SI Vault
E.M. Swift
December 15, 1986
Getting a fix on Indianapolis Colts owner Bob Irsay's background isn't easy, but this is certain—he has turned one of the NFL's best franchises into a laughingstock
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December 15, 1986

Now You See Him, Now You Don't

Getting a fix on Indianapolis Colts owner Bob Irsay's background isn't easy, but this is certain—he has turned one of the NFL's best franchises into a laughingstock

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Bert Jones, the man who quarter-backed the Colts to their three winning seasons under Irsay, will only paraphrase a quote he originally gave to The Sun in Baltimore when asked about Irsay: "He lied and he cheated and he was rude and he was crude and he was Bob Irsay." Then Jones added, "He doesn't have any morals. It's a sad state for the NFL to be associated with him, but beyond that I've removed him from my mind."

Mike McCormack, who coached the Colts in the 1980 and '81 seasons, says, "Those were the two most unpleasant years of my life and I really don't care to comment further on it."

Irsay's mother, Elaine, is 84 years old and in failing health. Reached by phone at her home in Rolling Meadows, Ill., Mrs. Irsay, who still has a rich Hungarian accent, said, "He's a devil on earth, that one." Every few seconds she paused for breath, her voice rising at the start of each thought, then quickly tiring. "He stole all our money and said goodbye. He don't care for me. I don't even see him for 35 years. My husband, Charles, sent him to college. I made his wedding. Five thousand dollars, it cost us. When my husband got sick and got the heart attack, he [Bob] took advantage. He was no good," she said. "He was a bad boy. I don't want to talk about him."

It was Carroll Rosenbloom and Joe Thomas, both now deceased, who brought Irsay into the league. Rosenbloom was the owner of the Colts from 1953 to 1972, but he wanted out of Baltimore for a couple of the reasons that Irsay ultimately did—money and a running feud with the Baltimore press. Thomas had recently been fired as the personnel director of the Dolphins. Together, they cooked up a deal that would get Rosenbloom out of Baltimore and into the lucrative L.A. market and provide Thomas with a job as G.M. of the Colts. They needed to find someone to buy the Rams for $19 million—on the condition that the individual would then trade the Rams, even up, for Rosenbloom's Colts. That someone, an acquaintance of Thomas's from Florida, was a Chicago heating and air-conditioning contractor named Robert Irsay.

Initially, Irsay was a breath of fresh air in Baltimore, something of an engaging country bumpkin following the sophisticated and egotistical Rosenbloom. He had the curious habit of calling everyone "Tiger," and he was quick with a warm, firm handshake. Tom Matte, the popular halfback who was nearing the end of his career, recalls the first time he met the new owner: "It was in Denver, where we had broken training camp. A team meeting was called so we could meet Mr. Irsay, and he comes in an hour late, sloshed, looks down at his shoes and starts rambling: 'I'm the new owner, and I was in the Marines. I'm married to a nice Polack....' I looked over at [Johnny] Unitas and we both started laughing. How could this guy have made $19 million if he can't even look you in the face?"

Irsay had, indeed, made a lot of money, although his origins were not quite as humble as he liked to pass them off as being. In the Colts media guides and in a number of early interviews, Irsay made much of being raised in the "Bucktown" section of Chicago, the Near Northwest Side, an ethnically diverse area with a large East European population. "Hunkies" was a slang racial catchall for the residents, and Irsay himself was of Hungarian blood. "My father died when I was very young, and we were poor," he told The Sun in a 1973 interview, going on to describe to the Baltimore paper how he could run the 100 in 9.8 but never reached his potential as a football player because he was carrying "23 semester hours, washing dishes to help support myself, working in a haberdashery on Saturdays, and I had to find enough time to study." He liked to brag that he got his start on $800 borrowed from his wife.

In the media guide he claimed, and still claims, to have graduated from the University of Illinois (where he supposedly was an Illini football teammate of former Colt Alex Agase) with a degree in mechanical engineering. Of his war record Irsay told The Sun, "I was wounded once pretty badly in the leg, in New Guinea, hit by a grenade" and in 1975 he told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "came out as first lieutenant."

He spoke of the tragic death of his only daughter, Roberta, who in 1971 at age 14 suffered fatal injuries in an auto accident on Interstate 294 outside Chicago. He told The Sun: "They caught the kids who ran her car off the road. They were on drugs when it happened. They got 10 to 20 years, but the way things are today they'll probably be out in five."

It was an astounding collection of half-truths and prevarications. His daughter had, indeed, been killed in an accident, but according to state police records, there was no evidence of another car having run her vehicle off the road, no arrests were made, and the car in which Roberta was a passenger had, in fact, gone over a guardrail, slid down an embankment and struck a car on another expressway.

Irsay's father, Charles, was very much alive in 1973—he died in February 1984—although he had not spoken to Bob since the son walked out of his office in 1951 to start a competing sheet metal firm—the Robert Irsay Company. "He wasn't my father," Robert asserts. "He was my stepfather. I never saw him again. We just dropped it. They never called me and I never called them. I didn't get a nickel from him. I just went out on my own and did it."

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