Jim Irsay was on his way to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in San Francisco when a homeless woman stopped him to warn him about dark creatures that drag people into the ocean and kill them.
The Indianapolis Colts owner expressed concern and told him he would pray about it.
“It’s not always the drugs or the alcohol. Part of it is just mental illness,” Irsay said in a lengthy two-part interview on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “A lot of times these things are genetic and inherited conditions that come with people, like bipolar or alcoholism or depression. So that’s really something that excites me and my family as we move forward. has so much more work to do.
Irsay, who has publicly struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, has made it his personal mission to help people like this homeless woman and many others by breaking down barriers around mental health. The Colts are leading the charge with their “Kicking The Stigma” initiative, which has raised millions of dollars to provide mental health resources and encourage anyone struggling with these illnesses to seek the help they need.
“I know what it’s like to be at the gates of hell. I know what it’s like to feel the bars of hell and to be in that darkness,” said Irsay, 63.
“When I do this job it’s to try to save and help one person, one at a time, not because of our brand, not because it looks good for the family to have a big charity. None of that. It is the empathy and tremendous compassion that you develop as a human being because we learn from what we are going through, we can share our strength, our hope and our experience to alleviate the suffering of others.
Irsay continues to buy national television ads, featuring players and celebrities, on various major networks and during NFL game broadcasts to raise awareness. The goal is to change the discourse surrounding mental health issues. Players past and present, including Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, have embraced the Irsay family message because it’s personal to them.
“I think that’s why it’s been so well received and connected to so many people, because it comes from a lived experience,” said Kalen Jackson, one of Irsay’s three daughters, co-owner and vice- team president. “It’s coming from a real place of understanding, and having been through those dark times, having been through that – in my case, I have anxiety – it’s still part of my daily life. So I think that’s us really allows us to authentically connect with people about it, and I think that’s part of why it’s been so well received.
Irsay inherited the team after the death of his father, Robert, in 1997, and he won a legal battle with his stepmother to retain ownership. Jim Irsay played linebacker at SMU before an ankle injury ended his career and multiple surgeries led to his addiction to prescription drugs. He battled drug addiction and received a six-game suspension after pleading guilty to driving a vehicle while intoxicated in September 2014. He was also fined $500,000.
“My personal will had to be let go because my personal will was killing me,” Irsay said. “The only way to help me was to surrender and give way to learning and give way to a power greater than me.”
Irsay isn’t shy about talking about his past issues, as it helps define the man he is now. He is not shy about speaking out on any subject, including Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder, who is at the center of multiple investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and financial impropriety.
Despite NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s recommendation that owners reserve judgment until the league’s investigation is complete, Irsay said last week there was “merit to take away” Snyder.
Irsay is particularly concerned about allegations of workplace misconduct.
“Having three daughters, seven granddaughters, is just not…. we have to look at the investigation and see the finality of some things that happened because there were a lot of different things that happened,” Irsay said. “But you can’t shy away from the fact that it’s an unfortunate situation. But I believe it is in the interest of the National Football League that we look it straight in the eye and deal with it. I think America, the world, expects us, as leaders.
Whether it’s fighting mental health stigma or being the only owner willing to take a public stand against a co-worker, Irsay isn’t afraid to lead the charge.
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