RALEIGH — When the time came, Nate Irving couldn't pull himself away. He took the entire lap of Carter-Finley Stadium, slapping every hand held over the front row of the stands, even after a team staffer tried to summon him back to the locker room.
After a victory that saw N.C. State reach the seven-win mark for the first time since 2005, Irving was the very last Wolfpack player to leave the field, unwilling to exit for the final time.
"It was great to see those fans up there, smiling and screaming, and being able to come out and play in front of them," Irving said. "It felt good, knowing that this was my last game. It kind of was emotional. I didn't cry, though. I didn't cry."
In his last home game, Irving produced the kind of performance that could bring football purists and opposing coaches to tears, albeit for different reasons.
The game was one of the finest of his career, and he finished with a school record of eight tackles for loss among his 13 tackles in a 38-3 win over Wake Forest on Saturday. It also was the apex of his comeback from the car accident that nearly killed him on his way back to campus from Wallace 18 months ago.
"It was a great day for Nate," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said. "Just to see his mom and his stepmother and his dad, I'm just so happy. We've come a long way from looking at him in a hospital bed with tubes and everything else to be able to have a day like today. It's a great story."
At one point, sitting between wide receivers Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams and watching Wake Forest run the ball on nearly every play, N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson declared that Irving "might have 50 tackles today, the way he's going."
"And this was probably on their second possession," Wilson said.
Irving spent more time in the Wake Forest backfield than some of the Deacons' running backs. At one point, he picked up Wake Forest running back Michael Campanaro and flipped him onto his head.
He was so dominant, he inspired his teammates by osmosis. After knifing through the line for his eighth tackle for loss, he popped up and got right in safety Earl Wolff's face.
On the next play, Wolff pulled the ball carrier down for a 1-yard loss.
"He was just so hyper, I don't know what he said," Wolff said. "He got me so hyped up, I was ready to make that play."
Irving's time at N.C. State will always be dogged by the "what might have been" questions, were it not for the injuries and the car accident, but the "what it is" is still awfully good.
At his best, few linebackers in the ACC in recent years have had the ability to change games the way Irving can when healthy. His comeback is just as impressive, getting back to the top of his game after nearly losing his life.
"He's focused on this season and what he needs to do and what this team needs to do," Wilson said. "But at the same time, it hits him every once in a while, I feel like. It should. It's a moment where you get a second chance in life."
If Irving didn't want to leave when it was over, maybe it was because he knew this was a moment that would never come again, and no one would know that better than someone who knows just what can be made of a second chance.