Jim Irsay had a hard time selling fans in Indiana on the idea of a winning future… (Michael Conroy / Associated…)
Reporting from Indianapolis — Years before his Indianapolis Colts established themselves among the elite NFL teams, owner Jim Irsay engaged in his own brand of fantasy football.
It was 1997, and Irsay's team was in the midst of its first of consecutive 3-13 seasons. Trying to drum up support for them -- not the easiest thing to do in a basketball state -- he barnstormed around Indiana and spoke to dispirited fans far and near.
Irsay talked about his vision for a "golden age" of the franchise, about the possibility of Peyton Manning, then a star quarterback at Tennessee, leading the way. That was a prescient forecast, as the Colts would make Manning the No. 1 overall pick the following spring.
It was all a very tough sell.
"The skepticism, my God," Irsay recalled recently, sitting behind his massive desk at Colts headquarters. "People looked at me like, 'Who is this guy?' . . . I remember talking to a group of about 17 people at an American Legion hall in Kokomo. They had to put out bowlfuls of bubble gum just to keep them all there."
A dozen years later, the Colts have turned Irsay's grand plan into reality. They are 9-0 and in their second season in a spectacular new stadium, one that will play host to the Super Bowl in 2012; Manning is the early favorite to be the league's most valuable player for a fourth time; and the club, which won a Super Bowl in 2007, is on its way to extending its string of six consecutive seasons of 12 or more victories.
"It's been incredible," Irsay said. "Getting the Super Bowl in 2012, that was kind of like the completion of everything. It's something that if you went back to 1997 and told this story, it would almost be unbelievable."
Just as improbably, has emerged as one of the league's top owners, distancing himself from the sins of his late father, Robert Irsay, reviled in Baltimore for ripping the Colts out in 1984.
Those emotions are still raw in that city, and they bubble back to the surface every time the Colts return, as they will today for a game against the Ravens.
Irsay is quick to distance himself from the dark legacy of his father, although he still keeps in close contact with many of the old Baltimore Colts. He recently reunited the team from 1975, the first of three consecutive Colts teams to win the AFC East. After that stretch, the franchise finished atop its division only once in 21 years.
All those lean years make Irsay appreciate these good times that much more.
"Once you create a culture of winning, it's something that you really want to nurture," he said. "Because once it leaves you, it's so hard to bring it back around."