Photo courtesy of NC State athletics
During his time in Raleigh, linebacker Nate Irving was a fan favorite. A 3-year contributor for NC State, Irving finished his career with more than 200 tackles, 40 for loss, nine sacks and four interceptions.
During his final season with the Wolfpack in 2010, Irving was named an All-American by Sports Illustrated and Scout. Irving was not only outstanding on the field, but overcame obstacles off of it. The standout linebacker missed all of 2009 after being involved in a horrific car accident.
Irving returned as a senior and set the ACC on fire. In 2010, Irving recorded 21.5 tackles for loss, including an FBS single-game record eight in a win over Wake Forest. He added seven sacks en route to earning the Brian Piccolo Award, which annually goes to the most courageous player in the ACC.
Irving would spend five years in the NFL with the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts. He was inducted as an ACC Football Legend in 2019.
In a 4-part series, we caught up with Irving to discuss him time in Raleigh among other things. In the final part of our series, we talk about his transition to the NFL.
Preparing for the Next Level
After a stellar senior season where Irving helped the Wolfpack finish ranked for the first time in eight years, his sights were set on continuing his playing career at the highest level. That dream would come true. Irving would go on to be selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos with the No. 67 overall pick.
“So training for the draft, flying out to meet with different teams was just an amazing experience,” he said. “But the actual night that I was drafted, I was in a hotel with my family. We were sitting there watching and I didn’t want to watch it. Just looking up to see all the names get called and wondering when you’d get called, it just drives you crazy. So I fell asleep in the hotel room. The Broncos were calling my phone, but they couldn’t get in touch with me because I was asleep. So they called my dad’s phone and he gave me the phone to talk to them.
“And I didn’t know what was going on,” Irving continued. “They told me they drafted me. I was excited, but I was asleep, so I was just asking myself if I was dreaming. And then I shared the moment with my family and I called my family back in (New) Jersey.”
As most are aware, the changes from college football to the NFL are significant. One of the changes that Irving was unprepared for was the weather.
“I remember the first time I came out (to Denver), it was April. I left the East Coast with shorts on and I’m getting off the plane in Denver and snow’s coming down. I’m just like ‘what the hell is this? It’s April’. But the experience was great. Training camp was an eye-opener. You think you’re ready to play football coming in from college to the pros. There was a lot of learning that I had to do.”
Irving’s stay in Denver would last four years. After playing 46 of a possible 48 games his first three seasons, Irving played in just eight in 2014. All eight of those, however, were starts. It would be his best statistical season as Irving finished with 46 tackles, six for loss and one sack.
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“For me, you know, everybody’s gonna be the biggest or the fastest at their position,” Irving said of the transition. “So, I wasn’t taken aback by that. For me, (the biggest difference) was how much of a business it was. Like, this is an actual job. This is how people feed their families. And it’s not just me. At NC State, I’m on scholarship and if I mess up, boom, I’m done. I can force myself out. But here, I had other guys around me depending on me to do my job at an elite level to feed their families. And if I don’t do that, I can get everybody fired.
“So those guys here are all grown men with children, with a wife, with real-life problems that have to depend on me to do my job,” he continued. “And with that was a lot of pressure and it’s so crazy how much of a business it is. College football is fun, but NFL football is work. This is really work; it’s nothing to bat your eye at. This is serious now — dead serious.”
After four years in Denver, Irving spent his final season in 2015 with the Indianapolis Colts. Irving played eight games that season. Overall, Irving noted that the NFL experience was vastly different. That included camaraderie as a team.
“In college it was more close-knit,” Irving said. “You can get that in the NFL, but in college, you’re rooming with this guy, you’re eating with this guy, practice, lifting weights and you become buddies; you hang out so much that you can’t help but become buddies. But in the NFL, everyone has their own life. Some days, I wouldn’t even see some teammates all day. They have their personal life. But when you come in this building, you better be about perfection, being elite. You better be about football and getting it done. You better come out here and do what you need to do, so we can do what we all need to do and get where we need to get. There’s still some cool relationships, but it’s a business.”
Despite being an unheralded recruit from a small high school and never dreaming of playing professional football, Irving had the fortune to spend five seasons in the NFL. In his four season with the Broncos, Denver made the playoffs each year. Irving even had the opportunity to play in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Although the Broncos were blow out by the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8, Irving finished with four tackles on football’s grandest stage. Irving concluded his interview with advice for youngsters with high football aspirations.
“Don’t take it for granted,” he advised. “Don’t leave plays out there or leave any stone unturned. It can all change just like that. It can all be taken away and you’ll never be able to play again. Don’t let it be where you were so close or there was something you should’ve done. Just do it. Don’t wish, don’t should’ve, just do it like you can’t after that. And don’t cheat yourself, because you’re gonna appreciate it in the long run. And that’s on and off the field. Don’t cheat yourself.”