This season the Colts celebrated their 25th anniversary in Indiana, and by now Jim Irsay has become a naturalized Hoosier. He knows the small towns and roadside diners. He counts John Mellencamp, the state's unofficial poet laureate, among his friends. He speaks with a throaty Midwestern inflection. Jim's middle daughter, Casey, his likely successor as owner, recently married the grandson of four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt.
But Irsay retains vivid memories of one of his first trips to the region. It was 1983, and the Colts were still in Baltimore. Robert Irsay was the team's owner. After a long, wet lunch, Robert called his son and told him, "Get to Indianapolis," a city to which he was considering relocating his franchise.
Jim, then in his mid-20s, did as he always did, obeying his dad without asking questions. He flew out and checked into a hotel under an alias. Then he called home. "O.K., I'm here, Dad," he said. "What do you want me to do?"
"You're where?" asked Robert Irsay, who had sobered up in the interim.
"Indianapolis! What the hell are you doing in Indianapolis? You can't be seen there!"
"But you said to...."
"Get back home!"
So it went with Robert Irsay, who'd bought the Colts in 1972 for $16 million. A heating and air-conditioning magnate, he was a savvy and opportunistic businessman, but he was also—how to put it?—a controversial figure. He didn't burn bridges so much as firebomb them. Jim Irsay describes his father as "smart but volatile, done in by drinking." Robert's mother was less charitable; in a withering 1986 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED profile, she characterized her older son as "a devil on earth."
Robert fired coaches on whims—even, once, on the sidelines during a game. He grabbed a headset and called plays. He berated players. Jim, just 13 when his father bought the team, was often torn between filial loyalty and his sense of fairness. "The players were like uncles to me," he says, "and my dad wasn't always so nice to them."