Jim Irsay’s family fights mental illness because it has lost so much
This story contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255 or seek out area resources.
INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Irsay is sitting in the back of that convertible, sitting next to Edgerrin James, seeing those tombstones.
This is Edge’s day, his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August 2021, and they’re riding together in the back of that 1975 Chevy Caprice in downtown Canton, Ohio. The parade route cuts through St. John’s Catholic Church Cemetery. Fans are lining Cleveland Avenue, cheering for Edge, and Irsay is throwing $100 bills because it’s what he does, but he sees those tombstones and now he’s reflecting on this life he’s lived, the highs and lows, the pain and suffering. The cocaine and alcohol and Super Bowls. The nights he fell asleep, his family worried he’d never wake up.
He’s wondering, in the back of that 1975 Chevy Caprice, how he has lived this long. Sometimes he’s not sure.
“I might as well have gotten out of a grave in that graveyard, got out of my coffin, walked to the street and hopped in the car — because I was a dead man walking,” Irsay’s telling me Wednesday, two days before the Colts’ most important event of the year, and no, not their 2022 home opener Sunday against Kansas City. “That might as well be what happened, being lowered 3 feet into the ground.”
Now he’s raising his voice, almost like he’s there, trapped inside that coffin, fighting to get out.
“Hold it!” he’s shouting. “I’m still alive!”
He’s one of the lucky ones, and knows it. Alcoholism, addiction, mental health issues, they’re different but the same, “a thinking disease,” as Irsay calls it, “implanted in your DNA and your brain.” These can be fatal illnesses, and he knows that too. His grandfather drank himself to death. So did his father.
One of his best friends, the writer Hunter S. Thompson, had called Irsay on Feb. 20, 2005, about 12 hours before Thompson put a gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. Thompson had suffered from alcohol and cocaine abuse for years, his addiction leading to depression — what mental health experts call “a dual diagnosis” — and was 67 years old when he called Irsay to say goodbye. It had been several years since Irsay had made his own decision to be done with alcohol and drugs, to seek help, to get sober. Back then, Thompson had told him:
“Good for you, James, but it’s too late for me.”
Irsay is remembering that conversation and now he’s raising his voice again, going back in time, arguing with Hunter S. Thompson.
“What do you mean?” he’s shouting at Thompson before lowering his voice, coming back to me, and explaining what he calls “the paradox of life.”
“I tried to help him,” he says of Thompson, “but there’s no talking people into it. Our free will, that’s what will kill us. We have to surrender that free will to get freedom.”
In early 2020, in response to the country’s increasing mental health epidemic — even before the COVID-19 pandemic made everything so much harder — the Irsay family started the Kicking the Stigma campaign to raise awareness and funds for research, treatment centers, homes for the homeless, whatever is needed. To date, largely from family donations but with help from the Indiana Pacers (who donated $1 million) among others, the campaign has already committed more than $17 million.
The Irsay family will add to that Friday night in Carmel, at their annual Kicking the Stigma fundraiser. Tickets are sold out, but anyone can help by bidding on an auction item at Colts.com/KTS or one.bidpal.net/beyondthesidelines/browse/all or by making a general donation to Kicking the Stigma at Colts.com/KTS.
“We can either be an example through death, or an example through living,” says Irsay, whose Colts’ annual Kicking the Stigma game is their Monday Night Football home date Nov. 28 against Pittsburgh. “You’re going to be an example one way or another, and I’ve had a courtside view my whole life in so many different ways with this (mental health) issue. Kicking the Stigma has given me an avenue to discuss this.
“I don’t do it because it helps my brand, because people think I’m a saint, because I think I’ll go to heaven, none of those things. I see a human over there, and it’s just me, in a different time or place. It’s me! Not now, but it’s me. I can go in a time machine, and I can go help myself.”
Kalen Irsay: “Mom, am I going to be OK?”
Kalen Jackson cried a lot. She was Kalen Irsay in those days, the youngest of Jim and Meg Irsay’s three daughters, and she had terrible fears she couldn’t name or understand.
“All the time,” she says, “I’d ask my mom: ‘Am I going to be ok?’”
It didn’t feel like it on school days. She’d cry all the way to Park Tudor, where school officials found an empty room for her to compose herself so she could go to class. This was every day. This was fifth grade.
Kalen continued along this path for years. Therapy did wonders, but in college she nearly changed her major when she learned she’d have to take a public speaking class. She’d get the shakes before speaking in public. She’d cry.
Kalen’s path continues today, her victory obvious. She’s the force of will behind the Kicking the Stigma campaign, often the public face of it, giving speeches.
Kalen Jackson helped come up with the idea in early 2020, knowing how deeply her family had dealt with mental health issues — knowing, in fact, how deeply her family had tried to hide those issues. Or at least, avoid talking about them. Her dad’s DUI arrest in 2014, his addiction to painkillers, his six-game NFL suspension, brought it out into the open, but until 2020 the family hadn’t talked about it publicly.
“We’ve been affected by the stigma our whole life,” she says, “feeling like if we give too much attention to it, somebody’s going to write something not true or judgmental and try to create more shame around something that’s already been so difficult for us.”
The Colts have long been a philanthropical leader locally, building playgrounds for IPS schools and raising $1.2 million for food-insecure families with children, but in early 2020 Jim’s oldest daughter, Carlie Irsay-Gordon, challenged Kalen — whose role as Vice Chair of the Colts includes overseeing the family’s giving strategy and philosophy — to find a cause personal to the family.
Kalen knew one.
“We looked at the statistics, and they were staggering,” Kalen says. “Indiana’s youth suicide rate has been higher than the national average since 1999. It used to be the third-leading cause of death for Hoosier adolescents, but now it’s second. We’re also 48th of 50 states in prevalence of youths with severe depressive episodes. A lot of these youth suicides we’re seeing are with people who were never in the mental health system at all. They never got the chance. Being a mom, the numbers are scary. You don’t want your world to look like this.
“It was so upsetting to see how much our state was struggling in the mental health space, both adolescents and adults, and I felt almost ashamed that I didn’t know that. This is something so deeply rooted in our lives, and it was right underneath my nose, and I didn’t know how badly we were needed and how much we hadn’t shown up yet. We’d never publicly done anything big here.”
Kicking the Stigma wasn’t supposed to be this big, actually. It was going to be a local initiative, but the more Jim got to thinking about it, the more he decided to go all-in. In December 2020 he purchased several national television spots for a PSA about mental health, with star linebacker Shaquille Leonard talking about his own battles with anxiety and depression while the R.E.M. song “Everybody Hurts” played in the background.
Nearly two years later, Kicking the Stigma has committed nearly $20 million to organizations to expand treatment and research and raise awareness. That’s Indiana, and beyond. For the Irsay family, the difference starts inside their own walls.
“For the first time we’re telling the story, instead of the story being told about us,” Kalen says. “It’s been a healing process. Being able to share your story with others is a big part of healing.”
For the Irsay family, like so many others, the scars run deep.
Bullet holes in Irsay’s wall, blood on the carpet
Jim Irsay has a dog now. Drake, a tiny Maltese-Shih Tzu mix. He goes everywhere with the Colts owner, including training camp at Grand Park and even games, home and away. Drake stays on the bus with a handler until Jim returns and all is right in the little dog’s world.
“He starts spinning like a bunny,” Kalen says, and it’s not clear if she’s talking about Drake or her dad. The dog has been that vital to Jim Irsay’s mental health, something he prioritizes in the way we prioritize eating, sleeping and breathing. Without his mental health, Jim knows, none of the rest matters.
These are lessons he’s learned through experience, through bullet holes in the wall and blood on the carpet. That was the scene at their home in Winnetka, Illinois, when Jim was a teenager, coming home to an empty house and finding that nightmarish scene but neither of his parents. He called the police, who told him what had happened:
His dad, Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay, had been drinking again — “liquored up,” the Winnetka police chief told Jim — and Robert had come home and decided to show the family dog who was master. The dog, a nine-pound Poodle, had bitten him. Robert got his two pistols and started shooting. Missed the dog. Hit the walls. Went to the hospital for stitches.
That still didn’t explain the whereabouts of Jim’s mother, Harriet.
“Half an hour later, from this secret closet where she keeps her furs, she comes ambling out,” Jim says. “Just one of those things. She says: ‘He went off. Don’t ask me about it.’ She went to hide in the closet and fell asleep.”
“Just a normal day in our life!” he says, shouting again. “I didn’t think much of it. That’s the kind of (stuff) that happens.”
Robert Irsay was a hard man, not beloved in Baltimore even before he moved the team to Indianapolis in 1984, but Jim calls that a result of his mental illness, his addiction to alcohol.
“The media thinks they know my dad. They didn’t know my dad. They had no clue who he was,” Jim says. “My dad was such a great man, an incredible man, a special man. That’s the thing with mental illnesses. They can really change people.”
“You’re dying, you’re going to hell and guess what? It’s your fault!”
Jim Irsay comes by his addiction issues genetically, as do so many others, with his father an alcoholic who died in 1997, and his mother’s father — a Polish immigrant, a tailor in Chicago — drinking himself into the grave in 1927. Jim had his first drink at 15, “forced on me by older kids at a party with punch, rum in there,” he says. “I didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t that thrilled. But like all diseases, it takes different forms with how it grows.”
Irsay became the youngest owner in the NFL in 1997. He was 37. This was after his alcoholism had grown out of control.
“I was never a blackout drinker,” he says, perhaps because his tolerance was so high. “Really it was a question of self-destruction. It’s hard to watch. People that love me said, ‘Boy, what a life he’s had, but I’m waiting for the phone call (that he’s dead). I don’t see how he can find a way out of this. It’s seemingly a lost cause.’
“But it never is, you never give up. If someone doesn’t stop the cycle, it’s going to continue. That’s where I came in. I somehow had the ability to take so many punches until I said, ‘I’m hanging this up now. That’s it.’ And thank God it didn’t destroy me. It was a lot. There were a lot of dark forces trying to take me down.”
Irsay doesn’t consider himself to be all that strong, just fortunate. “Blessed,” he says, to have had the resources to attend the finest rehab centers, trips he had to make more than once, decisions he kept making, a decision he’d hoped Hunter S. Thompson would make as well. Irsay starts listing famous people — rich, popular, powerful, human — who have succumbed to mental health disorders, addiction or otherwise.
“I’m not better than Hunter, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia, John Belushi, any of the people who’ve perished,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Elvis Presley. You can’t even begin to fill that hole with money. It’s an inside job, getting well.”
Irsay says he’s been to “thousands and thousands” of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings all over the world. The night before the AFC title game at New England on Jan. 14, 2004, another duel between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? The owner of the Indianapolis Colts was at an AA meeting in Boston. He goes to meetings in the shadows of San Francisco, the areas tourists don’t visit, walking past people experiencing homelessness to get inside, then returning to the hotel, gathering his daughters when they were younger and heading back out to visit a homeless shelter.
It’s a quest for empathy, the journey of a lifetime, and last year when the Colts played at San Francisco, Irsay attended an AA meeting in one of those gritty spots.
“This woman came up to me, and her eyes were so clear blue,” he says. “She looked at me — she was not on any drugs or alcohol — and she says, ‘You’ve got to be really careful about the ocean. There are these dark bodies coming out, and they’re snatching people, and it’s really bad out there.’
“It was unbelievable, the crystal clearness of her eyes. Eyes tell so much. You could see the purity of her soul, the purity of her so-called sobriety, but in her world the chemical imbalance in her brain had got her in another place. It’s so difficult to see.”
Irsay is about to start shouting again. Too many people still don’t understand mental illness, have no idea how to talk about it, using words or phrases that feel safer. They don’t use the word “illness,” Irsay’s saying, which is what it is. That’s all it is — not weakness, not lack of character. It’s an illness.
Irsay understands the conversation about mental health issues and disorders goes far beyond addiction — his daughter Kalen and her anxiety, remember — but for him, the story of addiction underscores how little people understand mental health overall, how they compartmentalize things in ways that make them feel better while making the overall discourse worse.
“These are fatal diseases,” he says. “People get confused and they think, ‘Well, he likes to party. Do some coke, do some shots, dance around.’ It’s nothing to do with that. This isn’t partying. This is a downbound train in the dark. You’re dying, you’re going to hell and guess what? It’s your fault! How do you like that?
“Tonight,” Irsay continues, “you can look at deaths in the state from suicide, depression, overdose. I’m not better than those people. I don’t have more courage than those people. I don’t have more character. People say all the time, ‘He just had his demons.’ Really? If I had pancreatic cancer, would you say ‘he had his demons?’ No. It’s insane. Nobody would say that!
“’Well, Jim, you’re a good guy. I know you’re fighting with your demons.’ What? Impossible!”
This is Jim Irsay like you’ve never heard him, shouting and lashing out at those who don’t understand mental illness — who aren’t trying to understand — but just like that, he is calm again.
“That’s where we’re trying to go with Kicking the Stigma, for people to understand it is an illness — all these diseases are an illness,” he says. “Right now there’s someone in the basement, with a gun in their hand, in the dark, saying: ‘Tonight’s the night.’
“I’ve seen too many young men and women go into the ground. I’ve watched them, the parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, watched the bodies lowered into the ground. It makes you, compels you, if you have a chance and if you’re blessed enough, to change the world, change your community. By God I’m going to try. I’ll keep trying until the last breath in me.”
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/greggdoyelstar.
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