Irsay's passions: Rock 'n' roll, Kerouac and the NFL

He owns the original scroll of "On the Road" and he rubs elbows with rock stars. Oh, and Jimmy Irsay might be about to win the Super Bowl, too. Wright Thompson reports.

Updated: February 2, 2007, 1:34 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- This is the office of a man who's searching.

This is the calendar of a man trying to find peace. It's laid open, completely empty of appointments, even though his real schedule takes at least two people to keep it untangled.

This is the bookshelf of a man who wants to know every part of himself. The titles strike discordant notes: a biography of Marshall McLuhan, the man who first imagined the world as a global village; a coffee-table book on the Peyton Manning years at Tennessee; "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," a famous paean to the acid-soaked San Francisco scene; and "Franny and Zooey," a lesser-known work by J.D. Salinger about a child of money growing apart from the culture she'd been brought up to revere.

Jimmy Irsay
Darron Cummings/AP PhotoIrsay and one of his prize possessions, the original manuscript scroll of Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road.'
This is the desk of a man with contradictions, which, found in others, might seem incongruent, but in him seem like complementary parts of the whole. His is certainly the only desk in America backed by the AFC Championship Trophy and a photo of the grave of bluesman Robert Johnson. He enjoys both equally. That's the essence of Jim Irsay, who owns both Jerry Garcia's Tiger guitar and the Indianapolis Colts.

"He's an NFL owner who writes poems and does rock albums," says his close friend, historian Douglas Brinkley. "He's taken some of the best aspects of that '60s energy and put it into 2007 football."

Everything about him says seeker. He's got a Gulfstream and a helicopter, both faster than a small-town boy turning 18, ready to take him away. A few years ago, in 2001, he cranked up that jet and flew to an auction. They were selling Kerouac's original scroll manuscript of "On the Road," the Beat generation classic, and he was "going to buy not bid."

He did buy, for $2.4 million, and now the ultimate celebration of wandering in search of enlightenment is his. It's no wonder he loves the book; there are parts of him in both Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. In Dean, there is the man living in the moment, enjoying intellectual things without being driven to cynicism. In Sal, there is the man who feeds off men like Dean. Sometimes, when Irsay references Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Buffett in the same sentence, you sense that there are things he sees in others that he wants to see in himself.

Jimmy Irsay
Michael Conroy/AP PhotoIrsay is never far away from music, especially his own.
As Kerouac's narrator, Sal, says, "I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center-light pop and everybody goes, 'Awww!'"

Then, through an open door, Jim Irsay walks into the room. It's more than a walk. He strides into a room, every gesture big. He opens his mouth to speak and streams of words come out, nothing linear. He picks up the AFC Championship Trophy, holding it up in the air, laughing, beginning to burn, burn, burn. This trophy reminds him of other trophies and he cackles.

"I wanna be reincarnated as the Stanley Cup," he says.


His dad, Bob Irsay, was usually called one of two things. The first we can't print. The second is "piece of work." Where to start with his list of sins? Could it be lying about seeing combat action? Could it be the drunken tirades? Calling plays from the owner's box? Moving the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis under cover of darkness?

"His own mother was quoted that he's a devil on earth," says former Baltimore Colt Bruce Laird.

Old Man Irsay wanted to win a Super Bowl, wanted it more than anything else, and son Jim watched year after year as he made decisions that guaranteed he'd never do so.

"Jimmy was mortified on many different occasions and was just beside himself," Laird says. "I'm sure he doesn't want to be reminded of those times. He just watched the old man do one crazy thing after another."

Jimmy Irsay
Michael Conroy/AP PhotoThe Lamar Hunt Trophy is nice and all, but Jimmy Irsay might rather have -- or even be -- the Stanley Cup.
Sometimes, though, Irsay does remember. He's a big music guy, and there's a song that always takes him back to the roller coaster. It's by the Talking Heads, called "Life During Wartime." One line goes: The sound of gunfire, off in the distance; I'm getting used to it now.

The old man was a cold capitalist, and, to hear the living tell it, an egomaniac. His son wanted to be something more. He wanted to create things, not destroy them.

"We're all artists," he says. "We're all creating our tapestry and our canvas is our life. Like Keats said, the human existence is completely made up of soul making. That is what it's about. In my mind, I try to divert from the ego. John Lennon always talked about one time he tried to destroy his ego with LSD. And it didn't work. And so the ego has to be in balance, but it can also get in the way."

Jim tried it all. Weightlifting. Songwriting. Late nights on the Sunset Strip. Rehab for prescription drugs. Hanging out with Stephen Stills and Hunter S. Thompson and Cameron Crowe, all close friends. When Hunter died, he wrote a poem about how he felt, a poem about searching for answers in death. It was called "The Frozen Lakes of the Confessor." He writes:

From the corner of my eye
I saw you skate away
sliding on the sharp blades
of freedom.

Robert Irsay
Bill Smith/AP PhotoJimmy's father, the late Robert Irsay, was combative, to say the least. Here, he was in a 1984 shouting match with reporters.
Irsay is a connector. Brinkley loves the packages he gets in the mail every so often, filled with CDs or books or funny newspaper articles. Being a friend of Jim's is an immersion experience. Dinner with him can include the most motley of crews, from fellow NFL people to rock 'n' roll heroes to day laborers.

"It's all about who Jim resonates with," Brinkley says. "There's zero elitism. He'll include a gas station attendant and the head of the bank. He has a genius for friendship."


Professionally, Irsay has earned a reputation, too. His dad died in 1997, and he took over the team, cleaning house and installing new football people. The next year, he drafted Manning. The year after that, the Colts were among the best teams in the league, where they've remained.

Jim has become the anti-Bob Irsay. He's spent money on players. He's sent the entire team to funerals. His organization is a source of pride.

"He puts his money where his mouth is," Brinkley says. "I think he's great for football. He's turned out to be one of the best owners in the NFL, and you have to ask why. I think he's got passion. He might not be the textbook owner, but there's a passion."

Jimmy Irsay
Michael Conroy/AP PhotoMum's the word: There's a lot more than football going on with Jimmy Irsay.
After seeing how not to own an NFL franchise as a young man, Irsay finally has his team on the cusp of actually winning that Super Bowl ring the old man pined for. He's living the dream.

"You take an American male who's 47 years old," he says. "Do you love rock 'n' roll? Hell, yeah. Do you love the National Football League? Yes! It's not like I'm in Buddhist knitting class. I think that you take most American males around my age, and it's football and rock 'n' roll."

Recently, after that 2002 stint in rehab, Jim's had a spiritual awakening. He talks of looking for the angels in everyday moments. Not long ago, he got a message on his cell phone. It was the wrong number, and on the message, a mother thought she was telling her boss that she couldn't come in to work because her daughter was sick. Instead, she told Irsay.

Jim called her back, let her know she'd dialed him by mistake. For a few days, he couldn't get her out of his head, so now he sends her Colts tickets and money, if she needs it. He's trying to be that angel.

"The last few years, I've been focused on the art of my footsteps," he says. "That's something where you really have to stay focused on it. I've really been interested in the footsteps of life and trying to be more and more selfless."

For a man who's been on the road his whole life, this is the latest journey.

"To me, there's only one question," he says. "We can avoid the question. We can deny the question. We can overthink the question. We can come to peace with the question. And that is the God question: What is my purpose? Dylan Thomas says it so well. It's all about the search. We're all searching."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.