From the very first—and last—time I met him, I’ve never known what to make of Jim Irsay. After my second season in Indianapolis, I was a Plan B free agent. This meant I could sign a new contract. I opted to remain with the Colts. When I did, I was invited to sign my deal in Jim Irsay’s office.
He came in, wearing the same Colts sweatshirt that I was wearing. He was sweating, fresh from the treadmill. He shook my hand, watched me sign my name, pointed out where to initial. He said “Nice to have you here,” shook my hand again, and I left.
As I made my way back to the locker room, I pondered that meeting. Non-entities like me had limited interaction with anyone in management. But seated in the soon-to-be owner’s office, exchanging pleasantries and getting money constituted was, at least for me, a brief and perhaps imagined connection. As was my habit, I pondered some hidden meaning, some message. Why had he wanted see me in person?
I hadn’t given much thought to the goings on of Irsay’s office until the great purge of 2011. The Peyton Manning saga was complicated and played out as such. The dismissal of Jim Caldwell was slightly less so. Coaches with single-digit wins are usually fired, even those who are handpicked by Tony Dungy and approved by the owner.
The dismissal of General Manager Bill Polian was puzzling, though. For the past twenty years or so, Polian has been, arguably, the best in the business. If you were building a Super Bowl-destined team, team, Polian was your guy. I began to think of Irsay in the terms employees in San Diego regard Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith —“He’s a mystery. Some people think he’s crazy, and others think he’s a genius.”
Maybe the answer lay in his twitter account. During a time of struggle and prior to a time of great upheaval, Irsay connected with the people. He assured Colts fans that all would be fine. Then he got interactive. In the weeks leading up to last April’s draft, he offered a B.M.W. to the person who correctly guessed the player and the team. He then offered an example of how it might look: 1) Luck, 2)RG3 3) RTannehill, etc. It was a playfully cryptic clue as to his plans for the top pick. This was a far cry from the Manning/Leaf decision, which was deliberated right up until the end.
But it was bigger than a cheeky departure from the usual draft day posturing. Jim Irsay had typed his way into uncharted waters.
On first glance, it’s an odd marriage—football and social media. The National Football League has always been, without a doubt, the most corporate of the three major sports leagues. Just look at the logos. Official apparel for the National Basketball Association is marked by a silhouetted Jerry West, one of the league’s most legendary stars. Major League Baseball features a solitary batter taking a swing at an approaching pitch. But professional football is represented by a big old coat of arms, a shield with just the letters N.F.L. emblazoned in red, white and blue. There are no humans in sight.
Well, there were none, until Irsay began tweeting. Jim Irsay is changing football culture (so are many players, though not in a good way. But that’s a story for another time—and right soon!). He’s doing it 140 characters at a time, so it may take a while. But such open discourse suggests that this isn’t your father’s Colts, or even your grandmother’s.
In my second season, on our way to a 1-15 finish, an elderly woman saw fit to give us her take. She leaned over the railing at the Hoosier Dome and let loose: “We pay all this money to come here and watch you! And all you do is lose! You lose! You’re thieves, stealing our money!”
The Colts might be headed for lean times again, maybe not to the point of driving the elderly to fits of rage, but they’re certainly far removed from the ho-hum 12- win seasons of the past decade. There’s a new product to be sold. These new Colts are too thoughtful to break old women’s hearts. Andrew Luck has and will gather the comparisons to future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. But, as evidenced during his senior year at Stanford and last night against the Steelers, Luck contains as much Favre as he does Manning. Not the grungy beard, but the gunslinger ethos it denotes.
That’s the spirit of the Indianapolis franchise: professional, current without being hip, blending genres and crossing generations while being imperfectly human. Is that Jim Irsay, too?
Maybe I should revisit the scene. I just opened a twitter account: AlanGrant_NFL. And during last night’s game, I sent a tweet to Jim Irsay. I haven’t heard back yet.
I’ll keep you posted.
Alan Grant was a four-year starter and all-conference player for Stanford University. He played five years in the National Football League with the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco Forty Niners, Cincinnati Bengals, and Washington Redskins. He has written for ESPN the Magazine and The Postgame, and appears frequently on radio and television.
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