AUSTIN, Texas — He pulled in from Naptown, and he was feeling wholly alive.
Last December, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay stood on the stage of the famed Moody Theater with a star-studded cast of musicians in his midst and something weighing on his mind, specifically “The Weight” — the 1968 classic performed by The Band and covered by countless other artists since and which would be performed by Irsay and his friends the following night at a gala event a couple of miles away.
As anyone in the Colts organization or the larger NFL community can attest, Irsay marches to his own beat, something that was blatantly apparent as he handled lead vocals on the presumptive show-closer late in the all-star ensemble’s long rehearsal session. When the hyped-up football lifer insisted that two of his friends and bandmates — esteemed R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and longtime John Mellencamp Band guitarist and songwriter Mike Wanchic — join him in singing the fifth and final verse, Irsay received some perplexed stares.
“You know how (in The Band’s version) they sing it all together — (Rick) Danko and Levon (Helm), and Richard Manuel comes in?” Irsay implored his bandmates. “We should do that.”
Finally, Mills spoke up. “It might be somewhat tricky,” he said smiling. “Let’s just say your phrasing is a little loose.”
Everyone laughed, including Irsay, who quickly pivoted to another suggestion: that virtuoso blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd tack on a melodic, mournful solo at song’s end. Shepherd stayed silent while, once again, Wanchic and Mills just grinned and shook their heads — “No” was all they said.
“I don’t know, man,” Irsay said smiling. “I mean, we’ve got Kenny Wayne! It’s like when my coaches wanna take out Jonathan Taylor. I say, ‘He’s getting paid. Let’s play him four quarters.’”
Had decorated drummer Kenny Aronoff punctuated Irsay’s punchline with The Sting, the moment would have been complete. Just 10 days earlier, Irsay’s Colts had suffered a 38-31 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during which Taylor, the NFL’s leading rusher, had been incomprehensibly ignored during a second-half stretch that included 26 consecutive pass plays. Clearly, the 62-year-old who began his near-lifelong NFL journey as a ballboy in Baltimore and later served as the Colts’ general manager had been as baffled by that development as legions of fantasy owners who had the star running back as their lineup’s centerpiece.
Now, in a near-empty theater that serves as the home of Austin City Limits Live, the Colts owner was at center stage pursuing his other passion. Irsay, who possesses one of the most impressive collections of musical, historical, sports and pop-culture memorabilia on the planet, is determined to showcase the artifacts while celebrating the music he reveres — in a very hands-on manner. The Austin event, sandwiched between similar stops in Nashville, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, gave attendees a chance to watch the band perform, with and without Irsay, and to get up-close-and-personal views of some of the coolest mementos in existence.
From the piano on which John Lennon composed several classics for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to Jerry Garcia’s iconic Tiger guitar, to Jack Kerouac’s original, typewritten “On The Road” scroll, to a “Wanted” poster implicating Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, to the shoes that Muhammad Ali wore during the “Thrilla in Manila,” the Jim Irsay Collection packs a powerful punch. There is talk of establishing a permanent museum, or perhaps a traveling exhibit that showcases the items in various locales. Irsay has even pondered the idea of a Broadway production that pays homage to some of his favorite artifacts while including them in the performance.
“You know, if you did a Broadway play on The Renaissance, you’d never be able to pull the Mona Lisa offstage, or a Van Gogh,” Irsay said. “But here, you can. You could pull out the Black Strat (a favorite guitar of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour) or Ringo’s drum kit. You can have those iconic memories.”
Whatever ends up going down, Irsay won’t be hoarding his prized possessions. Given what they represent, and how much they have moved him, that would defeat the purpose.
“He buys it to share,” said Mills, a founding member of R.E.M. who has been friends with Irsay for more than three decades. “Most people who spend that kind of money and collect these sorts of things lock them away. And they may allow their friends to see them, but for the most part once somebody buys that kind of stuff, you never see it again. And with Jim, it’s the exact opposite. He buys it to show to people. He wants to put it on display and share it with people and have everyone see.
“You know, it’s part of what our commonality is as Americans. It’s what defines us as citizens of the United States. And I think he wants to show that. I don’t think you can go see this exhibit and come away not realizing that we have as much in common as we do separately. So, it’s a very inspiring collection for a lot of reasons.”
‘180 degrees different’
To many football fans, Irsay is somewhat of a caricature, an eccentric devotee of all things counterculture who has struggled with addiction and has a penchant for making loaded public statements, sometimes on his own Twitter feed.
Most recently, Irsay defended the team’s decision to trade quarterback Carson Wentz to the Washington Commanders in strong terms, telling reporters at the annual league meeting in late March, “I think the worst thing you can do is have a mistake and try to keep living with it going forward. For us, it was something we had to move away from as a franchise. It was very obvious.” (He also expressed his extreme displeasure with the Colts’ season-ending, playoff-hope-crushing defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars — an outcome he feared despite his team being a 15-point favorite — by dissing his AFC South rivals thusly: “No disrespect to Jacksonville, but I mean, they’re the worst team in the league. You play well and hard for the first quarter or so, and they’re looking to go to their locker room and clean it out. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”)
Conversely, Irsay’s closest friends and confidantes view him as a shrewd, ultra-competitive leader whose authenticity and passion make him stand out from his billionaire peers.
“I’ve got very few friends with no ulterior motives,” said Wanchic, who met Irsay while the Mellencamp Band was in the midst of the massively successful “Scarecrow” tour in 1986 and immediately bonded with him over their shared obsessions with football and music. “He’s one of them. He’s f----- awesome, man. The key word in my mind when it comes to Jim is ‘gratitude.’ I’ve never known anybody who’s willing to put themselves on the line for his friends the way he does.
“There is nobody in the NFL like this guy. There’s nobody in sports like this guy — no one who approaches him. There’s no one who appreciates the arts like he does, no one who wants to share American art. I don’t know anyone who knows more of Bob Dylan’s lyrics or of Hunter S. Thompson’s words, and you can go right down the list.”
Most of all, as Wanchic stresses, those who underestimate Irsay’s football acumen are failing to consider the wealth of experience he gained after his late father, Bob, purchased the Colts in 1972 when Irsay was 13. He immediately began working for the team, as a ball boy and jack-of-all-trades, with duties that included doing laundry. In 1984 — less than a month after the elder Irsay ordered an infamous middle-of-the-night move from Baltimore to Indianapolis — Jim, at 24, became the team’s general manager, serving as the franchise’s top football executive for the next decade.
“Who has more experience than Jim Irsay?” Wanchic asked. “Who washed jockstraps and polished footballs and was the s--- kicker on that team as a boy? He came up in the family business. I’ll bet you there’s no owner that knows more about football than Jim.”
Irsay’s responsibilities increased when his father suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. Bob died in January of 1997, and after Irsay settled a financial dispute with his father’s second wife, Nancy, he assumed full ownership of the team, becoming the NFL’s youngest owner at age 37.
Whereas Bob Irsay, a Chicago heating and air conditioning tycoon, had a notorious temper — fueled by his struggles with alcoholism — and was known for being relatively cheap, Jim Irsay’s leadership style has been markedly different.
“We teach by doing it the right way or not doing it the right way,” Irsay said. “My dad was so brilliant in his younger days, one of the smartest men to walk through the 20th century and accomplish so much. But when the madness started to come and the liquor came upon him and we went through that era … it was something where he didn’t get to grow up in the business like I did.”
Another person who grew up in the Colts organization — Pete Ward, the team’s chief operating officer, who joined the franchise as an intern in 1981 and is now in his fifth decade with the Colts — believes Irsay’s managerial approach is highly intentional.
“I’ve always said that Jim did a lot of observing when he was younger, and he learned how to run a team by not doing what his dad did,” Ward said as he sat in an outdoor courtyard at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, a few hours before last December’s event. “So Jim had that advantage. And he was smart enough to drink it all in and assimilate it, because his style is 180 degrees different from how his father did things, and it shows. If you look at when Jim truly took over as owner, when his father had the stroke in midseason 1995, he’s had, what, five losing seasons?” (He’s had six losing seasons, but that’s impressive nonetheless.)
Irsay, of course, isn’t satisfied with sustained success. The Colts have won just one Super Bowl in his tenure — Super Bowl XLI, following the 2006 season — and he has frequently expressed a desire to increase that total exponentially, saying in 2019 that the franchise’s goal was to win three consecutive championships, something that has yet to be accomplished in the Super Bowl era. Most recently, after Indy started 1-4 in 2021, he wrote on Twitter last October that the Colts will win “at least 2 Lombardis this decade.”
“Dude, he’s very competitive,” says Aronoff, who met Irsay in the 1980s while drumming with Mellencamp’s band and has since played with an eclectic range of artists (Smashing Pumpkins, Lady Gaga, John Fogerty, Chris Cornell, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bruno Mars, among many others). “I’ve seen him screaming and yelling and using the F word.
“I was having dinner with him the season before the COVID (2019), the night before the opening game versus the Chargers in L.A. Jim was at the head of the table and I was right on the corner; (legendary rocker) Stephen Stills was a bit farther away. I mentioned a player that kind of dropped out at the last minute before the season and he said … well, I probably shouldn’t tell you what he actually said, but he wasn’t happy.”
‘Passion’ behind the collection
Irsay’s luck might not always be good, and his moods may be impacted accordingly, but whatever emotion he expresses comes from the heart.
“One thing with me is I kind of feel like I don’t have sides, so to speak,” Irsay said. “I am authentically who I am, all the time. There aren’t a lot of sides to me. I try to be very passionate, the way I live, and intuitive. And I pursue inspiration.”
That pursuit became more tangible in 2001, when Irsay paid $2.43 million for Kerouac’s original, 120-foot long manuscript of “On The Road” — the novel that defined the 1950s Beat Generation — at Christie’s Auction House in New York City.
“The fear when (they auctioned) the scroll was ‘Is it gonna get stored up in some Columbian drug cartel, and no one will ever see it?’” Wanchic said. “Jim put it in a soft road case and sent it out across the country so that people could see it. That is f------ amazing.”
Most recently, Irsay and many of his usual bandmates — in this case, with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons sitting in — brought the scroll to Los Angeles for a March event celebrating Kerouac’s 100th birthday.
In the two-plus decades since he purchased the scroll, Irsay has built up his collection to a point where its value is now measured by a nine-figure number. To Irsay, who Ward calls a “true romantic,” most of the artifacts are priceless.
“I mean, the collection was put together very, very carefully,” Irsay said. “It wasn’t done randomly. I would say it’s an understatement what these items mean to me. As you flow through life, you’re attracted to things that are attractive to you spiritually. I’ve always pursued inspiration, and seeing other human beings along the trail — people that are inspirational, who really changed the world.
“And I think that sort of passion that you see is something you celebrate in the collection, and you celebrate in a live, organic way at the shows. That’s been one of the biggest things, what our connection’s been during the shows. It’s kind of taking tremendous things, iconic things and exciting things from the past into 2021 and 2022. It takes that inspiration alive, and expands it. There’s plenty of America in there, with Jefferson and Lincoln and MLK and JFK. We stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument playing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ before our Capitol Theater reception (last November) in D.C.”
Irsay’s longstanding devotion to Dylan was apparent in Austin when he insisted on tacking a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” onto the end of the band’s set, with the Colts owner supplying the gravelly vocals. He views Dylan and John Lennon as the greatest rock ’n’ roll songwriters and is hoping that the 2016 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature will join him for a game at Lucas Oil Stadium soon.
“I was just with Dylan about three weeks ago in Bloomington,” Irsay said in December. “Mike Wanchic, who worked on ‘A Political World’ and did a video with him, was there, and John Mellencamp was there, too. John’s really close to (Dylan), and John and I are real close. Bob’s just so great. He is such a character, man. Every time I see him, it lights me up because he’s always like, ‘Ah Jim, when are the Colts gonna win the next Super Bowl? If I come to a game, where do I get to sit when I come there?’ And it’s like, ‘Um … wherever you want, Bob!’
“Bob is just incredible. It’s so inspiring, to see Bob Dylan at 80 take the stage. It’s just like seeing (Tom) Brady play this long. … It’s like ‘Wow.’ And I’ve always kind of aspired to that, about sticking around as long as you can. You know, the party changes. Dylan says, ‘I’ve got new eyes, everything looks so far away’ in the song ‘Highlands’ from ‘Time Out of Mind.’”
Then there are songs that carry Irsay back to another time, such as the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” another of the offerings on which he sang lead vocals in Austin.
“I want to tell you, that song — I mean, you change … it transports you,” Irsay said shortly before taking the stage. “When you hear it, when you play it, you feel that era, with all the unrest and everything. When Charlie (Watts), god rest his soul, starts with the percussion instruments and the band comes in — wow. It speaks of a time when there was great change going on and it was a dangerous time, but a revolutionary sort of time.”
Aronoff, a couple of hours before supplying Watts’ signature beat on the Stones classic at the Austin event, had experienced his own sort of time travel while stationing himself atop the drum kit bearing the iconic Beatles logo.
“I was thinking, ‘This is the kit I saw Ringo play on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ when I was 10 years old (in 1964).’ That’s insane,’” Aronoff said later. “(CBS) did a show in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of that appearance, and I played on it with Paul (McCartney) and Ringo (Starr) and a bunch of other amazing musicians. And now here I was, sitting on the kit that changed my life.”
Singing ‘from the heart’
Like most of the decorated musicians in Irsay’s band, Aronoff is a big football fan. Wanchic played defensive back for DePauw, a Division III school in Indiana, in the early ‘70s. “I got the f--- kicked out of me,” he said laughing. “I’ve got two fake knees and two fake hips.”
Besides his longstanding main gig as Mellencamp’s right-hand man, Wanchic is the leader of this sporadic but enduring side project formed in Irsay’s honor. In addition to Mills, Shepherd and Aronoff, it typically includes Tom Bukovac, a highly acclaimed session guitarist based in Nashville; supporting guitarist Danny Nucci, an actor best known for his role in “Titanic”; and Indianapolis-based background singers Alaina Williams, Staci McCrackin, Renee Merrifield and Stephanie Allen-Stevenson. In Austin, accomplished local keyboardist Michael Ramos handled those duties for the band, while an Austin-based guitarist with ties to Mellencamp’s band, David Grissom, sat in for a blues number.
“It’s a band that’s just exquisite,” Aronoff said. “You get Jim in there — we’re like the cake without the icing. Jim’s the icing. He adds this kind of color to the whole thing.”
In Austin, Irsay was vividly in his element, taking the stage at the start of the band’s performance and throwing footballs into the crowd gathered around a small stage in a hotel banquet room. “No shots to the balls from any of the dirty players out there,” he cautioned as attendees scrambled for the pigskin souvenirs. “Football’s a dirty game.”
A few minutes later, Irsay made a tequila reference, then added, “Actually, I have an allergy to Patron. I break out in handcuffs when I drink it.”
As Ward had said earlier: “There’s never a boring moment working for Jim.”
On a more serious note, Irsay gestured toward the memorabilia displayed beyond the stage and told the audience, “I don’t own these things. Everything, you borrow.”
And then, after the band worked through a set that included Mills’ R.E.M. classic “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” and Shepherd’s solo FM radio hit “Blue on Black,” Irsay returned to the stage and did his thing. From a raw rendition of Bob Seger’s “Fire Down Below” to an ultra-clean performance of “The Weight” (with Mills handling lead vocals — alone — on the fifth verse, after Irsay had sung the first four), the billionaire who marches to his own beat was front and center and immersed in his loosely phrased lyrical bliss.
“That’s the great thing — Jim inhabits these songs,” Mills said. “When he does these songs, I think you’re hearing a lot of his life experience come out. It’s very emotional, and he sings from the heart. So basically we just want to set these songs up in order to have a place for him to express what he’s thinking and feeling. And that’s kind of fun. It’s fun to see what he does, because it’s unexpected. You don’t know exactly what he’s gonna do, which gives it a uniqueness that’s really great in music.
“He’s not a traditional singer. He doesn’t intend to be. You wouldn’t want him to try.”
As he showcases his intensely personal collection of artifacts — and tries to add another Lombardi Trophy to his catalog — one thing is certain: Irsay will try to stick around as long as he can.