Though the redevelopment of downtown was the work of many, it’s hard to argue that the single, most game-changing moment wasn’t the sudden arrival of the Colts from Baltimore in 1984. At a stroke, Indianapolis became, in the most literal sense, a major-league city.
Ultimately, the credit belongs to the team’s owner at the time, Bob Irsay, who had purchased the Baltimore squad in 1972. But in ’84, his back was against the wall, with the city threatening to claim the franchise via eminent domain. “He had a stadium there that was unable to support a franchise,” said his son and current Colts owner, Jim Irsay. “But Indianapolis has been a beautiful marriage. We’ve been here now almost as long as the team was in Baltimore.”
Jim Irsay, who, according to Forbes magazine, is worth $3 billion, has turned his adopted city into a home. And his fortune has allowed him to follow a lifetime predilection for charity and philanthropic work. The list of causes and programs he has assisted is as lengthy as it is varied. For instance, to help battle the economic dislocation caused by the pandemic, he donated $1 million last spring to Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana. He also gave another $1 million for cancer research to the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center and made a multimillion-dollar gift to the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis.
The younger Irsay is also a fan of the arts. So much so that, while attending a production of the hit show “Hamilton” in 2016, he made a spur-of-the-moment $20,000 donation to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
“You don’t do things like this for PR points,” he said. “You do it because your fellow human beings are struggling, and you remember that your ancestors struggled, too. They were helped by teachers and mentors and people who gave them jobs. None of us could possibly have gotten where we are without help.”
One project he’s thinking about more and more these days is creating someplace to house the eclectic (to put it mildly) collection of pop culture artifacts he has acquired over the years. Irsay owns the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”—a continuous 120-foot roll of taped-together pages he bought at auction for $2.43 million. His other acquisitions include a breathtaking assortment of famous guitars, including models formerly owned by Prince, Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. Plus Ringo Starr’s drum set, which cost him $2.2 million.
“We’d like to keep it in Indiana,” Irsay said of his collection. “I want to have the greatest museum on the face of the earth, with hundreds of incredible things that I’ve collected through the years.”
Though his father helped make modern Indianapolis what it is by moving his football team from Baltimore, his son has no intention of leaving. Ever.
“I daydream about the future of the city and state,” he said. “It’s going to be bright and I know our family is always going to be here.”