Sept. 2, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Tim Irwin's view from the bench is a little different than most.
The former Tennessee and NFL offensive lineman now serves as Judge of the Juvenile Court of Knox County, overseeing a staff of 40-plus and seven other judges in his hometown of Knoxville. Irwin has been practicing law for 21 years, and December marks his six-year anniversary as a judge.
"We hear about 31,000 matters a year - everything from child support, to custody of unmarried parents, to delinquent matters, to termination of parental rights, right on down the gamut to the more serious truancy matters that could be committed by children," Irwin said. "A lot of what we hear also involves dependent and neglected children."
Irwin, 52, is being honored Saturday for the second time this year as part of his induction to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
Daughter in His Place
But Irwin won't be in attendance because of a previous commitment - his son, Conor, plays center for Duke and the Blue Devils host Richmond on Saturday night in Durham, N.C. Irwin's daughter, Dr. Mallory Irwin, is standing in for her father at Neyland Stadium.
"The state hall of fame was a great experience and, of course, getting recognized by UT is very important too," Irwin said. "I'm sorry I can't be there in person. But my commitment to my son for his last two years of college - that choice is pretty easy for me."
Irwin also had a choice to make coming out of UT. The aspiring law student just happened to play a pretty mean offensive tackle. He was All-SEC as a senior in 1980 and was drafted in the third round by the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.
"I was accepted to law school out of college and intended to go," he said. "And then I had a great opportunity come along with the Vikings."
Irwin played 13 seasons with Minnesota and split his final season in 1994 between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins.
Started 181 Consecutive
Once he established himself as the starter, Irwin was the model of consistency. He started 181 consecutive games for the Vikings, and then started six more with the Bucs in 1994. For his career, Irwin made 187 total starts on the offensive line in 201 appearances.
Yet during his NFL career, Irwin's interest in the law never wavered.
"After five years of pro ball, my test scores were starting to run out," he said. "So I decided to go ahead and start law school at a private university in Minnesota. I went there about half of my time and got my year-long stuff out of the way, and then transferred back to Tennessee and finished up."
Irwin found his legal knowledge especially helpful when he was named a Vikings representative to the NFL Players Association, a role that proved important during the labor disputes of the 1980s.
"I was on strike in 1982, but I was just a young player and really not in a leadership position," Irwin said. "In the second one (1987), I was in a leadership role with my team and with the union."
Experienced View of Lockout
Those experiences came to mind this summer during the recent NFL lockout.
"I'm very glad to see labor peace; I'm glad to see it's a long agreement," Irwin said. "I'm just glad both sides had the sense to realize they need to play the game. I'm glad both sides were able to put the money issues aside and go on with football.
"I don't think it needed to go as long as it did for an agreement to be reached. I think the same agreement could have been reached much earlier. I know I'm pro-player, but I really can't blame the players too much for this one. They weren't really asking for anything new; the owners were looking to pull back."
Irwin also appreciates that current players appear ready to help some of the aging former players going through rough times.
"I'm glad to see that with the agreement - at some point when they get it all figured out - they're going to take care of some of the veterans, some of the retirees who didn't play in such lucrative times," he said. "It's good to see some of the younger players stepping up and taking care of the guys who started the game and laid the foundation for the benefits being enjoyed today."
First-Half Cola Sales
Irwin got his first taste of the benefits of hard work inside the gates of Neyland Stadium - selling soft drinks as a high school student.
"I used to sell cokes there when I was in high school as one of the student-vendors who came in for each game," Irwin said. "I tried to make some money during the first half, but sometime during the third quarter I'd usually cash out and try to sit down and watch the rest of the game."
Irwin became a fixture on the field in the late 1970s under head coach Johnny Majors. The rebuilding years of 1977-80 were Majors' first four seasons back in Knoxville as head coach. And though the won-lost records were nothing to shout about, Tennessee and Irwin did play in the 1979 Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston.
In addition to Irwin's All-SEC selection in 1980, he twice was named to the SEC's Academic Honor Roll and was an Academic All-America choice his senior season. Those classroom efforts earned him an NCAA Post-Scholarship Award.
These days, Irwin keeps up with many of his old football teammates through a workout program called The 76 Club. Named in honor of former UT offensive lineman Harry Galbreath, who wore No. 76 during his playing days but died in July 2010 at age 45, the club meets for regular workouts inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.
"I see a good core of those guys three mornings a week," Irwin said. "There are a bunch of us who go in and participate. I really appreciate the university allowing us to do that. Maybe it will help us live longer; I hope it does."
Sees Bright Vols Future
Irwin's mornings in the football complex allow him to see today's players working out on a regular basis. And although he knows the process takes time, Irwin sees a bright future for the current crop of Vols.
"I hope everybody gets behind this team," he said. "They're still young, but I like the direction things are headed at UT with football right now. I think a lot of Coach Dooley; I think he's the right man for the job.
"I'm very excited to get the season started and I hope the fans come out and support the team like we've always done. I expect them to have a pretty good year. I'm pretty excited about this group of players and this group of coaches. I like both of our coordinators and I think things are looking up."
Saturday's pregame ceremonies honoring Irwin along with three other UT inductees to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame - Bill Battle, Jackie Walker and Elizabeth Henderson (tennis) - begin at 5:45 p.m.
It's yet another honor on Irwin's mantle - or in his case, bench - of respect and recognition.
"It just means you're getting old," he said, "but I'm very flattered."
Did You Know? Tim Irwin also is a member of the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame and National Boys and Girls Clubs Alumni Halls of Fame. He was a co-founder of the Catholic Youth Football League and has sponsored the Tim Irwin/Food City Bass Tournament since 1987. Proceeds from the tournament benefit the Boys and Girls Club of the Tennessee Valley, and have raised more than $700,000 since 1989.