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A jam session with JIM IRSAY
L. Jon Wertheim
January 25, 2010
When he inherited the Colts from his controversial father, Robert, 13 years ago, the Who-loving, Dylan-quoting Irsay set out to be a radically different sort of owner. The result is a perennially successful team that has become the envy of the NFL and turned Indiana into a football-mad state
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January 25, 2010

A Jam Session With Jim Irsay

When he inherited the Colts from his controversial father, Robert, 13 years ago, the Who-loving, Dylan-quoting Irsay set out to be a radically different sort of owner. The result is a perennially successful team that has become the envy of the NFL and turned Indiana into a football-mad state

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If this recalls San Francisco in the '50s and '60s, it's for good reason. He is so taken by Jack Kerouac that in 2001 he paid $2.4 million for the famed scroll of On the Road, the novel/travelogue Kerouac allegedly wrote in a three-week marathon fueled by caffeine, nicotine and Benzedrine. Irsay believes the scroll is currently touring the world, perhaps somewhere in Europe—"Hopefully," he says, "people are enjoying it and having their eyes opened by it"—but it turns out that after years of touring, the manuscript is resting safely in an Indiana University rare-books library.

Irsay also had "a thing" for Hunter S. Thompson. They met in the late '90s through a mutual friend, the writer-director Cameron Crowe. Soon Irsay was calling Thompson at all hours of the night, after Jim's wife, Meg, went to sleep. "Sometimes he had John Depp on the other line, and I'd have to call back," says Irsay. What did he and Thompson talk about? "Just pearls of wisdom," Irsay says. "He was another shy, sweet guy, like John Belushi or Chris Farley, where the persona was one way and the real [person] was another. Just all the drugs and alcohol wore him out."

Irsay was distraught when Thompson committed suicide in February 2005. Instead of attending the funeral in Aspen, Colo.—"I knew it was going to be a lot of liquor and large explosives, and that wasn't the Hunter I knew," he says—he wrote a poem in tribute. The Frozen Lakes of the Confessor ends with this: They said you'd finally do it/but you pissed them off/'cause only you knew when/But now "when" is already yesterday/See ya on the "Other Side" my friend....

If there's a common theme to Irsay's disparate tastes, it's an affection for drifters and open roads and other Americana. Robert Irsay was a striver who exaggerated his credentials and wanted acceptance from the country-club set. Not so his son. Around Indianapolis, Jim—never, you'll notice, James—is famous for his dinner parties: He'll invite business leaders and well-connected lawyers and put them together with the grease monkey he recently met at the gas station.

"I embrace my peasant roots," he says more than once, proudly noting that his maternal grandmother was a poor Chicago housekeeper. When Colts executives tour Indiana spreading the gospel of football, Irsay lets others go to the moneyed suburbs. He ventures instead to the small-town Rotary Clubs and VFW halls, places, he says admiringly, where hors d'oeuvres means a bowl of gumballs on a folding table. "It's like the Queen of England versus the woman carrying water on her head in India," he says. "Spiritually, life is an equal theater. People need to understand that. There are no free passes, man."

Once, Irsay went to considerable lengths to separate what one friend calls "out-there Jim" from "football Jim," but no more. As he's gotten older, he's tried to integrate the two worlds. So it is that Stills shows up in Irsay's suite on game day, as he did at the Broncos game last month. (As the Colts set up their winning drive, Irsay eased the tension by turning and asking Stills if he'd ever met Elvis; he had not.) Likewise, Irsay exposes the Indianapolis players, coaches and fans to his aesthetic side, dropping music references into preseason pep talks, even composing the team's fight song.

Colts center Jeff Saturday laughs. "Jim's great, but he's definitely"—Saturday slows down to choose his words carefully, this being the boss and all—"more on the artistic side of it. I guess that's his thing. But don't misunderstand: When it's about winning, he's serious business. For all the artsy stuff, he wants to win football games."

A prominent player describes Irsay as "quirky" but then asks to take it back. "He's a little different," the player finally decides. "But when it comes down to it, who isn't?"

Towns throughout Indiana once came together on Friday nights to watch high school basketball games; now they come together on Friday nights to watch high school football games. If a sizable chunk of the state's population once owned Reggie Miller's number 31 Pacers jerseys, now an even greater proportion own replicas of Manning's number 18. "I never thought I'd say it," says Bill Benner, a longtime Indianapolis sportswriter, "but Indiana has gone from a basketball state to a football state."

Some of this cultural shift owes to circumstance. In November 2004, the Pacers were involved in a midgame brawl that rocked the franchise, which is now hanging on for dear life. Depending on your view, Bob Knight got what was coming to him or was unfairly run out of Bloomington; what's not debatable is that Indiana University hoops haven't been the same since Knight was fired in September 2000. The popular all-comers high school tournament, immortalized in Hoosiers, lost its significance after tone-deaf administrators replaced it with a class format in the 1997--98 season.

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