INDIANAPOLIS — It’s not quite “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” but the Twitter account of Colts owner Jim Irsay always feels like it’s a few posts away from a grand prize giveaway.
There was the time two Januarys ago, when Irsay said he’d give $8,500 to the fan that correctly guessed the exact score of the AFC Championship game between the Ravens and Patriots.
There was the time before the 2012 NFL Draft, when he threw his own contest, offering a BMW to any fan who could correctly guess all of the first-round picks in order.
There was last July, when Irsay showed up at Colts training camp in Anderson, Ind., and started handing out $100 bills.
“If you look at what he does on Twitter, he’s a game show,” said Colts punter Pat McAfee. “He gives away everything. He gives away money to people. He takes care of people. He gives away tickets. He gives away everything he can.”
Around Indianapolis, people are used to it.
The Colts owner is part Bob Barker (A brand new car!). He’s also part Jerry Jones, part Daniel Snyder, part Mark Cuban, with all the flash and sizzle of professional sports’ most visible owners.
But the Colts organization knows him as the inseparable identity of the franchise. He went from a teenage ballboy for the team owned by his father Robert Irsay, to the man who worked in the team’s ticket and public relations office, to the football-savvy executive who became the team’s general manger, and finally to the NFL lifer who took over ownership of the team in 1997 when his father died, turning the organization into one that’s had 14 winning seasons since he took charge, with two Super Bowl appearances and a shot at another going into Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Patriots.
“Obviously, he was brought up, born and raised, doing it,” said Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri. “He’ll tell you himself, I was the guy that was picking up laundry bags and washing stuff and doing all that.
“So he learned it from a young man right at the base of it. So he knows everything about this organization.”
Always on the job
Irsay’s visibility goes beyond the public eye. He’s a constant presence on the practice field and in the team office, chatting up players, giving advice, telling inside jokes.
“Irsay is in this building more than damn near coaches,” said defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois. “He’s basically always here. He always wants to have some type of interaction, just basically wants to just talk or just listen to what’s going on so when he comes into the game he feels like he’s not lost to what’s going on.
“What was the game plan, what needs to happen, who’s here, who’s there. You can call him one of the owners that’s the Mark Cuban of the NFL.”
Before almost every game, Irsay and McAfee catch up.
“He grew up in the game,” McAfee said. “So he knows the ins and outs. He knows special teams. He chit-chats with me about things like that.”
‘Ball of energy’
With coach Chuck Pagano, Irsay will talk about everything from game plans to life plans.
“It’s huge,” Pagano said. “I mean the guy grew up with this team. He’s been with it 44, 45 years, whatever it is, and he’s got so much insight and so much knowledge.
“He’s a football man through and through. It runs through his veins and he’s got so much wisdom to share with all of us. He makes a huge impact.”
Before and after games, Colts players are used to seeing Irsay peek his head in.
“Mr. Irsay, he’s just a ball of energy,” said cornerback Greg Toler. “He gives us a lot of good energy when he comes in there because you know it comes from the heart. He’s in there crying with us. If we win, he takes it personally, as well as if we lose. This is why we’re here. He’s a great guy. We play for one another and we play for him. He’s another guy out there with the 53.
“If it’s a good game, he’ll just tell us, ‘Let’s keep it going.’ I don’t know anything off the top of my head of exactly what he would say. It’s a joke or an inside joke. He just keeps us going. Win, lose, or draw, he’s got your back. It’s good to know that.”
When he came into the league three years ago out of Stanford, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had no idea what to expect from an NFL owner.
“Obviously when you come from college, you don’t know what to expect in an owner of a franchise, but you can tell he loves this franchise. He gives us every opportunity to be great. He’s a heck of an owner.
“When you’re coming out of college, you’re not quite sure what an owner of a sports team is like. He was personable, knew what he was talking about, and I enjoyed listening to him talking about all of his steps through the club. As a ballboy, as a GM, he sort of went up the ladder in a sense.”
Before he came to Indianapolis, Vinatieri spent 10 years in New England, where Patriots owner Robert Kraft was just as strong of a figurehead. After nine seasons with the Colts, it was easy for Vinatieri to see the similarities.
“Mr. Kraft is equally the same type of guy in the sense that he’s very hands-on with his team, too,” Vinatieri said. “You see those two guys and you see a guy like Mr. [Daniel] Snyder in Washington or Jerry Jones in Dallas. Some owners like to kind of be in the back a little bit. I think these guys like to be front and center to make a lot of decisions.
“A lot of executive decisions, obviously, but not only personnel decisions — who you hire as coaches and GMs, who our first draft pick’s going to be and that stuff — but to make sure that the right food’s in the mess hall so guys are getting good, nutritious stuff so they can perform well. He dots all the I’s and crosses all the T’s.”
In September, Irsay, 55, was suspended for six games after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated, an incident that occurred in March. He was barred from the team’s facilities. When he returned, Pagano welcomed him back with a game ball in the locker room immediately after the Colts’ 27-0 win over the Bengals.
“We’ve got your back, you’ve got all of ours, you’ve always had all of ours,” Pagano said. “What you did for me and what you’ve done for player upon player upon player past, present — you’ve got a heart of gold, Jim.”
Irsay was teary-eyed as he thanked the players in the room, as grateful to them as they were to him.
“He’s a good-hearted person,” McAfee said. “So we were all excited to see him back, we were jacked to see him back in the locker room. We were happy for his health and it was just one of those moments where we were just happy to see him.
“He’s a guy who actually cares about your team. That’s why you’ll see a locker room filled with people who really care about him. Because he cares about each and every one of us. It’s almost like you’re working with him and not for him.”
The game ball was a gift for an owner who has no issues with gift-giving.
A year ago, when the Xbox One was the hot item, he bought one for every player in the locker room.
“He does stuff like that,” Jean-Francois said. “He shocked the hell out of us.”
Reggie Wayne still walks through the locker room carrying a Beats by Dr. Dre portable speaker, which Irsay gave to each member of the team.
Not too long ago, Irsay bought every player in the locker room a GoPro Camera.
It could come in handy in the next couple weeks, JeanFrancois said.
“That’s really helpful because we may need it after this,” he said, “just to keep the memories and everything we’ve got going on.”