Irsay is the man who inherited the Indianapolis Colts in 1997 after the death of his father and then proceeded to guide them towards a decade of dominance — although admittedly one that only delivered one Super Bowl (five years ago on Saturday) and two AFC titles (that same season and 2009-10).
Throughout most of the last decade, the prospect of the New England Patriots — his team’s major rivals — coming to town was the NFL’s brashest marketing ploy. But this time Tom Brady et al are chasing the big prize and it has nothing to do with the Colts apart from the humble red carpet they must lay out in “The House that Peyton Built”.
Peyton Manning was the first pick in the 1998 draft and it was his arm and astounding vision that pushed this lacklustre franchise towards greatness. Sadly, Manning is now 36 and on the wrong side of a neck operation about which his boss is openly concerned.
What will make Sunday even more poignant is that Manning’s younger brother Eli will be throwing the ball for the New York Giants, who will be looking to repeat their exploits from four years ago, a historic victory over the Patriots. Should he succeed, that would mean two Super Bowl rings for Eli, twice as many as Peyton. Sporting eras don’t end on sourer notes than that.
The only reason the older Manning ended up in Indianapolis in the first place was because the Colts were football’s worst team in 1997. The prize for torridness is the brightest and best player to emerge from College Football — usually a quarterback. Sometimes this will go wrong. Going all in on what is really only a prospect has as much downside as it does the potential for working out adequately. Rarely does it produce a player of his calibre. The Colts backed the right horse.
Through the glory years, Manning developed a deep love for his new home and for the team that was built up around him. Of course it was all mutual, an impressive feat given the fact that Indiana is traditionally a basketball state, the same one that produced Larry Bird.
It’s the perfect storm for a complicated break-up and Manning isn’t the only one headed for the exit.
The coach and other personnel were fired after their worst season since 1997. Manning, who missed every game due to that neck injury, criticised the upheaval and with the impending number one pick in the draft set to be used on the next-big-thing quarterback, Andrew Luck, this was always only going to end one way.
“When I sat there alone in 1997, that’s the way (this) kind of feels,” Irsay told The New York Times at the weekend.
“No one is really here yet. You’re cleaning house, and no one’s got here yet in terms of that new era. It’s challenging times for sure, and hosting the Super Bowl is really interesting because in some ways, it was the final piece of our golden era of before.”
I never really cared about Mr Irsay until I read that he had purchased the scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road in one continuous, benzedrine and caffeine-fuelled three-week period of creativity.
He seems like an interesting chap but is not the most popular owner in the NFL. For one, he relentlessly commits that unholiest of sins: speaking his mind. And he does it on Twitter too, which infuriates many inside and outside the game.
Last week when the rift between him and Manning began to crack open, he spoke of no one person being bigger than the Colts and, as is his colourful way, called his veteran star a politician, ominously adding: “I don’t think it’s in a good interest to paint the horseshoe in a negative light.”
Critics sneered at the hypocrisy of the heir to a throne which was literally stolen out of Baltimore in the dead of night almost 30 years ago.
Irsay’s father Robert agreed a deal with the Indianapolis mayor who then organised for 15 trucks to take the team’s belongings from the training complex at 2am. Each truck took a different route to the new base out west in order to confuse state police in Maryland.
From the most contentious heist in the history of American sport through the rise and fall of Peyton Manning to hosting one of the world’s biggest events, it’s been a bumpy ride for the Colts and it’s about to get bumpier.
“No one wants to go to the movies or read a book about the merry-go-round that goes round and round,” Irsay said at the weekend.
“The roller coaster tells the stories.”
As they say in Baltimore, true that.
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