The Colts' Jewish roots
Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, one of the most successful teams in the NFL, only discovered his father was Jewish when he was 14. In a special interview with Ynet, he talks about football and his family history
It was one of those terrible evenings for Baltimore Colts players. Not only had they got their butts whacked in a pre-season game in Detroit, but they had also had to confront their angry team owner, Robert Irsay in the locker-room, who berated them, and threatened, as usual, to fire them all.
With their heads down, they got on the team’s bus on their way to the airport, where they were surprised to meet the son of their terrifying boss. Perplexed and embarrassed, the kid wanted to apologize for his father’s behavior.
Even then, at the age of 16, Jim Irsay felt a need to try and make amends for his father’s wrongdoings – towards his players and coaches, his business partners, even his family.
Since, he discovered, he couldn’t prevent his dominant father from making mistakes and hurting people, all he could do was try and fix the damage, or at least ask for forgiveness.
Irsay playing the guitar (Steve Healey, Indianapolis Star)
That is something Bob Irsay never knew how to do – not when he took the Colts from the city of Baltimore and transferred them to Indianapolis, and not when he got into a dispute with his parents and chose to deny them and his Jewish heritage.
Today, 10 years after his father’s death, 48-year-old Jim Irsay heads the Indianapolis Colts, one of the most successful teams in the National Football League.
The team is valued at $911 million, according to the latest Forbes survey, and even won last season’s championship. That’s something father Bob never managed to achieve.
Indeed, we might not be doing him justice when we present you with his life story – his childhood in a Christian home in Chicago, the revelation of his Jewish origin which had been hidden from him by his dad, his affinity to the spiritual, to sports, music, and art.
Bob Irsay and his son Jim (Steve Healey, Indianapolis Star)
“Spirituality is a very important part of my life. Faith is a personal thing, but I do think any individual has a relationship with God. It doesn’t matter what your religion is, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist. I believe in compassion towards all humans,” Irsay said in a special interview for Ynet.
“I was raised as a Catholic, but Judaism is a significant part of who I am, as well as other philosophies and ideas. I do think God exists, and it doesn’t matter what name you call him or what we think about him. I don’t think we are human entities having a spiritual experience but rather, spiritual entities having a human experience,” Irsay said.
Irsay talks openly about his Jewish roots for the first time in this interview.
“There is no doubt that my Jewish heritage did have an influence on me. As a kid I didn’t have the chance to experience the ceremonial side of it, but I was certainly intrigued with the Jewish tradition and its values and it had a significant role in my spiritual growth.
Irsay celebrates his first victory (Photo: AP)
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to know that side of the family, but I learned a lot from my father’s lawyer Michael Chernoff who was an observant Jew and a close friend of the family.
“I also have a lot of Jewish friends, including Herb and Mel Simon (Pacers owners) and their son David, who is about my age. They are all very respectful people in Indianapolis.”
Unlike the Simons, Irsay got aquatinted with his Jewish background at a late age.
“I found out about my Jewish roots only when I was 14. I never met my grandparents and my dad never talked about them. There was fallout in their relationship and it was cut off when my dad was 30.
Irsay with Manning in Tokyo (AP)
“My mom was Catholic from Polish origin and I was raised as a Catholic. The first time I discovered my Jewish connection was in high school, when somebody told me that he knows some family relatives who live in Skokie, a place with a big Jewish community. I asked my mom and she told me this information is true.
“Since then, I discovered a lot about my heritage and learned about it. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to meet my grandfather and grandmother who passed away. But after I became older I managed to make up for the fracturing with the help of my aunt and my father’s brother who is still alive.
Irsay with Harrison (Curtesy Indianapolis Colts)
“I also made contact with his daughter, my cousin, Lori Irsay, who became a close friend of the family and visits the Colts games often.
“You can say I represent the American melting pot, but I’m certainly proud of my family’s heritage. I imagine it was very hard for my grandfather and grandmother to leave Hungary and come to Ellis Island with nothing on them, and still to start it all over again and make a life for themselves in a new country.”
During his investigation, Irsay encountered a surprising detail about his family name. Several years after his father’s parents arrived at Ellis Island, they changed their last name to Irsay in an attempt to adapt to their new surroundings.
Their original name, how surprising, was Israel. “I was born as Jim Irsay, but through my investigations I found out that it’s true. I have no documentation to prove it, but from what I’ve found out, I have a reason to believe that when my grandparents came to Ellis Island their family name was Israel.”
So it would be only natural for you to come and visit the Holy Land.
“I never been in Israel, unfortunately. I know that Bob Kraft goes there often and so do Herb and Mel (Simon). Since I had little children and being with the team, I don’t have enough time to go abroad. I was with the team in Tokyo and visited Paris and London in the past, but that’s about all.
Irsay with the big star Peyton Manning (AP)
“My mom was in Israel when she was younger, and I’ve also been told that there is tree with my father’s name – like a part of a donation or something.”
Even though it seems like a private matter, Jim was not the only one making investigations about his family. In 1986, a story about his father was published in Sports Illustrated.
The slick businessman from Chicago became a persona non grata in Baltimore, after one cold night in March 1984, when he hired 12 trucks and transferred the local Colts up north to Indianapolis.
This shocking move left the local fans heart broken and traumatized. They are not willing to forgive that move to this day – 10 years after his death.
The SI’s story revealed that Irsay’s negative behavior – being bluntly insensitive, cheap and untrue – not only affected his relationship with Baltimore’s society, the fans, the players, and coaches of his team, but also with his own family.
The story pointed out that Bob Irsay had disowned his parents and their Jewish heritage, and even used an anti-Semitic slur on occasion.
“The article published in Sports Illustrated was very hard for him,” Irsay recalls. “He was fighting his demons. He also had a tough time dealing with the media and he didn’t know what it was like to be in the public eye.
“Yeah, you can cheat, but then somebody will check it and will find it is wrong,” Irsay said. One of the facts exposed in the article was Irsay’s Jewish origin, which he denied publicly.
“My father had troubles with his father and he wanted to stay away from all that he represented, including Judaism.
“The fracture was so deep that I think if my grandfather had been Catholic my father would probably have converted to Judaism.”
With Colts president Bill Polian (AP)
Even though he does not condone his father’s behavior, today, as a grown man with a family of his own, Irsay (a father of three girls – Carly, Casey, and Calen) is doing the best he can to understand his dad, who suffered great tragedies in his private life.
Besides the conflict with his father, he had to deal with taking care of his retarded son (Thomas, Jim’s brother, who died at young age), and the tragic death of his daughter Roberta, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 14.
“From the side, I watched him dealing with his traumatic personality in his awkward way. He experienced a lot of tragedies in his life. It was all very painful for him. And on the top of it all, the alcohol, it influenced his judgment,” said Irsay.
“He was a troubled man who suffered from an alcohol problem. He tried to forget this part of his life, which was very painful for him. He was hurt.”
Weren’t you mad at him?
“As a child, I could feel his pain and saw him do things he shouldn’t do and say stuff he shouldn’t say. I was his son and it wasn’t easy. I tried my best not to judge him. Alcohol is a disease, just like diabetes or cancer.
“He did the best he could for his family. There were times when I was mad about him, but I knew he felt he wasn’t treated fairly by his parents. When you grow up and have children of your own, you get a different perspective about life and family.”
Irsay with the title, a dream come true (Indianapolis Colts)
Naturally, Irsay also got a new perspective about running a professional football team, since he inherited the Colts after his father death in 1997 (not before a legal struggle with Bob second wife).
During the 10 years he has served as the team owner, the Colts became highly successful - in complete contrast to his father’s mediocre team - and even won the Superbowl last January.
Much of the credit for the last decade’s success has to be given to Peyton Manning, the great quarterback who was picked first in the 1998 draft and changed the face of the team.
But one can assume that if it wasn’t for Irsay’s efforts, the superstar would already have been leaving Indianapolis like many others have over the years, when Bob was the one in charge.
Jim brought with him a totally new approach and turned the Colts into winners and at the end of the road, champions – something his father failed to achieve in his life. One reason, amongst others, was Bob's lack of experience when it came to running a football team. Jim’s path was different. His qualifications for the job go back to the numerous positions he held in the organization, so it was smoother and easier. On the other hand, Irsay also learned a lot from the mistakes his dad made.
“My father always wanted to win, but he didn’t know how to do it” Irsay explained.
“The alcohol made him do crazy things. I think he was the only one in history to fire a coach after a preseason game. I tried to restrain him sometimes, but it was hard to stop him. It’s hard to stop a man from self-destruction. My dad didn’t grow into the game as I did, he never had a chance to learn about it, as I did. So, I’m trying to implement everything I learned – the positives and the negatives.
John Mellencamp opening the Colts season (AP)
"Sometimes the best teachers are the ones that make mistakes. I was only 36 when my father died and I became the owner of the Colts. I was the youngest owner in the NFL, but I was prepared.
"Unlike my father, I grew up into the football business. As a kid I used to visit the preseason camp in Golden, Colorado. I actually played football in college and even though I wasn’t great, I learned a lot about the game.
"After that I started working in the organization. Knowing that I’m going to be the owner at some point, I tried to learn as much as I could. I did it all – from scouting, to PR and the team management. On the other hand, you try to learn from other people’s mistakes. I did watch my father from the side. Some of the wrong things he did, I learned a lot”.
One thing Irsay learned from his dad was how not to treat his players. While Bob’s paranoiac way suggested that the players were no other than his employees, not to say slaves, Jim keeps in close contact with his stars and constantly shows his gratitude for the prosperity they brought to the team and himself.
“I’m my own man and I have my own way to run the team. I think it’s extremely important to hear what people have to say, talk to the players and be close to them”.
Being close to the players? It is unlikely a that majority of the owners will adopt this approach (certainly not after Arthur Blank from Atlanta was severely bitten by Michael Vick and his dogs miserable affair). From their experience, they have learned that an intimate relationship is not good in the football business, where players come and go. The reality of the NFL is that players settle in, make a name for themselves, become part of the community and then demand a big raise in their contract. On their agents' advice, they might then leave. There is not to much place for sentiments here.
This tough reality is even more complex in Indianapolis, where Irsay needs to invest a lot of money to keep Manning and other stars like Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney, who he signed last summer on a six-year contract for $72 million, on the team. When such big chunks of the team salary budget goes on the stars, the team has to discharge others that came to the team, grew up within it, and became key players. It happens year after year, when their contract ends, most of them leave for other teams who can afford to pay them more.
“It’s really tough to say goodbye to players every year” said Irsay. “You get to know them during the years, and then you miss them. But this is what it like in the NFL and it’s getting worse with a team like the Colts. We have Peyton Manning, Marvin, Reggie and Dwight – all are future Hall Of Famers. It takes a lot of money to keep them on the team. You might find one, two or three hall of famers on a team. We have five or six of them. According to the NFL system, everything goes against you if you are a successful team – the draft, the salary cap, the schedule.
“You have to remember the Colts had the biggest payroll in the league, even though we are one of the smallest markets in the league. We also have a problem with our stadium, which is the smallest in the league, although that been taken care of with the new stadium. But, it all has a cost, and it comes with missing good players, that you can keep on paying them under these restrictions”.
How can you keep your personal relationship with them separate from the cold football business?
"For me personally, it’s really tough. You have to see good people go. Brandon Stokley, Cato June and certainly Edgerin James. It was hard seeing him go, he was one of my favorite players ever. It tore my heart letting him go, but there was no choice. As an owner, you can’t be codependent. If you are, you are in the wrong business. No chance for you to make it."
Someone who won’t leave soon, and if it's up to Irsay will ever never leave, is Manning. At the age of 31, the quarterback holds an impressive records of six playoffs appearance with the Colts in eight seasons.
Winning the Superbowl last season officially crowned him as one of the best football players ever. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the Colts really had a tough time choosing between him and Ryan Leaf, before picking him first in the 1998 draft (Leaf was picked second by San Diego and considered one of the biggest flops in league history).
“It’s a true blessing to have him” said Irsay, “As an owner, it’s a blessing to have an asset as Peyton, not only being such a good quarterback, but because of all the things he does in the community. He is so interested in everything, and always conducts himself as a professional. He serves as a role model for so many people…to think we really considered taking Ryan Leaf…It was a true dilemma, but we ended up making the right decision.
“He was a true blessing for us and I wish he would stay for another fifty years. You see how tough it is for Miami to find a replacement for Dan Marino or Denver with John Elway (who was picked by the Colts in 1983but refused to play for Bob Irsay and got traded to the Broncos). Peyton is in the same class of quarterbacks”.
In order to keep their star quarterback out of harm's way for such a long time, they need to find him a skilled body guard who can protect him from rival defenses. Someone in the mold of Tariq Glenn, who was so successful indoing just that over the last eight years. But the veteran offensive tackle decided to retire last summer and left the Colts shocked, looking for alternative solutions. Irsay admits he was surprised.
“Tariq was a great player for us” said Irsay, “He surprised us, we didn’t expect him to retire this year, because he is still in his prime. But I believe we will adjust to the new situation. We have Howard Mudd as offensive line coach and he is a hall of famer in his field. We will miss Tariq, but we picked Yony Eugoh in the draft. He is a terrific athlete, who was a discus thrower in college and we believe can do the job, we also have Charlie Johnson, who played well in the Superbowl, after replacing Ryan Diem who was injured”.
“This it how it goes in the NFL business. You need to cope with unexpected things on the way, things never go as expected. You have to adjust to the changing reality – from injuries to other problems. I believe we we’ll be OK, with our experienced coaching staff, a healthy Dallas Clark and the Anthony Gonzales, who’s going to be a great player”.
When Irsay promises the Colts will be OK, he means much more than that. As a reigning champion, it’s only natural, he wants to return to the biggest event in American culture. “Winning the Superbowl was unbelievable, but it was also the toughest four hours I ever had in my life. You come within 100 meters from the Everest top, knowing that if you lose, you’re going the fall all the way down.
“We worked so hard during the season and there were lots of doubts raised: Can Peyton lead the team to the Superbowl? Is our defense good enough? When we accomplished that, we knew we become a part of history. It was fun, and I’d like to do it again this year”.
The young Irsay, (Rich Miller, Indianapolis Star)
Side by side with his football passion, Irsay is deeply involved with music and arts. He writes, composes and even plays with famous musicians – his friends John Mellencamp and Steven Stills (from Crosby, Stills and Nash). The music never leaves him, even when he travels with the Colts on their way for a road game. He always takes his guitar with him… while Elvis Pressley and Jerry Garcia’s original guitars that he purchased, stay behind in a well-kept place in his house.
“My art is my life, it’s the most important thing for me” Irsay proclaimed. "Music has been an important part of my life since I started violin lessons at age six. For me, it's an outlet for creative expression and I particularly enjoy setting my poetry to music I've long admired singer-songwriters and have been influenced by some of the best - Dylan and Lennon to name just two".
It’s not really surprising that Irsay is such a big fan of Dylan. They both have a lot in common: The music, the Jewish roots, the ideologies and the beatnik way of life, that was infused into both of them by Jack Kerouac. Actually, in 2001 Irsay bought the original manuscript of the famous writer's "On the Road” for $2.43 million.
“I am a big Dylan fan. It was well known that his origin name was Robert Zimmerman and obviously, he had his issues with Christianity and Judaism” Irsay noted. “You can say I’m also blending it all – Christianity, Judaism and other philosophies and ideas and try to take what is positive from each thing. I believe in treating the other as he should treat you. I think people are not doing a good job by judging others. Usually they try to label you, and expect you to act according to their labels. But I just won’t take it”.
Because this is how Irsay is…football and music, Judaism and Christianity, father and mother, weight lifting, boxing and doing business, Peyton Manning, Deight Freeney, Lennon and Dylan. It all combines within him, because Jim Irsay is all of it. A human being.