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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

You know what they say are the two things in the world worth living for?" asks Jim Irsay, owner of the Colts. The question is rhetorical; the answers should be obvious. Given Irsay's complex relationship with his late father, the tragedies that befell his two siblings and his deep devotion to his wife and three daughters, surely family is one answer. And given how often Irsay mentions various associates and running buddies, friends must be the other.

Then again, Irsay oversees a model NFL franchise. Under his stewardship Indianapolis hasn't just won; it has won with class, captivating an entire state. So maybe Irsay's answers will be facetious, something on the order of, "A healthy quarterback and a taxpayer-funded stadium."

Sitting behind his sprawling desk in his sprawling office at the Colts' sprawling headquarters, Irsay leans in. He smiles. His hazel eyes narrow. He reveals the answers: "Innocence and magic."

Um, come again?

"The only things worth living for are innocence and magic," he repeats, explaining that it's a line from the album White Ladder, by the British soft rocker David Gray. "He's saying, We're looking for magic, and it's greater than us. You know, it's the sixth sense, the spiritual thing. It comes in this life from the shared experience."

As Irsay continues his explanation, he steals another glance at a straw-colored Martin acoustic guitar propped against a swivel chair. The Lombardi Trophy, an emblem of the Colts' 2007 Super Bowl XLI victory, is the centerpiece of his office. But on this cold, brooding Monday, as Irsay meanders gently from innocence and magic to family psychodynamics to "Eminem as a life force"—and even occasionally to Indy's successful season and his unlikely status as one of the most respected owners in pro sports—he can't keep his eye off that signature edition six-string, a gift from his longtime friend Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Finally, Irsay can take it no more. He walks across the room and whips off his black Roots-brand sweatshirt. In a tight black T-shirt that barely covers the Colts' horseshoe logo tattooed on his right shoulder, Irsay, whose slicked-back hair is as much salt as it is pepper, cradles the guitar and starts fingerpicking Four and Twenty, written by Stills. Irsay says the song has been "resonating" with him lately.

He closes his eyes and sings in a firm voice that starts deep in his belly and falls somewhere between Springsteen and Tom Waits on the gravel continuum. You're tempted to picture one of Irsay's colleagues—say, Patriots owner Robert Kraft or the Cowboys' Jerry Jones or, for that matter, Irsay's blustery father, Robert—playing his ax and singing for a guest without inhibition or irony. You're tempted to dwell on the fact that Irsay gives the lie to the notion that NFL owners are either buttoned-up bean counters or image-conscious megalomaniacs. But Irsay is good—really good—with guitar chops that are matched by his voice. So you concentrate on the music instead.

The lyrics are dark, especially for a dude who's only 50 and on the Forbes 400 list. But Irsay sings with soft, mournful conviction, and his voice is trembling by the time he gets to the final verse: I embrace the many-colored beast/I grow weary of the torment/Can there be no peace?/And I find myself just wishing that my life would simply cease.

When Irsay finishes, he smiles sheepishly. "So, anyway," he says, "what were we talking about?"

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