NC State's top playmaker returns with perspective

There are still markings on the trees adjacent to Interstate 40 in Johnston County, where NC State linebacker Nate Irving crashed his Chevy Tahoe while driving home at 4:40 a.m. on June 28.

The visual reminders -- the trees, the mile marker defensive coordinator Mike Archer recognizes every time he drives by, and photographs of the totaled car -- are far more detailed than Irving’s memory of the one-car accident that ended his 2009 season before it started.

Irving, who fell asleep at the wheel, can remember passing an 18-wheel truck, and then nothing else until the light in the hall of the emergency room.

“Where am I at?” he said he remembered thinking. “After I found out, I was real scared. I had a neck brace on and tubes in me. … I was fortunate enough to come out alive.”

And now he’s fortunate enough to have been given a second chance to play football.

After months of painstaking rehab to repair the open fibia and tibia fractures in his left leg, the punctured lung, the broken rib and the separated AC joint in his left shoulder, NC State’s best player has returned to the field in full capacity. As Irving eases his way back into the game this spring, he does so with a newfound perspective and maturity that can only benefit him and the players around him. The Wolfpack not only need him to be the playmaker he was in 2008, when he led the team with four interceptions, they need him to be a leader to a defense that struggled mightily without him last year.

“That’s something I embrace,” Irving said. “Last year we missed a little bit of that. This year I think I can provide that.”

Archer has already witnessed it.

“Just from an emotional standpoint and a psychological standpoint, I see a difference around our team,” Archer said. “Just seeing him around the players, to see his eyes light up, and he’s got his weight back up, he’s around the players knowing he’s going to be a participant now, as opposed to last fall, he was rehabbing, he was in the training room, but he wasn’t the same Nate. It was the Nate Irving who was injured. Now it’s the Nate Irving who has to become a leader and a guy who our young players look up to.”

Irving’s three-day stay in the hospital and inability to contribute on the field last year helped change his priorities. Because of the severity of his injuries, Irving wasn’t even allowed on the sideline for the majority of the season. He was extremely limited in what he could do in the trainer’s room until about November, and lost 20 pounds during that stretch. He couldn’t even walk on his leg. It wasn’t until the final two road games of the season that coach Tom O’Brien welcomed Irving back to the sideline.

Still, Irving said he has no regrets about his decision to drive home in the wee hours of the morning.

“It made me realize I had to improve my decision-making,” he said. “I don’t regret it. As funny as it may sound, I don’t regret going through the process because I think this process has helped me grow mentally. It’s helped me grow a lot. If not for that whole process I don’t want to think where I’d be at because my decision-making was, I thought, very immature.”

The expectations for Irving this spring are tempered, but come fall, NC State will need him in top shape. NC State and Maryland tied for the worst scoring defense in the conference last year, allowing 31.2 points per game. Irving finished the 2008 season tied for third on the team with 84 tackles despite missing a third of the season with an injury. His four interceptions were the highest total ever by a Wolfpack linebacker. This year, he’ll be under the direction of first-year linebackers coach Jon Tenuta, and is working out at both middle and weakside linebacker this spring.

“In the times that I’ve talked to him, I’ve just said, ‘I just want you to be Nate,’” Archer said. “I want you to be the Nate Irving that I saw in 2008, the Nate Irving that Jon Tenuta sees when he watches film. I just want you to be that guy. If you’re not quite ready physically to be that guy in the spring, so be it. Get the rust off, get your legs under you and most important is by the time we play in September you’re as close to being the old Nate.’ Now, will he be? I don’t know. That’s a good question. He had a serious leg injury. Even if he’s not the old Nate, if he’s close, he’s still going to be awfully good.”

Irving said he isn’t sure how quickly he’ll be able to get back to his old form.

“I’ve lost some of my strength, and maybe some speed and quickness,” Irving said, “but I don’t think I’ve lost anything I can’t gain back.”

Instead, he’s added perspective.