Old football players who watched Jim grow up around the Colts organization call "Jimmy" a good man who was extremely sensitive to his father's substance-abuse issues. So how did the son get here?
"Jim's nothing like his old man," says Bruce Laird, a Pro Bowl safety for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s, who knew father and son well. "He's respectful. He cares about Indianapolis, cares about the National Football League. I think he wanted to do right by his franchise.
"I hadn't seen him [lately], of course, so I was shocked somewhat by his appearance and being that thin. I had no idea the devil got back to him."
People who knew Bob Irsay well offer two pictures. One is of a hard-driven, self-made millionaire who could charm and B.S. his way into your heart; the other is of a short-tempered, ruthless, cantankerous and meddlesome alcoholic who had no business running a professional football team. The redeeming qualities were definitely there, pre-booze.
Most anyone who can describe a coherent Irsay is now gone, but in the suburbs of Chicago, a man pushing 90 has documentation. His pictures of Irsay, wavy-haired and stocky, look as if they could've come from a happy 1950s TV sitcom. There's Irsay in his office, next to a sign that says THINK, and there he is working the room from a couch covered in plastic wrap.
Gene Bednarz, a Marine and World War II veteran, once trusted Irsay so much that Bednarz left his job at the Acord Ventilating Co. to join Irsay's new venture, the Robert Irsay Co. It should be noted that Acord was owned by Bob's father, Charles, and that the family accused Bob of trying to drive the old man out of business.
But there was a time, many years ago, when a young Bob Irsay could be sweet and engaging. He actually used to have a distaste for liquor, Bednarz says, to the extent that during business meals he'd fake drinking, then when nobody was paying attention, dump his drinks in a nearby potted plant.
It was a different time, though. It was the era of three-martini lunches, of 100 percent deductible entertainment on expense accounts, and if Irsay was going to be a good salesman, he had to knock back a few and schmooze.
And for a while, most everyone around him had a very good time. He had lavish Christmas parties with gifts for everyone, plus dancing with a full orchestra. He'd rent private buses to shuttle guests from breakfast at the country club to Cubs games at Wrigley Field. They'd take soda bottles and fill them with bourbon or scotch for the game.
Much of this was part of doing business. Irsay knew that the generosity would lead to favorable gossip in the industry. But he could be both truly generous and stingy, friendly and ruthless.
Bednarz saw both sides. One morning as he stood up from the breakfast table, Bednarz fell to the floor with back spasms and couldn't stand up. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, called the office and said he wouldn't be able to come to work. A half-hour later, Irsay was at the front door. He walked in, picked Bednarz up off the floor and carried him to the tub for a hot bath.
"He would do things like that," Bednarz says. "Just show up out of nowhere, just blow you away with his care.