Bob Kravitz exclusive: Jim Irsay opens up about alcoholism, addiction and more
His eyes are clear, clearer than before. His posture, which saw him stooped over like an old man, is much improved. His complexion, once red and blotchy, has been replaced by a healthy looking tan.
In his first extended interview since his DUI arrest in March, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay remained circumspect about what happened that night and what he's been through since then. But he addressed several topics on the record with The Star, which may or may not shed light on his current state of mind as he deals with the ongoing disease of addiction, not to mention the chronic pain he feels in his hip and lower back as a result of old injuries and surgeries.
"These diseases, both alcoholism and addiction, much like bipolar or depression and different illnesses, are still not seen as real diseases," Irsay said during a two-hour interview in his office Monday. "People shy away from seeking help because it's viewed as being somewhat morally off the path, that they've lost their way. I really think the disease aspect gets lost when you're talking about alcoholism and addiction; it's not like you're battling leukemia or a heart problem; it is that. But even in 2014, there's still this stigma.
"...That stigma gets carried forward and it's unfortunate because people die and families get affected and people don't seek treatment. It's an unusual disease in the sense that the person has to diagnose himself. He has to realize that there's this genetic disease you have to deal with through treatment. My grandfather and father both died of the disease, and you realize you've spent a lot of time on this path. Certainly, I have. But with the disease, surgery and pain management can be very tricky waters."
Irsay wouldn't get into specifics, but suffice to say, he believes that because of his significant pain issues he began to lose his way with pain medication. This is not very different from what's happened in the past, what happens with millions of people in this country who deal with chronic pain. One day, a single Vicodin does the trick. Down the road, it takes several Vicodin. And Oxycodone. And more. And next thing you know, you're in the throes of addiction once again.
After attending rehab in several spots around the country in recent months, Irsay acknowledges he is still on some pain medication for his hip and back, but he's having it closely monitored by his doctors, who will eventually wean him off those meds if the pain abates. (Which might require surgery, but that's a different story.) He also has agreed to random drug testing with the prosecutor's office, with those results being shared with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's office.
Meanwhile, Irsay says he has remained alcohol-free for more than a decade and continues to attend AA meetings around town and around the country.
"It's all been a blessing, just being able to focus on my health and redouble the efforts on recovery,'' Irsay said. "It's been a long path. I still have chronic pain. But it was the good thing… In some ways, (going through rehab) is my greatest moment. It takes courage to try and overcome the difficulties you have. For some reason, it's seen as unheroic. When someone beats cancer, it's like, `Wow, that's so heroic,' but when someone has this illness, it's treated like you're a leper because that person is morally corrupt, and that's not the case.
"... It's an ongoing thing in one's life when recovering from any disease. The disease never sleeps so you have to be proactive when dealing with it. But the journey is great because it forced you to grow spiritually. There's a lot of gratitude and spiritual growth. And it's rewarding because it makes you more virtuous when you have success."
Irsay describes the meds he is taking for pain as "the least invasive from an addiction standpoint and the most helpful from an orthopedic standpoint."
Of course, none of this answers some of the questions we wanted answered:
What exactly happened the night he was arrested? Was he addled on pain medication? Why did he fail field sobriety tests? Irsay declined to discuss the details for public consumption. (Sorry.)
What have his conversations with Goodell been like, and is there any credence to Adam Schefter's ESPN report that Irsay will be hit with a 6- to 8-game suspension and a $1 million fine? Again, he declined to discuss on the record.
Will he reach a plea deal or fight to clear his name? At this point, that's still all up in the air and between him and his lawyer, James Voyles.
There were other questions asked in his office Monday, but Irsay was understandably disinclined to answer them publicly. Two reasons: One, the case is still pending; two, recovery is a very private, personal thing.
He did, however, shed some light on some other subjects.
Like the 29 grand he had in his vehicle when he was arrested. Fact is, Irsay said, it's not unusual for him to have that kind of cash. Unafraid of making the point, he showed me a briefcase on his desk. When he opened it, I saw stacks and stacks of $100 bills.
"I don't know why that was leaked to the press or what it had to do with anything," he said. "You're talking about someone who is extremely generous, and I say that humbly. That's the way I try to live my life and it has nothing to do with the law. What's been reported out there, there's been a sensationalizing about things that have nothing to do with the law. It shouldn't be an issue."
He was asked what he would like to say to Colts fans who've been concerned about his welfare and his ability to run the franchise.
"I'd say my focus is on the season, my focus is on making the Colts the best team in the NFL," he said. "I'm completely engaged and have always been engaged, even when I was in rehab. Your paper acted like my kids were running the team and I was in some kind of coma and that's just not the truth."
Technically, his daughters stepped in to run the team in his absence. But Irsay said he was still very much engaged in the team's operations.
"You don't tell a player you can't monitor your investments for a month," he said. "There's no way you're going to have a billion-dollar investment and never fail to monitor it for a period of time.
"I would also say I'm deeply invested in continuing to make the Colts great. All my passion and efforts have been behind that. And I really appreciate all the support they've shown me writing letters, sending notes, people saying they wanted me to be healthy and ready to go, and that's where I'm at. I really appreciate everything. I've always felt like I had a personal relationship with fans. I'm not afraid to be emotional or vulnerable or humble. Mostly, though, I want to say that this journey we've been on, heading into another generation of greatness, I'm truly excited about this year and where we're at."
I asked him if he felt he needed to apologize, to Colts fans, to the league, to anybody.
"I don't think that's something I'll address right now," he said. "There are certain things I want to say that I can't say. We need to let the process go forward and I'll address that later. I'm a human being; if there's something I have to apologize for, I would, but at this point, it wouldn't be appropriate. It sets me up, like if you don't say you're sorry, then why aren't you saying you're sorry, and if you say you're sorry, then you must have done something wrong."
On whether an owner should be held to a higher standard than a player:
"Being an owner, I hold myself to the highest of standards. As a father, as a grandfather, as someone who by nature of their work has this public stage, my nature is to always take that standard seriously."
But should Goodell come down harder on an owner than he does on, say, a player who is charged with a DUI?
Irsay had an opinion, but not one he wanted to share with the public.
After all of this, he turns 55 years old Friday.
"I'd like to think I have many good years left," he said.