Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay has turned Twitter into a creative outlet

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 11:51 PM

IN INDIANAPOLIS Jim Irsay's conversational highway has a new exit every 20 seconds, so in many ways, it's remarkable that he can condense his thoughts into 140-character micro-packages on Twitter.

For Irsay, the colorful owner of the Indianapolis Colts, there are few simple questions and fewer quick answers. In person, he's not a 140-character kinda guy.

"I think some of the best stuff comes from a place you don't know," says the 51-year-old Irsay. "When you clear away the junk, clear away the fear, and get a direct source feed from a place we don't know, you get flashes of words from the universe and you don't know where they came from. But there they are."

Somehow, that sums up what Irsay is doing on Twitter. His unpredictable feed is unique in the sports world. As his Colts' team prepares to open the NFL playoffs Saturday against the New York Jets, Irsay has found a direct pipeline to fans, creating an endless conversation that includes lucrative giveaways, philosophical musings and 1970s flashbacks. It's all there, from the absurd ("I know it's a sin but I have a crush on Sara Palins feet. . . .") to the witty ("Never Post . . . when your toast . . .").

Irsay is a musician known to take his guitar on the road, whose broad and vague strokes surprise few who know him. "He has a poet's soul," says Joe Ehrmann, a former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman and close friend of Irsay's for many years. "He thinks in a poetic way."

It's also not surprising that Irsay sought such an outlet - "The 6 billion of us on this planet, whether we like it or not, are extremely connected," he says - but it is perhaps odd that Twitter is the medium that hooked him.

'Igniting sandcandles'

Irsay's office is filled with grown-up toys. A recording studio in one corner. A giant 12-foot case that holds the scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road." Framed letters written by Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson. Six huge flat-screen TVs. Even Jerry Garcia's famed "Tiger" guitar. But there is no laptop. He doesn't have one. Irsay opens his brief case and fishes out an old Sprint phone, slightly smaller than a brick. "Still works," he says.

So he's no techno-freak. But others in the organization thought he'd like Twitter and began encouraging him to join. His first tweet came from his Blackberry on Dec. 1 at 9:50 p.m., something about "igniting sandcandles of compassion and forged mettle of understanding."

"From the jump, I thought it was a fake account," says Colts wide receiver Taj Smith, an active tweeter himself.

No, it was just the start of a journey. Irsay has averaged nearly 50 tweets a day since then, many of them a mish-mash of quotes, poetry and lyrics, from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan. Irsay explains: "It's simply a conversation in my mind that I share with others. The interpretation is left to the person who reads it."

Smith, only 27, says he often seeks out an interpreter for Irsay's thoughts. And the owner himself once tweeted: "I understand my own Tweets 80 per cent of the time . . . the other 30 per cent . . . I'm just as confused as you!!!!

He once tweeted that NFL owners had a holiday gift exchange and he drew Miami owner Steve Ross's name - "he gave me frozen Black-Eyed Peas/I gave him Timothy Leary's frozen head," Irsay tweeted.

Irsay, whose wealth is estimated at $1.4 billion, has hosted trivia contests and scavenger hunts, giving away a trip to the Pro Bowl and frequently cash and game tickets. He allowed his followers to pick which local charity would receive his $25,000 donation. He gave away a snow shovel when the weather turned bad this week, and gave away a new Toyota Prius to the fan who correctly guessed the car was stuffed with 701 footballs.

"I remember as a kid, calling into WCFL in Chicago, just wishing they'd answer the line," Irsay says. "Thirteenth caller wins a radio T-shirt, and I'd just be dying to get it."

While many NFL figures are on Twitter, Irsay didn't want to use the account to simply thank fans for showing up each Sunday.

"It's kind of like a restaurant menu," he says. "People won't like every single thing on the menu. Some people might want harder NFL stuff, some people might want music, some might want to philosophize, some might want to talk about words. It's an amazing medium in that respect."

As a whole, his prolific Twitter use at least highlights part of what separates him from the other 31 NFL owners, and especially from the previous owner of the Colts - his father, Robert Irsay.

While Jim Irsay clings to many good memories, his father's shortcomings are well-documented: alcohol abuse, moving his team in the dead of night from Baltimore, burning bridges with fans, players and civic leaders. Robert Irsay's own mother famously likened him to the devil.

Robert Irsay died in 1997 and Jim Irsay took over control of the team, becoming the youngest owner in the NFL at the time, a daydream he had entertained since he was a teenager in the Baltimore locker room.

"Sitting there in '97 at 37 years old, preparing my whole life to have a chance and be an owner and do it the way you want to, your vision," Irsay says,"when you look back at that, we've come a long ways."

Turning a team around

After more than a decade of poor attendance and terrible performances, the team hired General Manager Bill Polian in 1997 and drafted quarterback Peyton Manning the next spring. Since then, the Colts have won at least 10 games in nine straight seasons, reached the playoffs nine consecutive years - tying an NFL record - and won their division in seven of the past eight seasons.

Because of his management style, Irsay receives much of the credit. Former Colts coach Tony Dungy, in fact, calls Irsay the best owner in the league.

"He has evolved," said Dungy, now an analyst for NBC. "I know when I got there, he didn't want to spend a lot of time around the team, didn't want to come in the locker room. He thought that was kind of the coach's domain. I think recently he's grown into that and feels okay with that. He's around a lot more, which I know the players appreciate."

Current Colts Coach Jim Caldwell says Irsay's history with the game, dating from his time as a ballboy in Baltimore, gives him an understanding and appreciation of a football team that most owners may not have.

"He is without question a very, very knowledgeable individual," Caldwell says. ". . . I mean, he has had an opportunity to work at almost every position in this organization. He kind of worked his way up through the ranks. He understands exactly what we are doing out on the practice field and has a good sense of those things. It does not take you very long to explain to him what you are doing and what you are thinking."

Irsay, who battled an addiction to pain-killers in the 1990s, has found the type of success that mostly eluded his father. He doesn't engage much on the complicated relationship the two shared. He likes to say that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but sometimes that tree is located atop a hill.

He once tweeted: "I took on my father . . . and I'm still walk'in . . . took on all comers in some shape or form!!!" But he doesn't reveal whether he's sharing intimate thoughts about his own father, or simply quoting a Tom Petty song. He thinks carefully about every word, but little, he says, should be taken literally.

"People think you're talking about yourself or someone in particular, and that's not always the case," he says. "I'm more interested in the cultural bond that we all have, how we bounce off each other and how we relate to each other. . . . I'm big on the abstract. I always have been."

'The dude must abide'

He has just one rule. The NFL prohibits its players from tweeting 90 minutes before a game, so Irsay also refuses to pull out his Blackberry and share his thoughts until a game concludes.

"The dude must abide," he tweeted, quoting "The Big Lebowski" by way of explanation.

But Irsay is also aware of the power of the medium. Following the Colts' road game in Oakland last month, Irsay stayed in the Bay Area and met with Twitter executives, including chief executive Dick Costolo, to discuss all the possibilities of 140 characters.

Still, Irsay says he's not about to tailor his account to simple branding or marketing. That's not why the universe wanted him to sign up.

"I had no idea what way this was going to roll," Irsay says. "I'm glad I didn't. I wanted to walk through this universe and be able to react instinctively with my feelings and thoughts and not have a preconceived idea. I don't know how it's gone to this point, and I don't know where it will go from here."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company