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The Backstage Story Of Trenton Irwin's Rise With Bengals

Trent Irwin (left) and Joe Burrow exult in Pittsburgh.
Trent Irwin (left) and Joe Burrow exult in Pittsburgh.

Craig Irwin, who played a detective for six months in "The Young and the Restless," a bar patron in one of the last scenes of "Mad Men," the Burly Guy Juror in "The Mentalist," and made so many commercials he has to look up some to remember which ones, has always known his lines as the dad of Bengals wide receiver Trenton Irwin.

It's been quite a while since Trent Irwin got benched for shooting that Microsoft commercial. It was about his 15th ad, the one where he told Craig that the acting career that began when he got the job his dad didn't was now deader than silent pictures.

Freshman year at Hart High School on the outskirts of Tinseltown, to be exact.

"He was the first freshman to play at Hart and when he was booked by Microsoft the day before the game, he was late to practice and the coach benched him for the first quarter," Craig Irwin says.  "He looked at me and said, 'Dad, I'm not acting anymore. I'm a football player.' I was thinking, 'You made good money in that commercial,' but football is where he wanted to go and that was the way to go."

One of the places it went was Pittsburgh, where last week Irwin scored his first NFL touchdown after 20 different transactions since the Dolphins signed him out of Stanford following the 2019 draft. So fittingly it was off another off-script scramble with quarterback Joe Burrow on a play that elicited a feel-good, good guy-finally-wins warmth that cornerback Mike Hilton summed up while mic'd up.

"I'm happy for my dawg T.I," Hilton said on the sideline. "He deserves it. He deserves it. If anybody deserves it, he deserves it."

Hilton was ad-libbing. But Trent and Craig have been on script since they can remember. Craig is the acting version of Trent. Not a big star, but valuable, accomplished and reliable. They talk every day. And once a week Trent sends Craig the game plan and he reads it him over the cell phone. Every play. Every word of the endless calls.

"It takes about an hour-and-a-half," Craig Irwin says. "He just likes to hear somebody else say it. He takes great pride in knowing all three positions. He wants to understand what's going on."

The other days of the week they have plenty to talk about. Like books such as "Relentless," "Outliers," and "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," by Carol Dweck.

"We'll talk about mindsets, books, communications," says Trent Irwin, who majored in science, technology and society at Stanford. "I'm a big reader. Some self-help. Different perspectives. Autobiographies. A self-help book, in my opinion, is a demonstration of someone's mental space at that moment, so they're just able to put on paper where their thoughts are at. If those thoughts help, you can take them with you or leave them there."

But the touchdown? A one-yarder in the back of the end zone as Burrow sprinted out to the right, saw his options swallowed and waited for Irwin to break free? Two weeks before Irwin thought he had that first touchdown at the end of another Burrow red-zone scramble that was wiped out by the idiosyncrasies of replay.

"No, I don't think that one was in the game plan," Craig says. "A lot of times when he scrambles, it seems like a lot of times Trenton ends up with the ball. So now when I see Joe scramble, I'm thinking, 'Here we go.' But all he wants is for the team to win. That's all he cares about."

It looks like Sunday in Tennessee (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) could be another off-script day. Their best runner, Joe Mixon, is out with a concussion. Their best wide receiver, Ja'Marr Chase, is questionable with that hip injury and could miss a fourth straight game. So it could be like the second half in Pittsburgh last week. The one that Burrow says reflects the steel-belted culture of a deep roster that picks up everybody and anybody.

"I knew exactly what I was going to get from a guy like Trenton Irwin," Burrow said this week. "I know he knows what he's supposed to do, runs the route exactly the way you expect it. He's right where he's supposed to be at the time he's supposed to be there. That's what you need out of guy like that. He's going to play hard and he's going to catch balls when his opportunity comes."

Irwin had another big play later against the Steelers, the longest of his career on his ninth NFL catch in the game's winning drive, a juke on cornerback Levi Wallace that turned into a 32-yard-catch-and-run. It's not like he just wandered out here. He came out of Hart and went to Stanford with state of California career records of 285 catches for 5,268 yards.

"I've done it before," Irwin said of a simple out on the right sideline that he turned into so much more. "You don't do something like that on the field without ever doing it. It's a feel thing."

After the game, there was the 21st transaction putting him back on the practice squad. Then came the 22nd and signing him to the active roster. It got him thinking back to the last day of the preseason, when there didn't look to be any more room in Cincinnati on the roster or practice squad.

Until half-an-hour later when the Jaguars plucked rookie wide receiver Kendric Pryor and he was back where he'd been much of the previous three seasons. On the Bengals practice squad.

Being a wide receiver on a team that not only has the best three in the league in Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but key special teams guys in Trent Taylor and Stanley Morgan, Jr., well … Like acting, it's a tough way to make a living.

"I'm a receiver. I'm a true receiver. My thing is getting open one-on-one and making plays there. A lot of times you need special teams guys and we've got three dudes that can really do their jobs on an incredible level," Trent Irwin says. "We were starting to question if this is the right place to be because of those people and I love those people. That's part of the decision you have to make. I'm happy to have the opportunity to help the team here because these are my people."

The Joe Burrows and Zac Taylors rave about his work ethic. All the stuff with the tennis balls and stretching in the stadium at all hours. But Craig talks about his ethics. When he visited Trenton during training camp, he found himself bumping into security guards and service folks who would find out who he was while he waited on his son and they would say, 'Your Trent Irwin's dad? What a nice kid. You stay right here.'"

"He's always been such a good boy," Craig says. "He tried to help out the family the best he could, but wanted be a football player."

Sticking with football has also been a family heirloom. Before went west looking to break into acting, Craig played hockey growing up in the Flint, Mich., area. Trenton's grandmother, a former professional bowler, likes to talk about his blocking and calls Craig to ask, "Did you see that one?' His great grandfather, Jack Keller, was a guard for the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons for two seasons in the National Basketball League of the early 1940s before they became the Detroit Pistons and it became the NBA. The brother of Craig's grandmother, Harvey "Buck," Freeman, pitched in 18 games for the Philadelphia A's of 1921 (he gave up an RBI single to Babe Ruth but also got him out on a grounder to first) before he became a legendary high school basketball coach in Michigan.

Craig had also read somewhere that another Midwest legend, Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, credited Harvey Freeman with inventing the screen pass. And then there was Trenton busting it down field with Morgan and left guard Cordell Volson making sure running back Samaje Perine scored on that 29-yard screen pass in Pittsburgh.

"And now he's scored a touchdown in the NFL," Craig Irwin says. "How about that?"

Craig Irwin just retried from acting, long after his kid made the call. But they keep going over the lines.

"He wants to be prepared," Craig Irwin says. "He just wants to hear it."