
"Everyone just kind of stood there in awe," Uiagalelei said. "Did we just see this?"
They needed to see it again. So Irvin lined up Foketi, and this time feinted like he was going outside, setting Foketi up for an inside cut.
And just like that, a pass rusher was born, a 6-foot-3 end who filled out to 248 pounds. After two college seasons he had as many as two dozen colleges offer him scholarships before choosing West Virginia.
"He's a hunter," Uiagalelei said. "He'll track his prey down, focus, and he's going to get him no matter what."
What a rush
Seattle's first-round selection in last April's draft surprised everyone, including Bruce Irvin.
Wait. That's not quite right. It was surprising especially to Irvin, who thought he'd be chosen late in the first round, maybe even the second.
But when Seattle chose him No. 15 overall, making him the first defensive end selected, it left some critics scratching their heads, and one coach licking his chops.
"This is the fastest guy that you could hope to get to play this position," Carroll said the night Seattle chose Irvin out of West Virginia.
Irvin didn't start this season, but was more than a backup. He was a situational pass-rusher on the field for about half of Seattle's defensive snaps. He had eight sacks this season, more than any other rookie in the NFL. Sunday in Washington, after Clemons was injured, Irvin had a sack of quarterback Robert Griffin III that demonstrated just how fast Irvin is.
"It's his great asset," Carroll said.
That quickness has carried him all the way to the NFL. And now, 10 years after he was headed toward a dead end in Georgia, Irvin is returning to the town where he grew up — for the first starting assignment in a career that is just beginning.
"He can be a double-digit sack guy for a long time once he gets going," Carroll said.
It only makes sense. After all, Irvin has come too far to stop now.
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @dannyoneil
JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Rookie Bruce Irvin has a big role to fill — that of Chris Clemons — at defensive end in Sunday's playoff game.