Most of those sitting in judgment of Robert Irsay never knew him. The validation of the record, from a spiritual perspective, will left to a higher power. This is not to imply that those of us who met him along life's troubled highway are guilty of erroneous or prejudicial assessments in measuring his conduct. Diabolical and irrational behavior became a too- frequent characteristic.
It was apparent to most Irsay watchers that he had a vast inferiority complex and a drinking problem. He always appeared uncomfortable in a social setting and was entirely out of his element in a football environment.
Was he a bad person and rotten to the core? Was he malicious by purpose or intent? Absolutely not. But in a way he was a tragic individual who was an embarrassment to those around him and, too often, even to himself.
The first time he came to Baltimore, after he acquired the Colts franchise in 1972, he mentioned he had been a member of the "scrub team," a term used only in dime novels of decades ago, at the University of Illinois. On that occasion, he suggested the city should change its name to Unitasville not Mooresville or Marchettiville or Berryville.
But, six months later, the same hero, John Unitas, was sold, not traded, to the San Diego Chargers. So much for icons. After Irsay had concluded his introductory-to- Baltimore remarks, we asked him that when he was at Illinois if he had played for Bob Zuppke or Ray Eliot? It was as if we were mentioning individuals he had never heard of before and both had become Hall of Fame coaching legends at his alma mater -- yet he acted as if they were names that held not even the remotest significance to him.
On that occasion, he said, "I need to have 20 minutes with you." He related that George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears, told him that if you want background on the city and its football past, then talk to a certain sportswriter. Irsay requested we call him the next morning, 10 o'clock, at the Village of Cross Keys to have either breakfast or lunch and talk about Baltimore and his new role as owner of the Colts.
At the agreed upon hour, Irsay answered the phone but acted as if he never heard of Halas' closest Baltimore friend or of any tentative arrangements to meet him. He always referred to himself as an "old tin knocker," which alluded to making a living in the heating and air conditioning business. The NFL was grossly incompetent when it agreed to let him have a franchise because it only made a cursory examination of his background and didn't know what type of personality it was allowing into the fraternity.
But there he was, owner of a team, one that had been in business since 1947 and had such legendary players as Y. A. Tittle, Lamar "Racehorse" Davis, Bob Nowaskey, Alan "The Horse" Ameche, Claude "Buddy" Young, Bill Pellington, Jim Mutscheller, Jim Parker, Mike Curtis, Lydell Mitchell, et al.
After a losing game in Cleveland, when Toni Linhart missed four chip-shot field-goal tries, Irsay went to the locker room and confronted the disappointed kicker. "I'm going to give you a $10,000 bonus," he said and the comment was made with a reporter -- this one -- standing there to hear the promise. It was to reward Linhart for trying hard. But no such thing ever happened. Apparently, Irsay forgot. In three weeks, Linhart was released.
Once in Buffalo, while heading for the locker room when the game was over, he said, "I got a good story for you. The bank is going to take over control of the Buffalo Bills. Ralph Wilson [the owner] can't afford to keep the team."
Wilson was the founder of the Buffalo club, entirely solvent and in no fear of financial trouble. He owned the team outright and was not beholden in any way to a bank. To this day, the question: Why would he have circulated such an unfounded and irresponsible piece of what could have been damaging misinformation?
It was an example of Irsay being totally out of control. Again, the drinking caused him to become delusionary and, on those too frequent occasions, he had no idea what he was saying. As when he claimed the Colts were going to make Bo Jackson their first draft pick, except he was a mere freshman and wasn't about to leave college.
At an NFL meeting, he tugged on the sleeve of Ed McCaskey, president of the Chicago Bears, and said he had to see him at that minute for a strictly private and emergency conversation. It was a night of relaxation and McCaskey was reluctant to leave friends and family at a dinner held by a TV network. But he went outside to accommodate Irsay. "I want you to sell me the Bears, after George Halas dies, because then you'll know the club will be run in the proper way," was the vital message he gave McCaskey, the son-in-law of Halas.