NFL Owner by Day, Rock ‘n’ Roller by Night
Jim Irsay is not your typical team owner, especially in 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 high school team. A few weeks earlier, Irsay called for a scandal-plagued owner to be removed despite his own very public troubles. And he continues to use his Twitter account to mourn the loss 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 building a collection of music, sports and other pop culture memorabilia. He paid $4.9 million for the guitar Kurt Cobain used in the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” He acquired one of Ringo Starr’s vintage drum sets for more than $4 million. And this past summer, he paid $6.5 million for one of Muhammad Ali’s championship belts.
Rather than stuff these items in a mansion or museum, Irsay, 63, shows them off during free, one-night-only events around 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 way to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, where some of the items will lean into the city’s role in rock history and the blues legend Buddy Guy will be joined onstage by Ann Wilson, John Fogerty and Stephen Stills.
“For me, I’d rather do this than be floating around on a $200 million yacht,” Irsay said before one of 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 form of philanthropy and even therapy. The artifacts speak not just to his love of music, sports and history but also to the turbulence in his life, including the loss of his sister, who died in a car accident, and the alcoholism of both his father and grandfather. Irsay, too, has had battles with substance abuse. He was also suspended for six games by the NFL 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 of the country’s most exclusive clubs. He talks openly about his struggles with addiction and has started 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 pounds. Then he lost 55 pounds and started running marathons. Irsay still hits the gym despite having undergone 20 surgeries.
Plenty of sports team owners are philanthropic, and some even live out their rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. For example, Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and owner of the Seattle Seahawks who died in 2018, built a museum in Seattle to house his guitar collection, and James L. Dolan, the owner of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, performs as the frontman with his blues band, JD 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 less than altruistic motives. Growing up on the north shore of Chicago, he rode his bicycle to the local drugstore on Monday mornings and bought entire boxes of baseball cards before other boys could get there. He funded the purchases by selling bubble gum at a markup at school.
“I guess I was an illegitimate dealer in grade school,” he joked.
Irsay said he wanted to begin collecting after college, but his father, Robert, who used the fortune he made in the air conditioning business to buy 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 came in 2001 when he paid $2.4 million for the 120-foot-long scroll that contained the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.” It was the only time Irsay showed up, paddle in hand, to bid for an item.
“I’ve always been mostly attracted to great writers,” he said. “The scroll became a writer’s Holy Grail.”
Collecting at this level is unpredictable, but Irsay seems to revel in the chase. He consults with Brinkley and other experts as well as with his curator, Larry Hall, whom Irsay texts and calls at all hours to talk about items he covets. He will 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 had got the guitar for almost precisely his maximum. (With fees and taxes, the total price hits $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 raise 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 in the White House, and another $550,000 for one of Abraham Lincoln’s pocket knives. 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 in recent years. And though he has toyed with the idea of building a museum for his acquisitions, for now he is committed to taking them on tour.
“He gets so attached to the items because he knows the joy they bring when he shows them,” said Hall, who verifies the quality of the items that Irsay brings to him. “That’s why he never charges a penny to share his collection.”
Irsay said the rush of acquiring these items and planning to show them can mirror the adrenaline rush of how football teams get ready on game days. Sometimes, he said, his football brain might take over at his events.
“I admit it’s a little bit of a different hat,” Irsay said. “When it comes to professional football, the intensity above the goals of winning and all those sorts of things, sometimes that comes out in organizing this thing. So all of a sudden you find yourself talking like the general manager or head coach, and people onstage are like, what?”
Irsay was the center of attention in Chicago, where he showed off his collection at 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 as the “Big Book,” Irsay introduced Jim Brown, the former 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 can, and changing the world with love and strength,” Irsay said.
“I want the best of the best,” 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 trying to keep him on schedule. Buddy Guy walked in and Irsay was distracted all over again, peppering him with questions about Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and other blues greats.
The two-hour concert began around 8:30 pm with Irsay sitting onstage and singing Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” After Irsay left, the band, led by Mike Mills of REM, ripped through blues and rock classics. Guy—a hometown favorite—came on to a big ovation, as did Ann Wilson from Heart.
At times, the concert and the collection blurred. Midway through the show, Irsay came back onstage with Edgerrin James, the former Colts running back who threw a dozen signed footballs into the crowd. Fans wandered between the stage and the back of the venue to look at the artifacts, including the guitar Dylan used when he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Hunter S. Thompson’s Chevrolet Caprice convertible (known as 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 crowd out. For another night, Irsay had turned the threads of his life into a shared spectacle, one that helps him keep the demons at bay.
“Many a man has tried to manage the opiates, you know, for millennia, 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 get older to try to have more experience and know what’s always the light and not the dark, because sometimes the shadows can fool you.”