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How's the Zen approach worked out? Over the past decade the Colts have won more games than any NFL team and are now within eight quarters of winning their second championship in four years. The value of the franchise, according to Forbes, exceeds $1 billion, and it has never been more profitable. Respect for Irsay among his 31 peers is so high that they voted to award Indianapolis the 2012 Super Bowl. Ask executives around the league about the Colts, and the default characterization is class organization.
Last fall, when conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh was involved in a bid to buy the Rams, it was Irsay who first voiced opposition. Citing the commentator's "inappropriate, incendiary and insensitive" remarks about African-Americans, Irsay said he would not support Limbaugh's entry to the league. Within days Limbaugh withdrew.
Maybe dearest to Irsay was a public-private partnership to build a new stadium—a gleaming edifice on the south side of downtown Indianapolis, flush with suites and a retractable roof—which he orchestrated two years ago. The Colts chipped in $100 million, taxpayers added $620 million, and California-based Lucas Oil agreed to pay $6 million a year in naming rights. (Try getting those deal terms today.) The erection of Lucas Oil Stadium means that the Colts won't be moving, at least not in Jim Irsay's lifetime. "You know how he felt the wrath of Baltimore when his dad left?" says Dungy, still a close friend of Irsay's. "He didn't want that for his kids, being stigmatized in the city where they grew up."
Reflecting on the franchise's success over the last decade, Irsay reflexively ladles out credit. To Polian. To Dungy. To Manning. To former wide receiver Marvin Harrison. To "our great fans." But mostly to luck. "What if Peyton comes out a year early, in 1997, and goes to the Jets?" Irsay muses. "What if we [win] that game [with] Minnesota, or what if Jake Plummer doesn't bring Arizona back in the last game of the ['97] season and we lose the pick? What if Bill Polian or Tony Dungy doesn't come here? Or we don't draft Dwight Freeney or Dallas Clark? Injuries...." He stops himself and veers in another direction. "People use words like brand and strategy. But to me it's more intuitive: What makes sense to do it right?"
Irsay has always been careful not to disparage his old man and the way he ran the team, but he allows himself to dust off a line he's been using for years: "They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but what if the tree is on a hill?"
The House of Irsay knows pain. Robert and Harriet Irsay's first child, Tommy, was born severely retarded and spent most of his life in institutions before dying at age 45 in 1999. Jim was 11 when a state trooper knocked on the family's door and explained that his big sister, Roberta, 15, had died in an auto accident. "Not only can anything happen, but it does," Jim says. "That's why, if things aren't going well, I'm your man. In your mind, you can't think that if you lose, you're less of a person." Jim ran marathons and lifted weights competitively, but it wrecked his body. Recovering from wrist and elbow surgeries in the '90s, he developed an addiction to painkillers. It took a couple of stints in rehab, the most recent in 2002, for him to get clean. "Look at his life," says Bart Peterson, Indianapolis's mayor from 2000 to '08. "Jim is proof that you can be born into privilege and still have to overcome an awful lot in life."
Through it all, Irsay's therapy has been music. It was something that had nothing to do with his dad and nothing to do with the Colts. "Football took me to one place," he says, "and music took me somewhere totally different."
Irsay was still in Baltimore when he met Stills. Back then, Stills recalls, "we had 28-inch waists and nothing hurt. [Jim] was bashful, like me, but his interest was something else. I'd ask about Bert Jones, but he'd want to talk about songs or guitars."
The music led to an interest in poetry, which led to an interest in spirituality. On these and most other subjects, Irsay doesn't speak so much as he free-associates, seldom going more than a few sentences without referring to a rock lyric. He peppers his sentences with the phrase you know, but it's less a verbal tic than a reassurance that the listener is connecting with him. And if you thought Hamlet did soliloquies, well, just get Irsay going. Say, does art express itself in a football game?
"It really does. It's an incredible game. It mirrors life. It mirrors the journey you're on. Ultimately it mirrors the passion. Like the Greeks talked about all those things. And football, that element of so much adversity, so many things you have to overcome, so many aspects that can go wrong, some of your doing, some not of your doing. I kind of ... I find a lot of things artistic. To me finance is extremely artistic. Numbers are extremely artistic. When you actually look at music, when you're a songwriter, anyone will tell you it's numerical, you know. But I think there's an art form to everything we do. To me, we are all artists. You know, our canvas is our life, and everything we do ties into that art. Words are something that I love. I'm a huge Dylan Thomas fan. For me, following music and being passionate about Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and The Who, I didn't really realize you could ever get past John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Marshall amps to get that intensity until I really started reading Dylan Thomas. Looking at lines on a page was something that completely blew me away. You know that's the reason, that intensity, I mean it's like a line Bob Dylan has: You know the truth was obscured, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode. To me, you know, that's the aspect of being in these human bodies. Just that sometimes, no matter how you try, get to that full expression of what we search for. We're searchers. And it's really all a search for God, a search for the higher power, that we long for. But in the human form, we're left with our five senses, in a lonely manner, unless we go for our sixth sense. And that's the reason I've always loved the lines [from Teilhard de Chardin], We are not human beings having a spiritual existence. We are spiritual beings having a human existence. Being our essence. And that's the reason football—there's nothing else I'd rather be into on a Sunday."