Commentary

For two families, it's redemption time

Updated: February 5, 2010, 8:30 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- They passed each other Tuesday morning in a cordoned-off area of Sun Life Stadium where security is tight and only the elite and well-credentialed can wander. "Oh, here's the enemy," Tom Benson joked when he spotted Jim Irsay. They laughed and hugged, designer suits be damned. Then Irsay and Benson went off in separate directions, one to a photo shoot, the other to the circus of Super Bowl media day. And everyone flocked to be around them.

It's a wonderful week to be rich, successful and beloved in Miami. Tom Benson walks into a room, his adoring wife Gayle clutching his hand, and cameramen fight for a shot and everyone hangs on to the morsels flowing from his Louisiana drawl. He is delightful and sweet, a Southern family man to the core. He is flanked by his granddaughter Rita, who stands loyally a few feet away. Five years ago, the owner of the New Orleans Saints was possibly the most hated man in the NFL. Now his team is in the Super Bowl, and the Benson name is solid as oak.

[+] EnlargeJim Irasy
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAfter Robert Irsay died in 1997, his son, Jim, became the NFL's youngest owner at the age of 37.

Irsay is granite. His Colts are going for their second ring in four seasons, and peers call him a visionary, a thoughtful and generous soul. A couple of decades ago, when times were much harder, comments about the Irsay family usually came in four-letter words.

So here are these two owners, so different in everything from age to musical tastes, but so much the same. They're the redemption stories of the Super Bowl, two families who have dealt with intense losses and harsh criticism to restore their legacies.

It isn't something Benson and Irsay talk about a lot, but the family name obviously weighs heavily on their minds. Only days before his team played in Super Bowl XLIV, Irsay said he still ponders what his father, the late and controversial Robert Irsay, would think about the job he's done.

"I know that he would be so proud," Irsay says. "I've always said this is a father-and-son team. The partnership we have is very real.

"I know he's happy."

The Bensons and their team

Rita Benson LeBlanc sits in an upstairs ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami on Tuesday, poking her fork through a turkey-and-fruit lunch while occasionally glancing at her watch.

She wants to tell a story about how her 82-year-old grandfather still connects with football players young enough to be his great-grandkids. Tom Benson underwent a surgery that left a giant bruise across his side and stomach. (Benson battled cancer in late 2008.) One day after practice, he pulled up his shirt, showed the ugly wound to the team, and cracked a joke. "See, I'm on IR. But I'm coming back!"

Rita, the heir to the Saints' franchise, was 8 years old when her grandfather bought the Saints for $70 million back in 1985.

By then, she already was entrenched in a life of football. On Super Bowl Sundays, the family would gather around the house, and her mom would pull out the crystal and silver for a big dinner. Everyone in the room was riveted to the game. Her great-grandma sat 2 feet away from the TV just so she could see what happened.

Soon, the state of Louisiana would be watching Tom Benson. He was a man of contradictions, a private type who could be guarded with his secrets, then let loose after a victory and twirl an umbrella in the end zone while doing a boogie.

[+] EnlargeRita Benson LeBlanc, Paul Tagliabue
AP Photo/Alex BrandonAfter Hurricane Katrina, Rita Benson LeBlanc helped with plans to refurbish the Superdome.

When the Saints were winning, like they did in the early '90s, the headlines screamed, BENSON FOR GOVERNOR. When New Orleans lost everything, Benson was a visible villain.

If Katrina was the breaking point for Benson, the moment when the city turned against him after he temporarily relocated the Saints to San Antonio and talked about possibly keeping the team in Texas, then Rita was the adhesive that pulled everything back together.

She took a more visible role in the franchise, got out in the community, flashed her youthful face and her humanity. She helped with plans to refurbish the Superdome, tracked down displaced season-ticket holders and did charity work at food banks and senior centers.

"It's not superficial; it's genuine. She cares," says Anne Milling, the founder of Women of the Storm, a group that works with Congress on post-Katrina issues.

"I think Tom Benson was maybe a disgruntled man, and I'm sure that feelings were shattered there and there were a lot of question marks. But I think Rita has softened him. It's a beautiful relationship between the two of them, and they're each blessed to have the other one."

A little-known fact about Tom Benson, according to Milling: He gives anonymous donations to local charities. Making those deeds public no doubt could have helped restore Benson's image a little faster. But then again, he has Rita to do that. She is more of an open book, and the city of New Orleans knows snapshots about her, how she read Lee Iacocca's biography as a kid, how she graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in agribusiness, how she was ready for this job well before anyone could see it.

When the headlines turned against the Bensons, Rita was able to shut it out. She's pragmatic beyond her 33 years and chose to focus on what she could control.

"But he reads the press more," she says. "I know that it would bother him.

"I think he sees [now] that attention is fickle. I mean, you don't look back. You move forward. I think that's why he's a survivor. There's so much to work for and live for."

Sometimes, in private moments, Tom Benson will reflect on what's gone. He lost two of his three children when they were in their 30s -- a son, Robert Carter, and a daughter, Tootsie. When he's down about the passing of friends, Rita, always the optimist, will tell her grandfather, "That's why you make new friends."

He built his empire in the car business and still owns three dealerships in San Antonio. The Web site for Benson's Chevrolet, Honda and Mercedes-Benz dealerships touts the business as a family. "And a remarkably functional one, at that," it says.

Benson often can be found watching practice under an awning, distanced but still there. Saints defensive end Will Smith says he visited Benson's office once. He was immediately struck by the large number of family photos hanging in the room.

"He loves his family very deeply," Smith says. "He's a happy guy. Every time we see him, he has a smile on his face.

"Knowing Tom for the past couple of years, and knowing his dedication and his love for the organization and the team, I'm really happy that I'm one of the guys that got him to his first Super Bowl. He and Rita, you can just see it in their eyes how excited they are, how happy they are to finally be here after such a long road."

As the media gathered around Tom Benson on Tuesday for a rare interview, he said he never really considered moving the Saints out of New Orleans. History might say otherwise. But as Saints fans count the hours until the Super Bowl, who really cares about that now?

"To see things, getting our city back … we know it's back," Benson says. "But now we're telling the whole world it's back."

Through the evacuation and the move back to New Orleans, Benson repeated the same mantra in just about every meeting: "Tough times never last, but tough people do." And to Rita, Tom is one of the toughest people she knows.

They dine on a ballroom buffett on Tuesday, and Tom gets up to leave. He pats his granddaughter on the shoulder. "Hey, see y'all later," he says. Rita watches him slowly walk out of the room.

It hurt the old man when the public turned against him. It might have hurt Rita the most.

"When I had to do a more public role, I think it sort of opened peoples' eyes that this is someone's grandfather," she says. "Every business executive is human. Every celebrity is someone's relative. Everybody's human, and they will make mistakes, and they will usually be a fair representation of what the population is like."

The Irsays and their team

There was a time when Jim Irsay felt uncomfortable. He was 12, maybe 13 years old. His dad had just bought the Baltimore Colts, and the boy nervously carried a lunch tray around the team cafeteria, trying to find a place to sit. He plopped down on an empty seat when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Johnny Unitas, the Colts' legendary quarterback. "Move your ass, son," Unitas told him, kiddingly. "Slide over."

Growing up as the son of an NFL owner, Irsay says, is "like growing up in a circus. The sawdust is in your blood."

Jim Irsay
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesIrsay, seen with GM Bill Polian and quarterback Peyton Manning, says sometimes he wonders what his father would think of the job he's done.

Irsay's father Robert bought the Baltimore Colts in 1972, and Jim still has some grainy 8 millimeter film to document those early and innocent days, when he was a ball boy looking up to Johnny U. and Bubba Smith. He loved those memories. Twelve years later, under the darkness of an early-spring night, Robert Irsay, an unpredictable man with a reputation for boozy outbursts, packed up and moved the team to Indianapolis while the state of Maryland slept.

Like Benson, Robert Irsay dealt with his share of inner demons and emotional losses. In 1971, his only daughter Roberta, 15, was killed in a car accident on an interstate outside of Chicago. His oldest son Tommy was severely developmentally disabled, and died in 1999 at the age of 45.

Yeah, the old man was known to drink too much, make bad decisions, lash out at capable men. Did he do it because of his pain? Jim Irsay loved his dad and knew this: That deep down, all he wanted to do was win. He made his son general manager in 1984, a month after the move, and Jim took over day-to-day operation of the team in 1995, after the elder Irsay suffered a stroke. Robert Irsay died in 1997, and Jim became the NFL's youngest owner at the age of 37. That next year, the Colts drafted Peyton Manning with the No. 1 overall pick. Irsay remembers nearly every detail about the months leading up to that monumental move, how they talked about the future over a seafood dinner, how there were so many variables that almost prevented the Manning deal from happening. What if the Cardinals hadn't rallied in the final week of the '97 season to win and drop to No. 3 in the draft order? What if the Colts had gone with the soon-to-implode Ryan Leaf instead?

In 1999, one year after Manning arrived, the Colts went 13-3. And the transformation was under way.

But whatever happened, Irsay had made a point, maybe unconsciously, to do things differently than his father did. He'd sink enormous amounts of money into the team and listen to his fan base. He'd let his coaches coach and his players play.

When the Colts won Super Bowl XLI three years ago, Irsay gave away five Super Bowl rings to the people of Indianapolis.

"The incredible thing about spiritual growth," Irsay says, "is that it comes from those seasons of suffering. It shapes you, and God works in really special ways. … When you go through that, it definitely has a huge influence on you and it gives you humility and it gives you gratitude.

"There's no doubt when I look back on this journey and see where we are, it really has been incredible. You just try to take it all in and slow down time, because you know no matter how good you can operate and manage, getting back and being in this Super Bowl week is just a rare opportunity."

Colts center Jeff Saturday calls Irsay "an extremely generous person" with unconventional tastes. He's the scruff in a freshly shaven world, a guitar-playing poet who's constantly waxing introspective. Irsay hangs with musicians Stephen Stills and John Mellencamp and considered the late writer Hunter S. Thompson one of his dearest friends.

He is nothing like his father, but his dad, inevitably, was the man who shaped him. And serves as a lingering voice in his head. Clark Hunt, who became owner of the Kansas City Chiefs after his father Lamar died, says that's a natural part of family ownerships.

"Sometimes I'll stop and think," Hunt says, "'I wonder how my father would've dealt with this issue?' However, probably the best advice my father gave me, and I think Jim's father gave him, too, is to be your own man."

Irsay has three daughters in their 20s now, and they've been hanging around training camps since they were in diapers. He gushes about his kids. His youngest, Kalen, is a senior at Indiana University; the oldest, Carlie, is married to a lawyer and working on her master's degree. Casey receives the most buzz of the siblings in Indianapolis. She has a tattoo of the Colts' horseshoe on her wrist, is married to the grandson of former Indy 500 champ A.J. Foyt, and is climbing her way up the Colts' organizational ladder.

Some day, the franchise could be hers. Irsay wants that for his kids.

"They've been to the NFL owners meetings, and that's awesome to have them in the room," Irsay says of his daughters. "They're not as actively involved as I have been, but I see them being involved and definitely learning the ropes as kind of owners-in-training, so to speak.

"They have lived it since their birth, and have known the horseshoe since birth."

In the same place, at the same time

[+] EnlargeRita Benson LeBlanc
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesRita Benson LeBlanc, far right, celebrates the NFC Championship witih Tom and Gayle Benson.

The afternoon is running away from her, and Rita LeBlanc needs to head out. She stops in a restroom in the hotel lobby to freshen her makeup. It's a party for New Orleans this week, but the owners have a lot to do. A few years ago, when she was by far the youngest person in the owners' meetings, Irsay brought his daughters in, a move that lowered the median age. LeBlanc liked that, but says she isn't uncomfortable being the only person in the room without crow's feet.

She's used to standing out. And now, finally, her family is standing on one of sports' biggest stages. LeBlanc says the Saints are mentally tough and unfailingly focused. They're in a groove, she says. But here's the thing: So are Irsay's Colts. When they ran into each other on Tuesday, she hugged Jim Irsay, too. That's what people from New Orleans do, she says. They hug.

Irsay asked about Benson's yacht, and congratulated him for making it to the Super Bowl. LeBlanc says Irsay is tenacious, and she acknowledges the fact that the family's paths have been similar. "But," she says, "they've already got one. It's our turn."

She grabs her BlackBerry and heads out into the warm Miami afternoon, where, for a few more days at least, everybody loves them and history is being rewritten.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.