- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. | Nate Irving, a middle linebacker from North Carolina State who was drafted by the Denver Broncos, can trace the exact date he turned the corner in his football career and his life.

It was the night 22 months ago when he fell asleep at the wheel and drove his SUV into a ditch and two trees, totaling his truck, breaking his body and nearly losing his life.

“I felt like God had better plans for me than to sit in that ditch and die,” said Irving, who sustained injuries that included a collapsed lung and a compound fracture in his left leg and was charged with careless and reckless driving after emerging from surgery looking like a half-wrapped mummy.

Irving, who was selected in the third round to serve as Denver’s defensive play-caller in coach John Fox’s 4-3 scheme, has a cross and the date of the one-car accident tattooed on the inside of his left forearm.

June 28, 2009.

“It’s not a reminder to me,” Irving said. “It’s a day I will never forget. It’s just part of my story. When someone asks what it’s about then I can share what I went through and maybe they’re going through something and realize that if I could make it through that, then they can make it through whatever they’re going through.”

Irving also keeps a photo of his crumpled Chevy Tahoe on his cell phone and an image of his mangled body etched in his mind from the time he first forced himself to look in the mirror at the hospital.

“I had to, that was just something that my family wouldn’t let me run from. They wouldn’t let me get depressed but they wouldn’t let me hide from the truth, you know?” Irving said.

He peered beyond the broken body staring back at him in the reflection and saw much deeper, to a person he didn’t really like anymore.

“It was nasty. Very immature. Selfish. Kind of complacent,” Irving said. “I’m happy that I’m not the same person that I was before the accident.”

In a weird way, Irving insists he has no regrets over deciding to get on Interstate 40 and drive back to North Carolina State from his home in Wallace, N.C. at 3 a.m. He actually sees the auto accident that also left him with a broken rib and a separated shoulder as a blessing camouflaged in pain.

At first, he beat himself up over the near fatal mistake he made, feeling he had let down his teammates and coaches by robbing them of their top defender, his family he’s the oldest of seven children and especially himself.

“It was an accident and I felt like my decision-making on my part could have been way better,” he said. “Instead of driving back so late, I could have left earlier or I could have just stayed the night and left in the morning.”

Now, he traces his growth as both a person and a player to that horrific night that nearly killed him and led to months of painstaking rehab and self-reflection.

“I’m a lot more appreciative about everything on and off the field,” Irving said. “I try to work as hard as I can whether it be in practice or off the field.”

After the accident, he reflected on how his ego was careening out of control, much like his truck was on that fateful night.

“It humbled me a great deal,” Irving said.

It changed him on the football field, too.

He sat out the 2009 season and was only able to stand on his mended leg and patrol the sideline during the final two games. Although he attended practices and helped the coaches, the year off was a nightmare.

“It was terrible. My body and everything got to heal up,” he said, “but mentally it was probably the toughest thing I had to deal with.”

Although the crash had robbed him of his speed, strength and physical progress, Irving returned last season with a newfound appreciation for life and football.

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