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INDIANAPOLIS -- Even in the weeks before his collapse, he was not him. Gaunt, erratic and stooped over like a broken old man, Jim Irsay was on something, no doubt. But he was not his father.
About a month ago, Irsay popped into Daddy Jack's, a fine-dining joint in north Indianapolis that boasts of excellent food and generous drinks, and Irsay lit up the back room. It was rare to see him out at night like that. Normally, in the years since he sought treatment for an addiction to prescription painkillers in 2002, Jim would duck into Daddy Jack's just to order something eclectic off the menu, eat and be on his way. But on this particular night, he grabbed his guitar, played the blues, and belted out a rendition of "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay."
He tipped his waitresses handsomely, more than $100 each trip. He always made a point to be generous, perhaps because his father had not.
|Jim Irsay enjoys his music, and performing. Here he plays during a private Super Bowl party in February 2012.|
"It was a fun night," says Jim Thompson, owner of Daddy Jack's, who notes that Irsay had visited the establishment more lately.
"I knew his father. He used to come in a lot. I never saw him sober. I'd go to shake his hand, and he'd grab my hand and pull me over the table and knock over glasses, and I was like, 'Oh my god.' He was not really that nice of a man, to tell you the truth. Jimmy's a lot nicer than his dad. I was expecting the worst, and getting to know Jimmy kind of changed my mind on the family. And they have been very good for this community."
Nasty stories abound about Robert Irsay, who died in 1997: the liquor he consumed; the people he infuriated; the hearts he broke in 1984, when he whisked the Colts out of Baltimore in a caravan of Mayflower trucks in the dead of the night and relocated the team to Indianapolis. But Jim Irsay was damned if he'd be that guy. He learned from his father's mistakes. He spent a lifetime vowing to be kind and rational, sharp and football savvy. He'd be one of the NFL's best owners instead of the worst.
And to a great extent, he's succeeded. Since Jim took 100 percent control of the franchise in 1997, the Colts have piled up nine division championships, 13 playoff bids and a Super Bowl title. Yet here he was, walking down the same self-destructive path Bob Irsay walked, seemingly on the way to following addictions to the same sad end.
Was Jim really that different?
In the late hours of March 16, the man who tried so hard to be different from his father was pulled over by police in Carmel, Ind.; they found a cocktail of prescription pills and a driver who slurred his speech and had difficulty standing. Jim Irsay was booked on preliminary charges of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and four felony counts of possession of a controlled substance. Formal charges have not been filed, and last week prosecutors postponed an initial court appearance for Irsay "unless or until" formal charges are filed against him.
He is receiving inpatient treatment at an out-of-state facility. Years ago, his father sought help too, according to a former associate who requested anonymity. The elder Irsay couldn't beat his addiction and died in 1997, after battling a host of health issues, including congestive heart failure.
Old football players who watched Jim grow up around the Colts organization call "Jimmy" a good man who was extremely sensitive to his father's substance-abuse issues. So how did the son get here?
"Jim's nothing like his old man," says Bruce Laird, a Pro Bowl safety for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s, who knew father and son well. "He's respectful. He cares about Indianapolis, cares about the National Football League. I think he wanted to do right by his franchise.
"I hadn't seen him [lately], of course, so I was shocked somewhat by his appearance and being that thin. I had no idea the devil got back to him."
|Jim Irsay, left, has been a much different kind of NFL owner than his father, Robert Irsay.|
People who knew Bob Irsay well offer two pictures. One is of a hard-driven, self-made millionaire who could charm and B.S. his way into your heart; the other is of a short-tempered, ruthless, cantankerous and meddlesome alcoholic who had no business running a professional football team. The redeeming qualities were definitely there, pre-booze.
Most anyone who can describe a coherent Irsay is now gone, but in the suburbs of Chicago, a man pushing 90 has documentation. His pictures of Irsay, wavy-haired and stocky, look as if they could've come from a happy 1950s TV sitcom. There's Irsay in his office, next to a sign that says THINK, and there he is working the room from a couch covered in plastic wrap.
|Bob Irsay at the Bednarz home around Christmas in '61 or '62.|
Gene Bednarz, a Marine and World War II veteran, once trusted Irsay so much that Bednarz left his job at the Acord Ventilating Co. to join Irsay's new venture, the Robert Irsay Co. It should be noted that Acord was owned by Bob's father, Charles, and that the family accused Bob of trying to drive the old man out of business.
But there was a time, many years ago, when a young Bob Irsay could be sweet and engaging. He actually used to have a distaste for liquor, Bednarz says, to the extent that during business meals he'd fake drinking, then when nobody was paying attention, dump his drinks in a nearby potted plant.
It was a different time, though. It was the era of three-martini lunches, of 100 percent deductible entertainment on expense accounts, and if Irsay was going to be a good salesman, he had to knock back a few and schmooze.
And for a while, most everyone around him had a very good time. He had lavish Christmas parties with gifts for everyone, plus dancing with a full orchestra. He'd rent private buses to shuttle guests from breakfast at the country club to Cubs games at Wrigley Field. They'd take soda bottles and fill them with bourbon or scotch for the game.
Much of this was part of doing business. Irsay knew that the generosity would lead to favorable gossip in the industry. But he could be both truly generous and stingy, friendly and ruthless.
Bednarz saw both sides. One morning as he stood up from the breakfast table, Bednarz fell to the floor with back spasms and couldn't stand up. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, called the office and said he wouldn't be able to come to work. A half-hour later, Irsay was at the front door. He walked in, picked Bednarz up off the floor and carried him to the tub for a hot bath.
"He would do things like that," Bednarz says. "Just show up out of nowhere, just blow you away with his care.
"And other times he was just brutal. He'd have a relationship with a contractor, and when that contractor was in a lot of trouble and needed money, that was when Bob would not pay him. He'd say, 'This guy's going to go under, why should I pay him?' And then the guy would go under. Who knows if he would've paid him if it would've helped the guy? He was brutal in business. But who isn't brutal in business to succeed at times?"
Bednarz eventually left Irsay's company because he couldn't stand his boss's drinking, so he never got to know Irsay's youngest child, Jimmy. Bednarz had met Tom, the oldest, who was mentally disabled and died in 1999, and he has sketchy memories of Roberta, who died in a car accident as a teenager in 1971. But aside from watching glimpses of Jim on TV, Bednarz knows nothing about him, nothing about the younger son of Bob Irsay.
"I saw him [on TV] when they won the Super Bowl a few years ago," Bednarz says. "I didn't see a resemblance there at all."
|This photo is from about 1953, in the first set of offices of the Robert Irsay Co. on Grand Avenue in Chicago.|
The football world looks at Jim Irsay and sees an astute football mind, a man who drafted Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf 16 years ago, won a truckload of games with the future Hall of Famer, then cut Manning loose two seasons ago to make room for Andrew Luck and the future, openly shedding tears in the process.
Irsay is not an empty suit. He played football himself, walking on for a bit at SMU. Front-office types say they don't have to explain a bunch of things to Irsay because he's already done his homework. Former Colts vice chairman Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, called their relationship "symbiotic." They could almost finish each other's thoughts.
Irsay has made it a point to know all of his players too. In 2003, the Colts added an undrafted rookie named Gary Brackett. Midway through Brackett's rookie season, he went home during the bye week to bury his father. Very few people knew why he was gone. He wasn't a star, just a special-teams guy.
Brackett quietly returned to the team the next week, and Irsay found him in the locker room after the Colts beat the Houston Texans 30-21. "I'm praying for you and your family," Irsay whispered in his ear. "Thanks for all you do for the team."
Brackett eventually wound up being a captain and a starting linebacker on the Colts' 2006 Super Bowl team. In March 2012, new Colts general manager Ryan Grigson called Brackett to tell him he was going to be cut. It wasn't a surprise to Brackett. He'd been battling a shoulder injury and knew his body was breaking down.
Grigson told Brackett that Irsay wanted the linebacker to stop by the owner's office for an exit interview. They talked for 20 or 30 minutes about Brackett's shoulder, his health, what they'd accomplished together and Irsay's plans for the Colts.
"It was a very emotional meeting," Brackett says. "How often do you get released and speak to the owner for 20, 30 minutes? I think we both were teary-eyed.
"A lot of players are ticked off when they don't get signed back, but I think everybody has great things to say about Irsay and the support he gave us over the years."
|Peyton Manning hugs Jim Irsay during a March 2012 news conference announcing that the Colts were releasing Manning.|
Bob Irsay sold heating and air conditioning. He was not an expert on football. His first few years running the Baltimore Colts, he was just the man who signed the checks. He buzzed in from Chicago on weekends for games, lingered in the locker room for 15 or 20 minutes and didn't know the names of most of his players.
If a guy wasn't in front of his stall, and thus his nameplate, Irsay would simply call the player "Tiger." There were dozens of Tigers on those early Irsay teams, and the players laughed and called him Tiger behind his back. One day, the guys decided it would be funny to really mix up the owner, so they switched their nameplates.
Irsay mistook Howard Stevens, a 5-foot-5 running back who is black, for Laird, 6 feet tall and white.
None of this mattered much because Irsay had Joe Thomas as his general manager. Thomas did most of the heavy lifting and was part of a package deal in 1972, when Irsay bought the Los Angeles Rams and promptly swapped teams with Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom.
Thomas made many controversial moves, including shipping beloved quarterback Johnny Unitas out of town, but by the mid-1970s, the young teams he'd built through the draft were becoming close and successful. They won three straight division titles. But by then, the franchise was rife with turmoil.
Irsay went through seven coaches in 10 years. He fired Howard Schnellenberger after an 0-3 start in 1974 -- it wasn't even October yet -- and replaced him with Thomas. Irsay was impatient and emotional. He would call in plays from the owner's box and belittle players in front of their teammates.
One of Irsay's regular targets was Marty Domres, a quarterback for the Colts from 1972 to '75. In a heated exchange in Atlanta, Irsay coldly told Domres that it would be nice if he could complete passes to his teammates, not the opponents. Domres fired back. The argument was eventually broken up by a couple of teammates, but not before Domres told his owner, "You don't know if the football is blown up or stuffed."
Irsay went on an epic rant after a bad game in Detroit in 1976 -- an exhibition game. It was so venomous that coach Ted Marchibroda quit, with the season opener just ahead, and came back only after a team protest.
"Logic didn't have anything to do with the decisions he made," Domres says. "It was more emotional, or driven by alcohol in some instances, I assume."
|Bob and Don Lewis in the new offices in Skokie, Ill., about 1954 or '55.|
On that seemingly insignificant day in Detroit, the day Bob Irsay chewed out his team after an exhibition loss, his son tried to make amends. He climbed on the first team bus, the one with all the veterans, and apologized for Bob's rant. At least one player noticed that Irsay started to shake and well up with tears.
Jimmy was 17 years old.
Omar Manejwala, a psychiatrist and an expert in addiction who wrote the book "Craving: Why We Can't Seem to Get Enough," says that children growing up in homes with alcoholics often experience more guilt.
"Some of them take on the role of becoming caretaker, where essentially they lose themselves in order to take care of everyone else and establish a sense of normalcy," Manejwala says. "They are forced to take on parent-like roles even though they're children."
The younger Irsay had been a ball boy during training camps, but by the time of that blowup in 1976, he was growing into a man. He loved those players, especially the defensive linemen, who took him under their collective wing.
There are stories about young Jimmy having a good deal of fun with his football friends on road trips once he was old enough to drive, stories of a young man experiencing the world. "I can't tell you the stories," Laird says. "But just safely say that he was like any young man living the dream and getting out there. He wasn't an angel by any stretch of the imagination, but he was just a great guy who hung around and tried to be part of us, and we accepted him as that."
Dallas County records show that while Irsay was in Texas as SMU, he was charged with driving while intoxicated in 1979 but was found not guilty by a judge. He became the Colts general manager at 24, following orders from a dad who'd often change them midstream.
Jim Irsay would later joke that his father fired him numerous times. A common belief in the Colts organization was that if you needed something done, you had to get Bob Irsay before noon, before the cocktails started. Laird tells the story of a player who knew this, so during his contract negotiations, he and his agent kept stalling long into the afternoon. After the third day, Laird says, Irsay relented and said something to the effect of, "Just give him what he wants!"
If Bob was doing business in the afternoon, he was usually surly. And he often wouldn't remember what happened by the next day.
"Jim didn't like to talk about his father's shortcomings," says Ken Murray, a longtime football writer for The Baltimore Sun. "There were things like that that he regretted, and he definitely had a different way of approaching the business than Bob did.
"We never saw Jim conduct himself in public that way. Jim never went out on a drunken binge that people would see in public."
Possibly Bob's most well-documented drunken tirade came in January 1984, during an impromptu news conference at Baltimore-Washington International airport. The elder Irsay was shopping the team, and the media knew it. When confronted, Irsay angrily said, "I have no intentions of moving the god damn team."
He slurred his words and could barely open a door on his way to the news conference.
|Gene Bednarz saw both sides of Bob Irsay.|
Gene Bednarz, Bob Irsay's old colleague, suspects that Bob's drinking escalated in the early 1950s, when he was negotiating a big contract with Caterpillar Inc. The folks he was trying to woo were heavy drinkers, Bednarz says.
Bob Irsay's son apparently drank heavily at one point too. He used to joke to friends that he'd spilled more alcohol than they'd ever drank. But he didn't want to be his father, and people close to him believe he hasn't had a drink in more than a decade.
He told this to his Twitter followers on Oct. 21, posting that he hadn't had a drink in 15 years. The time stamp on his tweet was 3:39 a.m., and he told his "naysayers" that he was working at the late hour. He also posted: "I do pray for you unhappy,s--- slingers...who wants to live on a planet with those who don't like themselves...we want happy, kind people"
Twitter, Irsay's critics say, is a way for the owner to gratify his ego. There's a picture on his page of Irsay in a white-and-blue suit with matching top hat and cane, arms stretched, standing on the 50-yard-line surrounded by his massive guitar collection.
The contentious October tweets came in the days leading to Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis for a game between the Broncos and Colts. After Irsay's team won 39-33, the owner gave the Colts a locker room speech that was captured by NFL Films. Irsay took a dig at Manning, saying that though he has nothing but gratitude for him, "We all know that we want to go and get this." Irsay held up his right hand with the Super Bowl ring, an apparent nod to the fact that Manning won only one Super Bowl.
But Irsay was not himself. Longtime Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz knew that long before October. Around the time of Manning's departure, Kravitz wondered if Irsay was back on drugs. Irsay, who has a deep respect for Kravitz's work, started leaving long, rambling voice mails in the middle of the night.
"He said some things privately to me in such a way that I thought, Is this guy all there?" Kravitz says. "It just got more and more bizarre.
"Even when Jim is sober, he's rambling and sometimes relatively incoherent, but it was the way ... he was just very emotional and kind of slurring his words. He would leave 10-, 15-minute-long messages on my phone, and I just thought, Man, something's not quite right here."
The drastic weight loss made Kravitz even more suspicious. But he couldn't prove anything. Irsay told him that doctors said he had to lose the weight to take the strain off his back and hips. Irsay, a former weightlifter, had hip surgery last year.
Was it the physical or emotional pain that lured him back to drugs? Irsay's wife, Meg, filed for divorce in November. But the couple had been estranged for years. Irsay's decision to part ways with Manning was highly scrutinized. But that's part of the business of being an NFL owner.
"The bottom line is that it's very difficult to beat an opiate addiction," Manejwala says. "People die from these addictions at a high rate, and many who attempt to quit find they cannot despite their very best efforts."
Irsay's struggles with prescription drugs were well-documented in the local media in 2002. The Indianapolis Star reported that a local pharmacy had filled more than 120 prescriptions for Irsay over the course of roughly a year. In a 24-day span, Irsay received 400 OxyContin tablets. Indianapolis' NBC affiliate said Irsay had several stints in rehab and "at least three overdoses."
According to the Carmel, Ind., police report from March 16, Irsay had "numerous" medications, some without prescription bottles, in his SUV, along with $29,000 in cash. His eyes were red and watery. Standing outside his vehicle, he nearly fell.
Manejwala says research suggests that if someone with a family history of alcoholism is addicted to opiates, that person has a much higher risk of relapse.
Jim Irsay has long been a searcher for the deeper meaning of life. In 2001, he dropped $2.43 million to purchase Jack Kerouac's original manuscript of "On the Road," a 121-foot scroll of sheets that Kerouac cut and taped together. The book is described as a story of a personal quest for meaning and belonging. Kerouac died in 1969 at age 47, bleeding internally from years of alcohol abuse.
One of Irsay's good friends was Hunter S. Thompson, a massively gifted writer who spent much of his life abusing alcohol and drugs; Thompson committed suicide in 2005. Thompson was notorious for sending funny, brilliant and odd faxes to famous people, cc'ing their names. Irsay's was often one of those cc'd.
If it was late and Irsay needed someone to talk to, he'd call Thompson. One crazy night, Irsay was fired up, determined to look for grizzly bears in Alaska; he told Thompson to get ready, because he was flying out to pick him up in his private jet.
"It was into the wee hours, about 5 a.m.," says former Thompson attorney George Tobia. "And so it was like, 'Well, we'll go tomorrow,' and it didn't happen. But they were talking seriously about their plans and where they'd go. It was one of those late nights when stuff was going on."
When Thompson died, Irsay wrote a tribute column for his friend on ESPN.com's Page 2.
"The thing about Hunter was that he had such a big heart," Irsay wrote. "That's the thing I loved about him the most. Because really, just like Belushi and Chris Farley, he was just a big-hearted guy, and he was actually a very shy guy, and a very sweet guy. Put away all the bravado and all that stuff, just very brilliant."
"Shy" is actually a word that Bob Leffler, the Colts' former director of sales, uses to describe Jim Irsay's father. Leffler says that Bob Irsay was misunderstood in some ways. He was a businessman suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and he didn't have a clue how to deal with the media or the public.
He recalls a time, in the late 1970s, when Bob Irsay won a Man of the Year award from a local group in Baltimore.
"He didn't seem like an ogre to me," Leffler says. "Everyone always said to me that he didn't want to win. Bob Irsay wanted to win. You learn from your father."
At the NFL owners meetings last week in Orlando, the league's most powerful people did their best to avoid anyone who wanted to talk about Jim Irsay. His daughter, Carlie Irsay-Gordon, made the trip for her father. For Monday's breakfast, she showed up very early, possibly to avoid reporters, something her father rarely did.
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was one of the few people who'd say anything about Jim Irsay. He recalled in January 2013, when he was the Colts offensive coordinator, he fell ill before a playoff game at Baltimore and had to go to the hospital. Irsay immediately arranged for a plane to pick up his wife, and the plane stayed in Baltimore until Arians was ready to go home.
Arians will never forget that. And he says he's praying for Irsay.
People in Indianapolis are praying too. Kravitz estimates that 90 percent of the city is genuinely concerned, while a small percent is unsympathetic toward a billionaire who has everything but control over his life.
Jim Irsay is armed with all the lessons. It is possibly the most important thing he inherited from his father.
"I think Jim will recover," says Murray, the retired Baltimore reporter. "He's a very strong person. I think Jim will grow from this too.
"But maybe humans cannot escape what is inherently bred into them."