The Colts’ owner on blessings, gratitude and magic
Jim Irsay doesn’t hang back. About two minutes after being introduced to me at his Colts complex office on 56th Street, a deeply air-conditioned space that, thanks to a perfumed candle on his desk, is also imbued with a whiff of sandalwood, he’s reaching for a gleaming Martin six-string guitar, a gift, he says, from Stephen Stills. Stills, I say, was once a hero of mine. I can remember the words to his song, “Four and Twenty.”
So can Jim Irsay. In the blink of an eye he’s taken a seat and is performing a note-perfect version of the song.
Jim Irsay has a life many of us can only dream about. He is sole owner of the Indianapolis Colts, one of the elite franchises in the National Football League. As such he routinely hobnobs with everyone from world-class athletes to heads of state. Irsay is also an unabashed music fanatic. But, in Irsay’s case, the music often comes to him — Stephen Stills, for example.
Then there are the objects of desire.
Irsay’s penchant for collecting archetypally-hip Americana, like one of Elvis Presley’s guitars, attained almost legendary status when he acquired the scroll Jack Kerouac used for the amphetamine-driven composition of On the Road for $2.43 million.
But not all of Irsay’s notoriety has been welcome. In 2002, it was revealed that he was in rehab for a longstanding addiction to prescription painkillers. His name surfaced in connection with a DEA investigation into local doctors and pharmacies suspected of making and filling excessive prescriptions. Irsay, it turned out, was interviewed as a victim.
It was also in 2002 that Irsay began a dance with the city over whether or not the Colts would remain. At the time, Irsay said that his team was losing tens of millions of dollars by trying to be competitive in a small market. This pas de deux would ultimately turn into a line dance involving the NCAA, the city and the state when a funding package involving tax increases on services like rental cars and hotel rooms was constructed in order to build what will be known as Lucas Oil Stadium and expand our convention center.
How ’bout them Colts?
Jim’s dad, Bob Irsay, a Chicago tycoon who made his money in the heating and air conditioning business, bought the Colts in 1972. Jim was 12 at that time and virtually grew up in the Colts’ locker room. When his dad moved the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984, Jim was named the team’s general manager.
The Colts’ fortunes were inconsistent after they arrived here. They made the playoffs in 1987, but had their worst season ever in 1991, when they went 1-15. In what might have been a blow to his son, in 1994 Bob Irsay hired Bill Tobin to be vice president and director of football operations.
But then Irsay’s father suffered a stroke in 1995. Jim took over the team’s day-to-day operations and, in 1996, the Colts made it to the AFC Championship game, where they lost on the last play. A year later, Bob Irsay died. Jim Irsay and Bob’s second wife, Nancy, reached an agreement giving Jim sole ownership of the team. He was 37 years old, the youngest owner in the NFL.
Since then, Jim Irsay has succeeded in establishing the Colts as one of the NFL’s top franchises, a team consistently picked to reach the playoffs and, in the past few seasons, to win the Super Bowl. This final jewel has eluded the team thus far.
Be that as it may, the team’s accomplishments and the presence of marquee stars like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison have not only managed to sway local fans, but public policy. Local politicians could easily imagine the Colts playing in a much larger market like Los Angeles. As negotiations for a new stadium developed, it became clear that no politician, on either the local or state levels, wanted to be tagged as having “lost” the Colts to another city.
And so Jim Irsay not only got a new stadium for his team, but one of the most advantageous stadium deals in the country. In return, the city gets to remain on the NFL map and to reap the rewards of what Irsay calls “the magic” that professional sports bring to a town.
In the Colts’ case, a notable part of that magic is derived from the presence of the team’s owner. Jim Irsay is a man with a large embrace who is on a quest that extends way beyond the hash marks on a football field. After lovingly putting his guitar back in its case, he sat down with NUVO to talk about the things that matter to him most.
NUVO: What came first for you, your passion for music or football?
Irsay: When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was classically trained on the violin at the Northwestern school of music. That’s when the Suzuki method was popular. I was this teeny little kid with his violin. In first and second grade I’d play “Jingle Bells” and other Christmas songs. Then I gave it up for sports.
My dad had season tickets to the Bears games at Wrigley Field, so we’d go trudging out there in the frozen cold. I remember one time I kicked over this guy’s flask by accident. I thought I was going to get murdered until he saw I was a 7-year-old kid.
Chicago is a huge sports town and a huge music town. In those days the music was starting to come to me. A lot of soul music. We had this old gardener and he would be playing WGRT, which was a soul station back then, so I’d hear the Temptations and the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone — all those incredible bands.
I was in training camp in Baltimore and Ray Chester, our tight end back then, was playing Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 — “Stuck in Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” was on, and I was asking, “What is that?” I was maybe 13 years old. It grabbed me.
John Lennon was also a great influence. My friends would argue, was it Lennon or McCartney? It was clearly Lennon for me. He was radical, he was political, he made you believe, like Bono says, that you can change the world with three chords and the truth.
For me, when Lennon died, youth died. I had just gotten married and was about to have my first daughter. I was in college, at SMU, and I was watching the Monday Night Football game and Howard Cosell comes on, saying John Lennon’s been shot and rushed to the hospital. Then my phone started ringing. That was an epicenter moment where everything changed from my perspective. It was a stunning blow.
But at the same time, all the players on the team were like big brothers to me. It was such an energizing way of starting to find manhood and direction.
NUVO: What was it like being a kid with all those larger-than-life athletes?
Irsay: They were like family. I was extremely close to many of them. It was a special time — late nights over pizza. They’d say, “Don’t forget this, someday you’re going to be the owner.” They were inspiring, they were supportive, and we still have that today.
A young man needs to find that, to have those mentors, those kinds of guys around you. It was pretty irrelevant that I was the owner’s son; it transcended that by a lot. It was a tight-knit family and it was special.
My first training camp was in Golden, Colo., in ’72. Unitas was still there and Bubba Smith was still there. I was living with Joe Thomas — he was the general manager — in his condo and just starting to absorb it all. I was 12 years old and I remember putting my tray down at the dining hall and I heard a voice, “Son, move your ass.” It was Johnny Unitas.
NUVO: What was Unitas like?
Irsay: Johnny was toward the end of his career and he was a very intense sort of guy, but, to me, really likeable. A monster of a figure — a legend still playing. Eventually, Joe Thomas traded him to San Diego and that was tough. The team was quite old and Joe was doing what he needed to do and bringing in Bert Jones and a new group. But to break up that old team was sacrilegious. It was tough for us until we started winning in ’75. Unitas was a true professional and great to me. Obviously, I remember being extremely intimidated around him.
NUVO: It’s tempting to look back at sports in those days as being more human-scale. They’re such a big business today.
Irsay: They are, but those human connections between players and the public still go on. That’s the reason we have really great guys. My belief is that we are very accessible, we’re right there with all our fans and there is no dividing line. That’s done by having your ears open and your eyes open. When I was at the pep rally on Friday [before the Houston game], a guy’s dad had passed away and we sent the son a jersey and a note so he made a point to stop by and say how much that meant to him.
The power of good action: It has such a ripple affect that you never want to underestimate it. Random acts of kindness are amazing. I’ve always believed big business can have a big heart. Out of the corner of my eye I see this league back when players went on trains and had off-season jobs. Now you get throwback players, people like Peyton Manning, who is so involved and connected with reaching out. That human connection is not forgotten.
Of course, there has to be some level of protecting your energy. If you don’t protect your energy it can be difficult because there is such a spotlight, there are so many demands, there’s so much media attention now. It’s not like it used to be. There’s ESPN 24 hours a day. But it takes a lot of preparation for these players to get ready to play.
NUVO: Is there a special relationship between a pro team like the Colts and a small market city like Indianapolis?
Irsay: I think so, but I hope it occurs in a natural, organic way. I don’t like to be calculating. It’s said the closest any of us get to God in this human existence is through other people. And that connection is critically important to me.
I think that in the smaller markets — Green Bay is certainly an example — you need to have that sort of connection that combines with winning. Winning, whether you like it or not, in our sports has to be in the formula. Things become difficult if it’s not there. When you have it, though, you also have a connection where there is a family. To me, that’s what it’s about. It’s about seeing a grandfather and father and a granddaughter at a game. It’s about families getting together and knowing what time the Colts game is going to be on. It’s about these players being in the community, in the grocery store, going about their daily lives.
Thankfully, those are the types of guys we have. And we have someone like [coach] Tony Dungy, who so naturally comes by humility without even thinking about it — it’s innate with him.
The great thing is we have magic: The magic of the game, these great athletes, heroes. It’s real because these guys are tremendous guys. I know our guys and I know the stuff they do in the community and how sincere they are.
And so I think we’re blessed because this has just come together for us since the late ’90s. I call it a Golden Era and I call it the foundation of building something that gets passed down. This is what the vision was and what it should be. It doesn’t always go perfectly, but on and off the field, there is the game, there are the great victories, there’s that reveling and sharing. And then there are the intimate moments — Tony Dungy losing his son — and others relating to the loss because they went through the same thing.
I believe in vulnerability. I believe in humility. We’re humans and there are special gifts bestowed on these players. They have a special ability to be heroic in a very difficult, physical, violent game. But at the same time, they’re still vulnerable human beings and they go through the same struggles. It’s been that way in culture going back thousands of years to tribal times.
NUVO: Your interests in sports and music and the arts evoke a larger sense of Americana.
Irsay: It’s like writing a song or writing poetry. I really don’t understand how it comes together. There seems to be a little movement in the trees up above and a little whispering and you start following it.
I never had any idea I was going to buy the Kerouac scroll. A couple of months before it was the furthest thing from my mind. I think I’ve always tried to let the spirits and the energy try to influence and heed the calling, so to speak. Sometimes you look back and you see the structure and the meaning. It’s easy to say, “Oh, yeah, that was the plan,” when, in fact, the plan is to follow God’s will — however anyone wants to define God.
I never believe in forcing things. Sometimes you get nudges from the universe that say take a pass and keep moving on. I talk about embracing my peasant roots and I really believe in that. All four of my grandparents came across Ellis Island with just the shirts on their backs between 1900 and 1905. My grandmother on my mom’s side was an inner city maid who tried to raise five kids alone.
To me, it’s dust to dust. It’s been said, I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul, you know? Possessions are just temporary rentals. I’ve never understood feelings of ownership. I understand feeling from looking in a child’s eyes. But I don’t understand how you get a feeling from possessions.
I love the saying, we’re not human beings having a spiritual experience, but we’re spiritual beings having a human experience. It’s like Dylan says, “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will.” That’s the reality. We control so little.
You talk of Americana. I love this country, this wondrous little toddler. It’s such a young country. It’s just so magnificent. I think about my grandparents and I wonder what would my grandmother think?
I love the history. For example, looking at Kerouac and seeing how jazz connected to the Beats connected to the ’60s.
NUVO: Tell me about Indianapolis. How have you seen it grow and how has it grown on you?
Irsay: I’ve lived here virtually my whole adult life. I came back when I was 24. And I grew up 140 miles away in the Chicago suburbs.
I was talking to this friend of mine in L.A. L.A.’s a great place to visit and I have a lot of friends there, including this one guy who works with y"