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Jim Irsay: NFL Owner by Day, Rock ’n’ Roller by Night


Jim Irsay just isn’t your typical team owner, especially within the buttoned-up National Football League.

Last month, Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, replaced his head coach with a former player whose only coaching experience was leading a highschool team. A couple of weeks earlier, Irsay called for a scandal-plagued owner to be removed despite his own very public troubles. And he continues to make use of his Twitter account to mourn the lack of beloved rock stars and football players and post videos of himself singing classic Bob Dylan songs in his raspy smoker’s voice.

Irsay’s hobby also speaks to his singularity. While other owners splurge on art work, beachfront property and European soccer teams, Irsay has spent $100 million constructing a group of music, sports and other popular culture memorabilia. He paid $4.9 million for the guitar Kurt Cobain utilized in the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” He acquired one in all Ringo Starr’s vintage drum sets for greater than $4 million. And this past summer, he paid $6.5 million for one in all Muhammad Ali’s championship belts.

Quite than stuff this stuff in a mansion or museum, Irsay, 63, shows them off during free, one-night-only events across the country, accompanied by an all-star rock band. Since September 2021, his collection has traveled to seven cities including Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles and Indianapolis. This Saturday, a sampling of his 1,000-plus-piece collection will make its option to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, where a few of the items will lean into town’s role in rock history and the blues legend Buddy Guy can be joined onstage by Ann Wilson, John Fogerty and Stephen Stills.

“For me, I’d relatively do that than be floating around on a $200 million yacht,” Irsay said before one in all his shows this summer in Chicago. “If I float on that, I’m going to say, ‘I’m bored. Why am I here? Like, what am I doing here?’”

Irsay’s passion project is an unusually personal type of philanthropy and even therapy. The artifacts speak not simply to his love of music, sports and history but in addition to the turbulence in his life, including the lack of his sister, who died in a automobile accident, and the alcoholism of each his father and grandfather. Irsay, too, has had battles with substance abuse. He was also suspended for six games by the N.F.L. in 2014 after he pleaded guilty to driving while under the influence of painkillers.

Irsay’s willingness to embrace his foibles make him something of an oddity in one in all the country’s most exclusive clubs. He talks openly about his struggles with addiction and commenced a charity that raises awareness of mental health disorders. After getting injured playing football in college, he took up competitive power lifting, once squatting 725 kilos. Then he lost 55 kilos and commenced running marathons. Irsay still hits the gym despite having undergone 20 surgeries.

Loads of sports team owners are philanthropic, and a few even live out their rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. For instance, Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and owner of the Seattle Seahawks who died in 2018, built a museum in Seattle to accommodate his guitar collection, and James L. Dolan, the owner of the Latest York Knicks and Latest York Rangers, performs because the frontman along with his blues band, J.D. and the Straight Shot. But unlike those famously private owners, Irsay has been uniquely unguarded about his life and his collecting.

“Jim is sui generis, a one-off with no duplicate,” said Douglas Brinkley, who teaches history at Rice University and advises Irsay on his purchases. “He marches to the beat of his own drum and honors his own passions and believes there’s an audience for it.”

Irsay first got hooked on baseball cards, though with lower than altruistic motives. Growing up on the north shore of Chicago, he rode his bicycle to the local drugstore on Monday mornings and acquired entire boxes of baseball cards before other boys could get there. He funded the purchases by selling bubble gum at a markup in school.

“I assume I used to be an illegitimate dealer in grade school,” he joked.

Irsay said he desired to begin collecting after college, but his father, Robert, who used the fortune he made within the air-con business to purchase the Colts, paid him a $100,000 salary. With a mortgage and three children, there was not much left to bid on prized objects, he said.

But 25 years ago, when Irsay inherited the team, he also gained the wherewithal to bid for top shelf items. His first big foray into collecting got here in 2001 when he paid $2.4 million for the 120-foot-long scroll that contained the unique manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.” It was the one time Irsay showed up, paddle in hand, to bid for an item.

“I’ve at all times been mostly interested in great writers,” he said. “The scroll became a author’s Holy Grail.”

Collecting at this level is unpredictable, but Irsay seems to enjoy the chase. He consults with Brinkley and other experts in addition to along with his curator, Larry Hall, whom Irsay texts and calls in any respect hours to speak about items he covets. He’ll relay his bids by phone, which he did from Hawaii when Cobain’s guitar was auctioned. He gave Hall a top bid of $2.2 million, then dropped out after it passed $2.4 million. But on a hunch, he raised his top bid to $3.6 million and went to bed. When he awoke, he discovered he got the guitar for nearly precisely his maximum. (With fees and taxes, the whole price hit $4.9 million.)

Irsay’s interests range across American and film history as well. The oldest item in his collection is a lottery ticket from 1765, sold to lift money for Faneuil Hall in Boston, that was signed by John Hancock. He spent nearly $600,000 on the rocking chair John F. Kennedy used within the White House, and one other $550,000 for one in all Abraham Lincoln’s pocket knifes. Sylvester Stallone’s original, handwritten script for the movie, “Rocky,” cost Irsay $500,000.

Irsay has never sold pieces in his collection, despite the explosion of the memorabilia market lately. And though he has toyed with the thought of constructing a museum for his acquisitions, for now he’s committed to taking them on tour.

“He gets so attached to the items because he knows the enjoyment they carry when he shows them,” said Hall, who verifies the standard of the items that Irsay brings to him. “That’s why he never charges a penny to share his collection.”

Irsay said the push of acquiring this stuff and planning to point out them can mirror the adrenaline rush of how football teams prepare on game days. Sometimes, he said, his football brain might take over at his events.

“I admit it’s slightly little bit of a special hat,” Irsay said. “On the subject of skilled football, the intensity above the goals of winning and all those varieties of things, sometimes that comes out in organizing this thing. So abruptly you end up talking like the overall manager or head coach, and folks onstage are like, what?”

Irsay was the focus in Chicago, where he showed off his collection on the AON Grand Ballroom in early August. Friends and fans stopped him so often that he was late to his own news conference to kick off the event. Standing between Muhammad Ali’s title belt and the founding document of Alcoholics Anonymous, known to adherents because the “Big Book,” Irsay introduced Jim Brown, the previous Cleveland Browns star and Hollywood actor whom Irsay flew in from California.

“It’s an eclectic collection, but really it’s about spirituality, it’s about human beings being as great as they will, and changing the world with love and strength,” Irsay said.

“I would like the perfect of the perfect,” Irsay added when describing why he bought Neil Armstrong’s items from the Apollo 11 mission. “Nothing against Buzz Aldrin,” referring to the second man to walk on the moon.

Then Irsay marched back to the green room where he nursed a bottle of Hawaiian Punch and waved off minders attempting to keep him on schedule. Buddy Guy walked in and Irsay was distracted all yet again, peppering him with questions on Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and other blues greats.

The 2-hour concert began around 8:30 p.m. with Irsay sitting onstage and singing Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” After Irsay left, the band, led by Mike Mills of R.E.M., ripped through blues and rock classics. Guy — a hometown favorite — got here on to an enormous ovation, as did Ann Wilson from Heart.

At times, the concert and the gathering blurred. Midway through the show, Irsay got here back onstage with Edgerrin James, the previous Colts running back who threw a dozen signed footballs into the group. Fans wandered between the stage and the back of the venue to take a look at the artifacts, including the guitar Dylan used when he “went electric” on the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Hunter S. Thompson’s Chevrolet Caprice convertible (often called the “Red Shark”), or the hat that Harry S. Truman wore at his inauguration.

Irsay returned to sing the last three songs — “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” by Neil Young and “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones — before the lights popped on. Several Colts cheerleaders in white outfits and blue pompoms ushered the group out. For an additional night, Irsay had turned the threads of his life right into a shared spectacle, one which helps him keep the demons at bay.

“Many a person has tried to administer the opiates, you already know, for millenniums, whether it’s Jerry Garcia or Tom Petty or Prince or Elvis,” Irsay said. “The pursuit can get really bungled and mismanaged. So, it’s really a thrill in life as we become older to attempt to have more experience and know what’s at all times the sunshine and never the dark, because sometimes the shadows can idiot you.”

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