An acorn that fell a long, long way from the tree

Anyone who remembers the father would barely recognize the

son.

The late Robert Irsay was a bully, loud and meddlesome to a

fault. Those qualities made him one of the NFL’s more inept owners

and arguably its most reviled. By comparison, Jim Irsay runs the

Colts franchise the way the Dalai Lama might.

Stories abound about the kid who struggled not just to avoid

repeating the sins of his father, but to make amends. One of the

better-known tales dates to the mid-1960s when the Colts, then

located in Baltimore, lost a preseason game in Detroit. Robert

Irsay swept through the locker room afterward like an angry storm,

berating the players and threatening to fire everyone. As they

boarded the bus, there stood 16-year-old Jim, apologizing to each

for his father’s outburst.

“You know how people say the acorn never falls far from the

tree?” retired longtime NFL executive Gil Brandt said. “Well, in

this case, the acorn wound up a long, long way away.”

Some 30 years would pass before Jim got to do things his way,

assuming day-to-day control of the team only after his father

suffered a stroke in 1995. After serving an apprenticeship that

scattered him to nearly every corner of the organization – ball

boy, ticket taker, scout and general manager – it’s hardly an

exaggeration to say he hit the ground running.

“It was kind of like growing up in the circus,” Irsay said

earlier this week, as the Colts racheted up preparations for their

second Super Bowl appearance in the last four years. “It was just

part of my life. I never really wanted to be anywhere else. There

was never anything else that crossed my mind.”

Irsay’s stewardship reflects plenty of time listening and

talking only so much. He served on a range of NFL committees, then

hired the smartest football guy he could find, Bill Polian, and

made him the Colts president in January 1998. Later that year,

Indianapolis used the first pick overall to select Tennessee

quarterback Peyton Manning in the draft – ahead of Washington State

passer Ryan Leaf – a decision largely attributed to Polian’s

acumen.

Not so well known is that before that move was finalized, Irsay

sent his private jet to Knoxville to pick Manning up and deliver

him to Miami, where the owner had a banquet laid out and questions

he wanted answered in person. Between bites of seafood and

conversation that likely ranged from Bob Lilly to Bob Dylan,

Manning saw for himself the balance those who know Irsay believe

might be his best quality.

“I’d describe him as artistic, probably not what you would

consider a typical NFL owner,” Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday

said. “He has a love of music, of poetry, and he makes sure that

people know that. He doesn’t back down from that. He’s not afraid

to express it.”

Afraid?

Irsay owns guitars that once belonged to Elvis Presley, George

Harrison, Jerry Garcia and Keith Richards, the last one sharing

space in his office with the Lombardi Trophy the Colts brought back

to Indianapolis after beating the Chicago Bears in the 2007 Super

Bowl. He counts John Mellencamp and Stephen Stills among his pals,

and occasionally sits in on jam sessions. In 2001, he shelled out

$2.4 million to buy the scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote the

classic beat-generation novel “On the Road.”

It’s those wide-ranging interests that help explain why Irsay’s

interviews this week have been sprinkled with epic depictions of

winning and losing.

“I’ve said it before: You scratch and claw. You’re 100 feet

from the top of Mt. Everest and you know only one person’s going to

make it and the other person’s going to fall down to the bottom,”

he said.

Yet in the next breath, Irsay can exit a discussion about

new-age philosophy and launch into one about salary caps, revenue

sharing and the innermost workings of the NFL. Watching Irsay work

the room on media day, he was the very picture of a power player:

hair slicked back, barrel chest sheathed in a natty charcoal suit,

white shirt, silver tie.

Small wonder. It was Irsay’s objection that helped sink a bid by

conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh to buy into a group

bidding for the St. Louis Rams last year. And his influence as a

member of the league’s chief executive council may determine

whether the game steers clear of a labor stoppage in 2011.

Irsay’s respect among his peers helped Indianapolis land the

2012 Super Bowl. It’s just one way he’s put stakes down in the

community, the exact opposite of what Bob Irsay did when he tore

the Colts out of Baltimore and moved the franchise to Indianapolis

in the dead of night in March 1984.

Whether it’s opening his home to charity functions, or staging a

lottery to award five rings from the 2007 Super Bowl championship

to fans, the “power of love” Irsay talks about without a hint of

embarrassment has flowed back in his direction.

“It was difficult, and support kind of waned. We stayed the

course, and it didn’t happen overnight,” he said.

“But once you have greatness,” Irsay added a moment later,

“you have a chance to define yourself and what you’re about.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at jlitke (at) ap.org