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Irsay considers L.A. his home away from home

January 31, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Not so long ago, Jim Irsay was weighing the possibility of moving the Indianapolis Colts to Los Angeles.

Now, he just wants to bring the Super Bowl trophy there.

"L.A.'s like a second home to me," said Irsay, 47, who owns the Colts and, among his many Southern California ties, is a member at Riviera Country Club.

"I've got an enormous amount of friends out there. ... I'm looking forward to hopefully getting the Lombardi Trophy and bringing it out there to the old Riv, man. Definitely so. We'll take it to Spago, Mr. Chow's or something."

Irsay says he's a very happy man these days. He speaks with jaw-dropping honesty not just about his team, but also his struggles to repair the family name -- severely damaged when Bob Irsay, his late father, ripped the Colts out of Baltimore in 1984 -- and to overcoming his addiction to pain killers.

He showed up at Super Bowl XLI media day Tuesday wearing a dark pinstriped suit, his short hair slicked back, and the broad smile of a man one step away from the NFL mountaintop.

"You feel like you're a chef in a restaurant," said Irsay, whose family bought the team in 1972, a year after the Colts' only Super Bowl victory.

"You're getting everything ready. And you look out and see the people enjoying their meals and their wine, and you don't even have to bite it to enjoy it. Because you feel a responsibility to deliver that. For me, it's incredible, and the focus is on a world championship. Winning the game is what it's about."

Irsay is no passive participant. He's a former walk-on player at Southern Methodist University who worked as a Colts ball boy before holding virtually every non-player and non-coaching position in the organization.

"He's a traditional owner in that he knows everything about every detail that goes on in the organization," said Bill Polian, the team's president. "He knows football. We have meetings that take 20 minutes that might take two hours with someone else. He's usually one step ahead of me when it comes to anticipating what needs to be done, what the issues are, so it's a joy working for him. He's a wonderful, kind, generous person, and he's the reason we're here."

But Irsay is frank in discussing how he's lucky to be here and lucky to be alive. He was a competitive weightlifter who got hooked on Vicodin after a series of surgeries in the 1990s.

"I was up to 295 [pounds] in the '80s, squatting 750 pounds, and then ran 26-mile marathons, always an extremist," he said. "So when you start getting those injuries and things, the medication works really good. I had about three surgeries and you get on those medications ... and you build up a tolerance. That's where the problem starts. And before you know it, you can become really dependent on it and addicted. It can crawl on you, but once it's there you really have to address it."

He had back surgery in 1993, and operations on his wrist and elbow three years later. That's when the addiction problems began. In 2002, he checked into rehab and began his path to recovery.

"When you overcome a potentially fatal disease, it gives you such gratitude," he said. "It gives you a lot of humility, and you root for others who have to go through it. Because sometimes it's tough in the public eye to have to go through that sort of thing.

"People think, 'Well, he was strong enough to overcome it.' That's not the way it works. It's an illness and it kills people, and I'm not any stronger than someone else who didn't make it."

For years, rumors swirled that Irsay used steroids in his serious weightlifting days, back when he was every bit as wide as some of the defensive tackles he paid millions. But he said he never experimented with those drugs.

"I never chose to and it was kind of strange," he said. "I just kind of felt that would be strange to take something that actually changed your body. I had about a 20,000-calorie diet when I got up to 295. But I never took steroids my whole life. I wouldn't be afraid to admit it if I did."

So what's a 20,000-calorie diet?

"Hardee's, Burger King.... " he said with a laugh.

Irsay is never without his sense of humor. He has a self-deprecating wit that's rare among the millionaires and billionaires who own NFL teams. His father, meanwhile, is best remembered as the man who sneaked the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night. Bob Irsay, who had his own struggles with alcohol addiction, died in 1997.

"I always joke that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, unless the tree's on a steep hill," his son said. "I don't know who put that hill there, but....

"We all have characteristics of our dad. My dad was a brilliant guy in the air-conditioning and ventilation business when he was in his prime. It was difficult for him in terms of coming into this business, and he struggled with it. It was emotional, and there was the drinking.... The biggest difference is, he didn't grow up in this business like I did from 12 years old."

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