Colts owner faces relentless grudge

Sun reporter

Time doesn't heal all wounds. In fact, games like Saturday's seem to open them.

Nearly a quarter-century after Bob Irsay took the Colts out of Baltimore, his son, Jim Irsay, will bring them back to face the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in a playoff game.The anger and loathing for the Irsay name haven't receded.

"Personally, I don't understand that, because I don't live that way," Jim Irsay said in a wide-ranging interview yesterday from his plush office in the Indianapolis Colts' headquarters. "When I put my head on the pillow, there's not one person on this planet that I wish ill will to.

"You're talking about something that's a long time ago and you're talking about something where everything that transpired back then and what happened and the people who were in charge of the city and state and this ownership, none of those people are present anymore."

If you believe his words and those of friends and associates, about the only thing father and son had in common was a name, a name that is still cursed on nearly every street corner in Baltimore. When the elder Irsay died in 1997, his son inherited the Colts franchise. Whether he wanted it or not, he also inherited the full umbrage of Baltimore football fans, a faithful group that's still reeling from the loss of their Colts in March 1984.

But just as the Indianapolis Colts aren't the Baltimore Colts, Jim Irsay is not Bob Irsay.

"They say that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," said Jim Irsay, 47, "unless the tree is on top of a hill. There was probably a hill there."

He laughed. The younger Irsay is careful not to disparage his father, but he makes it clear he's running the Colts franchise the way he wants, not necessarily the way his father taught him.

"I love my dad and I supported him as a son, but I know that what I stand behind are my own footsteps, what I've done as a man and what I've done in being a steward of this franchise," he said.

The two men's footsteps - their personalities, interests and management styles - are very different. The elder Irsay ran his team from afar, renown for meddling in decisions, throwing around threats and showing a cranky, abrasive side when he drank.

Jim Irsay is around his team every day. He lives in Indianapolis and comes to the office most days. Yesterday, he wore a jogging suit as he sat behind a giant wooden desk, surrounded by family photos, football memorabilia and a book on the 500 greatest rock albums. One photo over his shoulder was of a gravestone, but it wasn't his father's.

" Robert Johnson," he said, "the great blues guitarist."

Irsay counts as friends filmmaker Cameron Crowe, author Douglas Brinkley, musician Stephen Stills. He was close with the late writer Hunter S. Thompson, and will proudly flip through a photo book to show you Thompson posing with Colts gear.

When he speaks, he threads spirituality into the discussion and routinely quotes a wide variety of famous thinkers - from Dylan and Lennon to Keats and Kipling.

"He's not your stereotypical head of a billion-dollar corporation," said Pete Ward, the Colts' senior vice president, who started with the team in Baltimore as an intern in 1981 and was one of the few who made the move to Indianapolis.

For the past two decades, Ward has seen his share of angry letters and e-mails, old Colts fans not content to keep their feelings bottled inside. He said Irsay is unfairly targeted with such feelings. "Guilt by association," he said.

Jim Irsay was 24 when his father moved the team. He was working for the Colts in the front office at the time. He chooses his words carefully when discussing the topic, but friends say he had some guilt - even embarrassment - over the move.

"What was he supposed to do, fold his arms and say, `No, Dad, I'm staying here'?" said John Ziemann, head of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band at the time and now president of the Marching Ravens. "He had no choice in the matter."

Looking back on the move, Irsay said he feels a great deal of empathy for people on both sides - for his father, who felt he had few options, and for the people of Baltimore, who lost something they loved so much.

"Observing what happened from the sidelines - I was never in the inner circle when it came to my dad and his attorneys - a lot of people don't look at it from the perspective of what was taking place on both sides, what the city and state were doing," he said. "I know that it was very painful for him to leave. I know he didn't want to leave. I know that for a fact.

"I know he was convinced that behind the scenes, there was movement toward an eminent domain seizure that was being discussed. When he heard that, it was the final straw. The way I look at things, you have to look at it from everyone's point of view."

The day after the Colts left Baltimore, Ziemann said, Jim Irsay called him to apologize.

"I think Jimmy was more trying to get into the community, but it was clear Bob Irsay wasn't interested in that," Ziemann said. "Jimmy's just the opposite of his dad."

There was a time not long ago in Indianapolis when a new generation of Colts fans wondered whether the apple really fell much closer to the tree. The team needed a new stadium, and many feared Jim Irsay would shop the team around to a new city.

Irsay said that idea was "media-generated" and he actually drew from his father's experiences while negotiating with government officials, who agreed to build the Colts a $500 million stadium scheduled to open in 2008.

"I think sometimes your best teachers can be those who show you how not to do things," Irsay said.

Irsay said he understands how passionately fans cared about the Colts - unlike his father, a Chicagoan who made his fortune in the heating and air conditioning business, Jim Irsay lived in Maryland at the time - and is looking forward to this weekend's game.

He has been to Baltimore several times over the years, most recently for last year's Colts-Ravens' season opener, and said he won't worry too much about the negative energy aimed in his direction. For him, Saturday's game isn't a chance to revisit the past, as much as an opportunity for a brighter future.

"I know I can only worry about things that I have control over," he said. "Emotions come into things, and you know you're always sometimes tied into certain things for whatever reason. But it always gives you the opportunity to take the high road. And to me, it's all about taking the high road. I don't have one ounce of anything but good feelings for Baltimore."

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