Hamilton County Sherriff’s Department
This mugshot is from Jim Irsay’s March 2014 drunken-driving arrest in the northern Indianapolis suburb of Carmel.
It's a dysfunctional gang at best, the NFL owners, full of miscreants, drunks, and coupon-clipping heirs to a legacy forged in a bygone era when men were men and gangsters belonged to the Mafia.
In a month, a year, or who knows how long, they will be knocking on the door of San Diego taxpayers, their hands out to collect the virtual extortion money offered by what remains of the city’s largely Republican political establishment, led by Kevin Faulconer, a happenstance mayor who owes his job to a messy sexual harassment scandal.
Sordid as the league’s sins against taxpayers have been in San Diego, things appear poised to get worse, with the NFL owners — ensconced in their well-lubricated skyboxes or gathered around the mahogany tables of their private board rooms — eager to seize their multibillion-dollar tributes from an American public mesmerized by beer and the flickering video images of concussed Sunday gladiators, drug abusers, and wife beaters.
The players are following in the footsteps of the owners, whose blood-curdling family feuds, business frauds, and alcoholic binges are seldom discussed by members of the nation’s news and sports media, who must forever provide their own pound of flesh to the league with fawning deference to the NFL bosses.
In September, the San Diego Union-Tribune handicapped the chances of the Chargers moving to Los Angeles, pegging Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay as an “almost certain” ally of the team-owning Spanos family.
“At age 37, Irsay became what was then the youngest owner in the league. It was a natural progression for someone who had been the team’s general manager and whose father, Robert Irsay, owned the team,” the paper said.
“Robert Irsay, who made a fortune running a heating and air conditioning business, bought the Los Angeles Rams in 1972 and promptly traded them for the Baltimore Colts. In 1984, in a middle-of-the-night move, he relocated the team from Baltimore to Indianapolis.”
Noted the item: “Irsay is a longtime friend of Spanos.”
And that was it.
Not mentioned was the Irsay dynasty’s decades-long history of trouble with alcohol and prescription drugs, as well as the March 2014 suspected overdose death of an Indianapolis woman in a townhouse Irsay gave her two years ago.
A year ago this September, Irsay, now 56, was suspended for six games and handed a $500,000 fine by the league for copping a plea to drunk-driving charges resulting from a failed sobriety test after a March 2014 traffic stop in Carmel, Indiana, during which cops found a hoard of prescription drugs and $30,000 in cash in his luxury vehicle.
“I have stated on numerous occasions that owners, management personnel, and coaches must be held to a higher standard than players,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote Irsay following announcement of the league sanctions against him.
“We discussed this during our meeting and you expressed your support for that view, volunteering that owners should be held to the highest standard.”
At his court sentencing, which included suspension of his driving license and a stint in rehab, Irsay admitted he’d been abusing OxyContin and hydrocodone prescribed by a doctor.
“I am committed to do everything in my power to turn this whole experience into a positive event for myself, my family and the community,” he said in a statement of apology. “I truly hope and pray that my episode will help in some small measure to diminish the stigma surrounding our country’s terrible and deadly problem of addiction. It is a disease like other progressive, terminal diseases — one that can only be successfully treated by understanding, committed hard work, and spiritual growth.”
There were no further explanations for Irsay’s drug possession or the reason he was carrying so much cash. Worse yet, Irsay’s extensive record of previous prescription-drug abuse — including three overdoses secretly known to the NFL that only later became public — went unacknowledged by the commissioner.
Goodell’s 2014 statement was quickly discounted as a public relations ploy by those making book on the team, who observed that Irsay’s odds of recovery from booze and drugs might be stacked against him by his father’s own negative history with alcohol, along with his stepmother’s run-in with Carmel cops 12 years earlier.
As reported by the Indianapolis Star in July 2003, Nancy Irsay, widow of the late Colts owner Robert Irsay, was pulled over after “she sped her Porsche along Illinois Street, going airborne as she zoomed across 38th Street.” The 52-year-old then refused two field sobriety tests and was hauled off to jail.
After a three-year high-dollar legal battle, in 2006 Irsay finally pled guilty to a charge of reckless driving. Not taking the sobriety tests, she told Indianapolis television station WTHR, was due to a genetic lung disorder. “I did not have the pulmonary function to take that test which is why I never took the breathalyzer.”
Nancy confessed to the station that “her son [sic] never contacted her during her ordeal, nor did he offer support.”
Added Mrs. Irsay, who married Robert in 1988 after he divorced first wife Harriet, to whom he had been wed 41 years: “Some of the people think that I was the younger blonde woman that dragged Bob away from his marriage, that I was undermining. Suddenly I’m this evil woman that tried to take the team, that destroyed a family. I just can’t believe it. It just boggles my mind.”
The TV report continued, “She says she wants people to know that the last ten years of her life have ‘been really awful.’ During that time Irsay lost her husband, sold her Sweet Charity horse farm and has battled Carmel annexation of her main house and party barn.”
Ten years earlier, as her 73-year-old, hard-drinking husband Robert, felled by a stroke in November 1995, lay dying on a ventilator at his Indianapolis mansion in December 1996, she told the New York Times that “alcohol made him volatile.”
Reported the Times, “Coughs rouse him from sleep, setting off the ventilator’s beeper. He is fed intravenously. A recent six-week hospital stay for his heart problem slowed his physical therapy. ‘But he is not dying,’ said his 46-year-old wife, Nancy Irsay. ‘He didn’t come home to die.’”
As Robert clung to life, the battle between Nancy and the trustees of Irsay’s $230 million estate had already begun.
“They made her return $100,000 in pearls and diamonds that she said Irsay had picked out for their seventh anniversary and barred her from using the team jet to visit her husband at the Mayo Clinic late last summer when he was being treated for pneumonia,” the Times reported.
Nancy hired a psychiatrist who said in an October 1996 letter about Robert: “He is suspicious of his son Jimmy, who is one of the five trustees, and told me that he believes that Jimmy is only out for his own best interests.’’
Robert Irsay died on January 14, 1997. A reported financial settlement in December of that year gave sole ownership of the Colts to his son Jim, making him the youngest owner in the league, and awarding $12 million in cash to Nancy, along with her late husband’s 38-acre estate in the Indianapolis suburbs. (Nancy Irsay died November 7, 2015, according to an obituary posted online by the Swartz Family Community Mortuary and Memorial Center. She was 65.)
For Jim, the next five years were manic.
Quarterback Peyton Manning was drafted in 1998; the team won the AFC East in 1999. In 2001, Jim bought the original manuscript of beat generation writer Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for $2.43 million. In August 2001, his wife Meg, a childhood sweetheart, filed for a legal separation and then changed her mind. In April 2002, pressured by neighbors, Jim gave up his plan to fly his $6 million helicopter in and out of his estate. That September, Meg again filed for separation.
A November 2, 2002, story in the Indianapolis Star said: “In past interviews, Jim has remembered his father warmly, but also said it was ‘hell’ when Bob, who was known to have a drinking problem, was drunk.” Of Jim, the story said, “He hangs out with rock stars, has a reputation for partying, and recently posed nearly naked for a Chicago newspaper.
“Irsay has a studio in his Carmel estate where he records songs with professional musicians, including some from John Mellencamp’s band. He has been known to take his guitar on Colts road trips and play in the hotel until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
Later the same month, TV station WTHR broke the news that Irsay had severe addiction problems with prescription painkillers dating back to 1995. The then-43-year-old Irsay had suffered at least three overdoses in 2000 and 2001 and had been treated at clinics in Indiana and Arizona. The station also revealed that Indianapolis doctor James Dickerson had written between 50 and 60 prescriptions for a total of 2000 pills for the NFL owner.
Partially confirming the story, Irsay issued a statement saying, “I have successfully dealt with my dependence and my chronic pain issues. This has been a personal journey, and I ask that my privacy, as well as that of my family, be respected on this health issue.”
He declined to be interviewed, according to a November 14, 2002, report in the Indianapolis Star.
In the same account, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello acknowledged that then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue knew about Irsay’s problems before they became public. “Jim Irsay has discussed his medical issues with Commissioner Tagliabue on several recent occasions, including that he voluntarily sought professional treatment to help overcome his dependency on certain prescription drugs.”
Rumors that Irsay was under investigation by federal and state authorities for prescription-drug fraud were denied by Colts general counsel Dan Luther. “Contrary to media reports, we have no reason to believe that Jim Irsay is the target of any investigation.”
The news came at an inopportune time for both the league and Irsay, who had begun negotiating with Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson for a new taxpayer-subsidized Colts stadium. “If he has successfully put it behind him, I don’t believe it will have an impact, provided he’s not the target of a criminal investigation,” Peterson told the Associated Press. “If he became the target of an investigation, it would cause me to stop and take another look at this.”
ESPN reports, denied by Irsay, said he was threatening to move the Colts to Los Angeles. Peterson said that the city was being pressured to furnish the team with an annual $10 million subsidy. Taxpayers ultimately ended up financing most of the cost of the $750 million venue, now called Lucas Oil Stadium, with Irsay coming up with a relatively paltry $100 million. It opened in August 2008.
Though Irsay was never prosecuted in connection with his earlier bouts with painkillers and overdoses, others were eventually cited. A November 25, 2002, Associated Press report said that Indianapolis plastic surgeon W. Gregory Chernoff had surrendered his narcotics prescribing license to federal Drug Enforcement Administration after investigation revealed that Chernoff had furnished Irsay at least 119 prescriptions, some for OxyContin, over a year-long period.
“Because news reports about Jim Irsay’s admitted prescription drug addiction have included my name, and because I’m bound by patient confidentiality requirements from commenting on this case, I have voluntarily surrendered my DEA registration until this case is complete,” Chernoff said in a statement. He was subsequently placed on probation and sanctioned by the Indiana Medical Licensing Board.
More than three years later, in February 2006, according to a Star report, Chernoff was charged by the Indiana state attorney general’s office with writing prescriptions for five patients without medical justification.
But the biggest mystery of Irsay’s public life came March 1, 2014, with the death of 42-year-old Kimberly Wundrum, whose sister Rhonda Wundrum had been Irsay’s personal masseuse, according to an April 6, 2014, Star account. By then, Irsay’s wife Meg had finally filed for divorce in November 2013.
Four years earlier, during a February 2010 interview with USA Today, Irsay confessed to a reporter that he had used “everything from LSD to alcohol.”
“Growing up in the raging ’70s, we let ’er rip — Led Zeppelin, the Who...but there was a spiritual pursuit, too, with the psychedelics,” the paper quoted Irsay as saying.
“We would say, ‘Did we do mushrooms last night? Yes. Did we snort coke? Yes. Did we drink tequila? Yes. Well, what are we doing tonight?”
He claimed to have been a friend of Hunter S. Thompson, the alcohol-and-drug-fueled writer who shot himself to death in 2006, leaving a suicide note saying, “Football Season is over.”
“Oh, man. I was so balls-to-the-wall. I could somehow hide that aspect a little, like ducks feeding underwater,” Irsay told the paper.
“Truth is, it was just all-out. I had my father’s genes, plus maybe those from Hunter and Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones).”
The Star’s account of Wundrum’s death said that she had a history of drug arrests, including an August 2013 traffic stop during which was discovered “18 non-prescribed Vicodin...and 0.6 grams of crushed, non-prescribed Adderall,” and a separate, wrong-way driving case in which she had nearly collided with a police car.
Evidence collected near Wundrum’s body in the $139,500 townhouse Irsay had given her the year before included an “orange plate w/white powder, straw, razor,” along with photographs of the football billionaire.
Reporters also discovered that Wundrum had variously listed her residences as three houses, including one valued at $800,000, all owned by a trust administered by Colts executives, who declined to answer questions regarding the arrangements, saying it was Irsay’s personal business.
Despite the Star’s digging, few others picked up on the story, until October 2014, when ESPN magazine finally dug deeper.
“He wouldn’t take Kim to a movie unless it was a matinee, or risk a restaurant unless they were out of town, and even then it had to be with a group. Jim would leave her at the luxurious home they shared to go to Colts charity events and pose with his wife, Meg, from whom he was legally separated,” the story said about Irsay’s closeted, drug-linked sexual relationship with Wundrum.
“But it became harder for her to watch Jim sit in the owner’s box as she sat in a separate luxury suite or in the stands.”
Then, in early 2011 Irsay took up with yet another woman, an ex-swimsuit model, whose husband began sending him nasty tweets, according to the story.
“Did you have a good time last night, hmwrcker,” said one.
“Don’t feed your line of bulls---. Home Wrecker! Go ruin another family!” another said.
Wundrum, who was in and out of a Malibu rehab clinic for her own addictions, “began taking pictures of Jim in his most inebriated states, lying face down in the furniture with burned-out cigarettes around him, in the hopes of showing him how much he needed help, too,” says the piece.
By December 2012, a mutual friend told ESPN, “she would arrive to find the house a mess, with Kim or Jim or both passed out in their clothes.”
The next year, with Wundrum in Utah for yet another recovery try, Irsay ended the relationship by moving her possessions out of the house they had shared and into a smaller place he purchased for her. He gave her a $6000-a-month allowance, providing no explanation for the breakup and making no contact with her except for “a few incoherent phone calls.”
Reportedly hooked on heroin, other drugs, and alcohol, Wundrum was found dead of what the coroner described as “polysubstance overdose.”
After he returned from his six-game suspension last year, Irsay tweeted: “What can I say? I could say something, but nothing IS something; nothing isn’t nothing, if I say it; it’s something. No things are nothing things.”
Meanwhile, Irsay has not been reluctant to discuss the NFL’s pending move to Los Angeles, declaring in May, “One thing for certain is there’s going to be an NFL team in Los Angeles in the next couple of years.”