INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jim Irsay wants to be a better team owner.
Six days after his six-game suspension ended, the 55-year-old Colts owner broke his silence by telling a small group of reporters that he’s excited about the season, feeling well and is ready to move on.
“I’ve always said I’ve felt the role of a steward here and that you learn from your mistakes,” Irsay said during a 30-minute news conference Wednesday. “You move on, think you can be a better person and be better at everything you do.”
For Irsay, it was a tough, painful lesson.
Just days before Indianapolis’ season opener in Denver, Irsay pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated and acknowledged he was under the influence of the painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone when he was arrested March 16 near his home in suburban Carmel. Within hours of his court appearance, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down the suspension, which prevented Irsay from having any contact on football matters with the team or media.
Some players contended Irsay got off light as his three daughters helped oversee the day-to-day football operations. He didn’t address those concerns, saying only that he accepted the restrictions and followed them to the letter.
But for a man who had never missed a Colts game after his father moved the team from Baltimore to Indy in 1984, there was nothing easy about the punishment.
He watched intently as Indianapolis (4-2) lost its first two games, the longest losing streak of the Andrew Luck era, then watched gleefully as the Colts won four straight to move back into the AFC South lead after Thursday’s win at Houston, just in time for his return to the office.
All the while, Irsay watched the games nervously with family and friends, pacing anxiously as he waited to return to owner’s office he’s had since 1997.
“I missed being there. It was tough not being with the guys before the game and praying with the guys before games. That was tough,” he said, laughing as he acknowledged he talked with his daughters and relied on some of his favorite music to help him get through the tough times. A Jerry Garcia guitar was encased on the wall behind him.
“I really made up my mind to be positive about it,” he added.
The absence taught Irsay something else: He has to continue his recovery.
In 2002, before the league’s personal conduct policy applied to team executives, Irsay acknowledged he had become dependent on painkillers after several years of orthopedic operations. He later claimed that after entering rehab, he had stayed clean and sober for years.
So less than 48 hours after his March arrest, team officials said Irsay had voluntarily re-entered a treatment center. He returned to the team in time for NFL draft weekend in May, then showed up several times at training camp. Players and coaches continually offered to support the man who signed their paychecks, even as details — various prescription drugs and more than $29,000 in cash were found in his vehicle — trickled out.
Irsay didn’t address the details of the arrest, but noted that being away did give him a different perspective on life in the NFL.
“When you’re away from the team for something like that, you grow to appreciate it even more when you’re back,” Irsay said.
Irsay was so eager to get back, he returned to the team complex within the first hour he could. And he was welcomed warmly.
“I couldn’t even imagine how hard that was,” punter Pat McAfee said. “You’re talking about a guy who’s been around the Colts his entire life, who personifies the Horseshoe. I was suspended one game years back and it was the worst, so I can’t even imagine what six games must have been like for him.”
So after six excruciating weeks away from his team, Irsay plans to watch Sunday’s game, against the AFC North-leading Bengals (3-1-1), from the owner’s suite at Lucas Oil Stadium.
And he’s determined not to let anything force him to miss another game as long as he owns the Colts.
“I really am motivated to show up and do well every day,” said Irsay, who still recounts his early days with the team as a ball boy for John Unitas. “There’s no question great things are to be grabbed from the difficulties you go through.”