We’ll get it out of the way before diving into anything else because, quite frankly, when you’re David Irving it kind of comes with the territory.
After the defensive reserve just finished a half-season stint with the Las Vegas Raiders, following his reinstatement by the NFL this past October, this question is, rightfully or ridiculously, the most important one he’ll answer over a couple of interviews.
The question is not: Why did you walk away from the NFL? Nor is it: Do you regret that infamous Instagram Live episode? Nor is it: Why did you return from an indefinite suspension?
The question everyone will want to know about the guy who gave up a year-plus of prime playing time and earning potential because of principle is this: Are you still using cannabis?
“I will never talk about that, to be honest,” says Irving.
Which is fine, because the 27-year-old gentle giant, who flashes an easy smile over Zoom and owns a voice so soothing on the phone he could read bedtime stories for a living, has a lot of other things to talk about. But let the record show he’s not dodging the question.
If you don’t remember Irving from his time wreaking havoc with the Cowboys as a pass rusher from 2015-18 when he had 12 sacks in his first 25 games and forced three turnovers in a showdown with Green Bay in 2016, chances are you probably remember how he told the world on March 7, 2019, he was done playing professional football. Roughly a week after the NFL handed him an indefinite suspension for repeatedly violating its substance abuse policy, Irving fired up IG Live, lit a joint, lamented why league policy stipulated pain-numbing pills with serious side effects were cool, but using a controversial plant for medicinal purposes was forbidden. And to top it all off, he said he was never going to play in the NFL until the league changed its stance on marijuana.
That was 19 months ago and after a long road to mental and emotional enlightenment following a tumultuous time in Dallas, Irving quietly made his return to the league when he played 22 snaps during a Week 10 Raiders win over the Broncos this past November. Why he returned to the NFL, which at one point made him hate the game he loved, is layered.
“Seriously, when I say no regrets, no regrets. Everything happens for a reason. I’ve been alright. I’ve made it work.”
One of the reasons was to scratch a competitive itch that had been missing from his life. Another was to forge a better future for his young daughter. But the most important reason why Irving played this past fall for the first time in almost two years was that the NFL got with the times.
“The honest truth is I said when I quit I would come back when they changed the cannabis rules,” says Irving. “The league and the union have made significant progress with the players, cannabis use, and mental health, and that’s why I decided to come back.”
Last offseason, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that rather notably reduced the testing window and abolished suspensions for players who test positive for THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, below an elevated level. It was a significant policy change for a league that historically played it conservative on the issue of marijuana even as opinions and laws regarding the substance have rapidly changed.
But nothing’s been the same for Irving, one of the most vocal proponents of cannabis the NFL has seen while still in the prime of his playing career, since he first ran afoul of the league. And nothing probably will be going forward. A repeat offender of the league’s substance abuse policy, there will likely always be a stigma attached to Irving and his return from a 2019 negotiated indefinite suspension—he was never banished from the NFL—was predictably filled with stipulations.
“Here’s the thing, if you look at the new CBA or whatever—the rules for the NFL—I had to be clean for 60 days to get back into the NFL,” Irving told Complex Sports last month. “And if I get one slip up, it’s all over the internet, it’s common knowledge. If anyone has any comments, questions, or concerns, they can see that I’m still active, I’m still doing my thing, I have no trouble, I have not failed anything. I’ll stay compliant to the NFL policy.”
Cool? Cool. Since he was incredibly outspoken during his days away from football about the pros of cannabis and CBD compared to the kinds of prescription drugs that are rampant in NFL locker rooms, he’s never going to get the benefit of the doubt. From the league, from fans that still view marijuana with disdain, and teams that could be in the market for his services. The 6’7”, 290-pound pass rusher is just glad he got the opportunity to resurrect his career after it looked like he sunk a potentially lucrative one sacking quarterbacks in the name of cannabis.
“Seriously, when I say no regrets, no regrets,” says Irving. “Everything happens for a reason. I’ve been alright. I’ve made it work.”
The promise Irving showed in Dallas once led him to believe he could be a $100 million player, but off-the-field drama and his method of coping with his personal issues and injuries would soon derail those dreams. Undrafted out of Iowa State, Irving blossomed into a steal with the Cowboys who signed him off Kansas City’s practice squad in 2015. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for that performance against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in 2016 and played 37 games for the Cowboys over four seasons. But as his profile rose, so did his problems as a professional. Irving says family members he once trusted began betraying him, and the custody battle for his now 8-year-old daughter was so mentally and emotionally taxing he couldn’t chill out after games or practices.
“Of course everyone wants you to separate it and leave it at the door,” says Irving. “It doesn’t quite go at the door. It kind of gets all mixed together. It just caused me to be in a deep depression. Things were pretty bad for me.”
He turned to weed/marijuana/cannabis, whatever you want to call it—Irving prefers cannabis. It’s a substance he’ll tell you he was familiar with way before his Dallas days. He used it to help him sleep and relax instead of taking pills prescribed for anxiety and pain management. Positive drug tests soon followed and once he registered on the NFL’s substance abuse radar, it snowballed from there.
“He had a lot of stressors, he had various legal entanglements—whether it was the custody case or league investigations,” says Daniel Moskowitz, Irving’s attorney who has represented him for five years. “Every few weeks it was something new.”
So Irving kept smoking, strictly for medical purposes, he says. He racked up a four-game suspension to start the 2017 and 2018 seasons, drawing the ire of the rabid, and largely conservative, Cowboys fan base after he signed a $2.9 million contract in the 2018 offseason and injuries/suspension limited him to two games. During the 2018 season, he reportedly missed multiple drug tests after he suffered what the Cowboys listed as an ankle injury in practice Nov. 1 and was rarely seen around the practice facility. Following a third violation, an indefinite suspension was announced March 1, 2019, and just about everyone who had been there for his rise dropped off when times turned tough.
One of the lowest points came during Irving’s stint in a drug rehabilitation program—he prefers to call it recovery. No phone, no visitors, and none of his beloved video games were allowed. But there, Irving says, he was able to focus on his mental health for the first time and address his real issues—not his use of cannabis. Growing up in Compton, California, Irving says his upbringing wasn’t the best. He doesn’t go into details, but he started playing football at age 7 not because he wanted to, but because his mom said it was either that or the Marines if he wanted to get out of the impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood. His stint in recovery encouraged him to confront his issues and reveal his true self—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Turns out it wasn’t that ugly,” says Irving. “I felt more comfortable with myself.”
Initially, he didn’t want to go. He even dropped out a few times. But once he stuck with it, and got rid of the mental and emotional clutter, recovery was the best thing for him. He credits therapist Dr. Angela Aiello for his evolution. It might sound corny, but the biggest lesson Irving says he learned was to be honest with himself and about his circumstances. “Since I’ve been doing that, everything’s been working out for me,” he says. Eventually, he decided it was time to give the NFL another shot and he turned to his lawyer to help make it happen.
“We worked closely with the NFL to find a mutual path forward for David to resume his NFL career,” says Moskowitz, declining to discuss specifics citing confidentiality.
“Daniel really put this whole thing together. I have been through like, five agents, and it’s tough to find any person who really is ride or die or you can trust in this business, but Moskowitz really is that guy,” says Irving. “He doesn’t run when the shit hits the fan. With me, well, there have been some of those moments and some hella downs, but Moskowitz was there for them all, defending my ass even when everyone seemed to drop me in 2018.”
The Raiders made a lot of sense as a landing spot for Irving’s return. Steve Weinberg, his current agent, helped steer him toward the free-spirited city of Las Vegas that’s now home to the franchise with an outlaw reputation. Plus, Rod Marinelli, who started the season as the Raiders’ defensive line coach before being promoted after Week 14 to defensive coordinator, was a big fan of Irving.
During his days in Dallas with Marinelli, who was unavailable for comment, Irving showed the kind of skills and production in spurts that could’ve netted him a contract worth tens of millions of dollars. That money is gone, and since he hasn’t recorded a sack in two years, he’s on a budget these days. But Irving’s not sweating it and he swears he has no regrets over how he handled himself in Dallas.
“I do not regret it,” says Irving. “It led to a policy change that I was fighting for that everyone thought was so far-fetched and just the worst decision that I ever made. Then the NFL turned around not even 12 months later and said, 'You know what David Irving, you’re exactly right.'”
Does he deserve full or partial credit for the change to the CBA? It’s a debate for another day, but Irving certainly stirred things up on that Instagram Live video and in interviews with various media outlets after he quit the NFL. These days, Irving will tell you he’s entering his physical prime, and the way he looks at it, all the time he missed means he’s younger in football years than his actual age. Irving laughs when he’s asked how good he can still be. “I don’t have a ceiling,” he says. He’s thankful the Raiders gave him another chance to prove he could still play.
“We’re just excited to have an opportunity to help him rejuvenate his career,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said after Irving was signed to the practice squad Oct. 21. “We’re going to help dust him off, and we’re going to see where he is. I don’t make any predictions. He’s not been in football for some time. I’m looking forward to putting him in silver and black and seeing what happens. He has a resume, but nothing recent.”
Irving jockeyed between the practice squad and active roster with the Raiders, appearing in two games, playing 40 snaps, and recording 4 combined tackles. He’ll get to work out in NFL facilities during the offseason and will surely earn an invite to camp with some team next summer. He’s not too worried about where, but a return to Vegas would be welcomed. These days, his biggest motivation is his daughter. If he meets even a part of the promise he previously showed on the football field, Irving could command a contract that would allow her to pursue her future passions. With the new chance he’s been given, he admits his plans for the future aren’t concrete. Once upon a time, he thought he would play football, retire, and then just figure it out.
Now? He’s going to give the NFL all he’s got. He’s a gamer and that could be an easy avenue to explore after football. He says acting could be an option since he minored in performing arts. He makes music, he considers himself, along with his daughter, an artist. And, of course, there could be speaking opportunities about the benefits of cannabis down the line.
Even though he has to live by a different standard these days, Irving knows the majority of players around the league are with him when it comes to cannabis. He says he’s received tons of messages in support of his plants over pills stance. For now, he’ll holster the pontificating for obvious reasons. Irving doesn’t anticipate any current player taking up the cause while in uniform—plenty of retired players have invested in cannabis or CBD companies—even if he believes the majority of NFL players, coaches, and staff are cannabis users.
What about one day helping the NFL further refine its substance abuse policy, following the lead of other major sports leagues? Starting with the 2020 season, MLB removed cannabis from its list of banned substances and the NBA declined to test players for marijuana during the 2020-21 regular-season just as it did in the Orlando bubble.
“Right now I’m focused on football and we have an offseason, and there’s a time and place for everything and I would love to be the bridge for cannabis and the NFL,” says Irving. “I know what I’m doing and I know what I think. I know what my daughter thinks and what my coaches think.”
That’s it with the questions. David Irving’s answered enough of them.