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Lawyer corners athletic market

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Grady Irvin Jr. is once again in a media maelstrom.

Good Morning America needs a few minutes. A Texas radio station would love 45 seconds. A wire service reporter has just a few quick questions.

"You have to see my phone list," he said to a radio reporter giving his secretary a hard time about the difficulty of getting Irvin on the line.

This is the hectic life of a 40-year-old solo practitioner making a name for himself representing athletes in trouble. In recent days, Irvin has been an almost constant news presence.

Irvin represents former Florida State starting quarterback Adrian McPherson, who pleaded no contest Wednesday in Tallahassee to gambling and theft charges. The plea deal allowed McPherson to avoid jail time.

Now Irvin represents the roommate of a missing Baylor University basketball player. An informant told police that Irvin's client, Carlton Dotson, told his cousin he shot the missing player while the two played with firearms. No charges have been filed.

This might seem like odd territory for an attorney who practices outside megasports venues such as New York or Los Angeles. To Irvin, it's all the same. He's got a phone. He can hop a plane. He's got e-mail.

"If I was living in New York, I still might end up representing someone who finds himself in hot water in Waco, Texas," he said during an interview Thursday.

The Daytona Beach native, who graduated from the Stetson University College of Law in 1992, cut his trial teeth as part of a team of attorneys representing National Baptist Convention USA president Henry J. Lyons.

For Irvin, who at the time attended Lyons' St. Petersburg church, it was his first criminal trial, though not his first taste of the media spotlight.

The Lyons' case was a departure for Irvin, who began representing professional athletes soon after law school.

Irvin, who is single and lives in Plant City, racked up dozens of awards in mock trial and moot court competitions at Stetson, twice earning the Florida Bar's Chester Bedell Most Outstanding Student Trial Lawyer Award.

The top lawyer at the NFL Players Association admired Irvin's talent so much that he sought him out in 1994 to handle player grievances, paying him $65,000 a year.

Irvin left in 1995 after a dispute with the union, eventually filing a suit against the player's association on behalf of himself and two players.

The list of athletes who have been clients since is a long one, so long that Irvin said, "it's gotten to the point where I can't remember some of the names."

Irvin said he has represented Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Warren Sapp and Dallas Cowboys players Leon Lett and Clayton Holmes.

When Holmes flunked a urinalysis, Irvin made headlines by suing the NFL to overturn its drug-testing policy, contending that "the urine of everyone is constitutionally protected." A federal judge ordered Irvin to apologize for filing a frivolous suit.

To this day, Irvin insists the suit had merit.

Often, one case begets another because of publicity, Irvin said. He ended up representing McPherson because he was a family friend. He thinks Holmes hired him after seeing news accounts regarding McPherson. He said he hasn't asked Holmes or his family exactly how they got his name.

"I don't solicit these clients," he said.

As one in a small circle of African-American criminal defense lawyers who practice in Pinellas County, Irvin said he sometimes feels the weight of race as he practices.

It might be something like a colleague asking whether he got an athlete for a client because of a family connection, insinuating it wasn't about talent, Irvin said.

"That's offensive," he said. "But I try not to concern myself about that."

He said he can sense jealousy by some other lawyers when he gets high-profile cases.

Irvin said they don't understand the difficulties the cases bring: the long hours, the interviews, the pressures of dealing with the media.

"This isn't glamorous," he said.

Irvin wants to develop a niche as a lawyer representing athletes, perhaps one day expanding his practice. He said he considers himself both knowledgeable about the law and the nuances of getting the right story out to the court of public opinion to help his client.

Irvin, who wanted to be a professional football player when he was a child, enjoys the work, even if the media can become tiring.

"People think it's great to have these high-profile cases," he said. "They don't know about the headaches, the demands. I don't seek publicity. I don't want it."