Chicago native Bucky Irving overcomes tragedies on path to NFL

Bucky Irving runs the ball for Hillcrest High School The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just selected Irving with the No. 125 overall selection in the 2024 NFL draft.
Bucky Irving runs the ball for Hillcrest High School. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Irving with the No. 125 overall pick in the 2024 NFL draft. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Weaver)

By Caleb Nixon and King Jemison 

Medill Reports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans may have heard Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving’s name for the first time when their team selected the Oregon running back with the No. 125 overall pick April 27. But in his native Chicago, he’s been a fixture in the football community since he was dominating the pee-wee circuit on the South Side.

“In the youth football world, at least in our area for sure, everybody knew who Bucky Irving was,” said Morgan Weaver, Irving’s coach at Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills.

However, Irving’s name carried weight far beyond the field. The tragedy behind the nickname “Bucky” is what makes Irving who he is – and is what drove him to an all-conference college career and a fourth-round selection in the 2024 NFL draft. 

His motivation 

According to an article from the Daily Emerald, LaTisha and Marcellus Irving noticed their son, Mar’Keise, had wide eyes at birth. When Mar’Keise would fall asleep, his eyes would remain slightly open, leading Marcellus to coin the nickname “Bucky.”

But Marcellus never got to witness Bucky’s football career. When Bucky was just 2 years old, his father died. Years later, on the day he received his offer to Minnesota – where he started his college career – tragedy struck again, as Irving lost his grandmother. Not long after, one of his younger brothers was shot and killed.  

“I carry them with me every day,” Irving told reporters after he was drafted. “I know they smiling down on me.” 

Dan Lanning, Irving’s coach at Oregon, praised his resilience. 

“The adversity this guy’s faced, for him to be the remarkable young man that he is, it’s really impressive,” Lanning told reporters after Irving scored three touchdowns in a win over Washington State in October. “I have three sons. I hope my sons can grow up and be like Bucky Irving.”

Signs of stardom 

In the south suburbs, Irving’s high school exploits are fabled.

“When he was at Hillcrest, we had him do everything,” Weaver said. 

Irving played running back, wide receiver, quarterback, defensive back and even kicker. Coaches knew he was a star from the fifth game of his sophomore season, when he recorded nearly 400 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns against rival Lemont.

Current Hillcrest head coach Kyran Weaver, then an assistant, recalled a punt return later in Irving’s sophomore season when he broke “like nine tackles” on the way to the end zone. 

“If you were there, you’d never forget it,” Kyran Weaver said. 

Irving’s stature in the Chicago area grew after earning the South Suburban Conference Player of the Year award and becoming one of the highest-ranked prospects in the state, but COVID-19 interfered with his senior season of high school football. Prior to their shortened six-game spring season, Morgan Weaver gave Irving his blessing to enroll early at Minnesota.  

Irving’s response shows what the Buccaneers are getting in their rookie running back. 

“He just sat there and told me like, ‘I’m not leaving my team. I’m going to play this season, we’re going to win conference, and then I’m going to go to college,’” Morgan Weaver said.

Heading west

Irving rushed for 699 yards as a freshman at Minnesota, but he transferred to Oregon in search of a different role, particularly more opportunities as a pass catcher. 

“He’s a kid that you have to game plan for him,” Morgan Weaver said. “He’s a guy who can do many things outside of just running the ball.” 

Lanning and his staff wasted no time expanding Irving’s role, evident in his 2,238 rushing yards, 712 receiving yards and 21 combined touchdowns in two years at Oregon. He led all FBS running backs in receptions last season and ranked among the nation’s best in missed tackles forced, according to Pro Football Focus. 

“In my religion, I don’t let the first man bring me down, that’s just the mindset I (have) when I’ve got the ball in my hand,” Irving said. 

When he arrived in Eugene, Irving told Morgan Weaver, “I’m only trying to be here for 18 months.” He stuck to that plan, declaring for the draft last December. 

His elusiveness and versatility are why Irving was generally regarded more highly before the NFL combine, where he tested near the bottom of the running back class in multiple categories. 

Bucky to the Bucs 

Despite those testing numbers, the Tampa Bay front office said Irving was still a priority on their draft board. 

“At the end of the day, we stacked the (draft) board the way we stacked it, and we felt Bucky was the right fit for us,” Buccaneers assistant general manager John Spytek said in the team’s post-draft press conference. 

When Irving was still available at No. 125, the team called him, and a Buccaneers fan group in Hamburg, Germany, announced the selection.

“It was emotional, just something you’ve worked for your whole life,” Irving told reporters.

The Buccaneers used their fifth pick in the draft on Irving to supplement a running back room of Rachaad White and Chase Edmonds.  

“I used to watch Rachaad White highlights. Being able to come in and learn from a guy like him, I think it will be great for me to just pick his brain on how he translated from college to the NFL,” Irving said. “I’m trying to be that dynamic, one-two punch.” 

Irving was the sixth running back off the board. He said he won’t forget the NFL teams that passed on him. It will motivate him as he transitions to the NFL – as will his South Side upbringing. 

“I just wanted to be the guy from the South Side of Chicago that set the example for the kids back at home,” Irving said. 

Caleb Nixon and King Jemison are graduate students at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. You can follow them on X @calebnixonmedia and @king_jemison.