INDIANAPOLIS – Draft day in 1998 was a special day for Jim Irsay and his Indianapolis Colts.
That day provided Irsay the chance to draft Peyton Manning with the first overall pick. It was such a significant opportunity that he personally turned in the draft card.
Draft day in 2012 provided Irsay with another flash point. He capitalized again by selecting Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the top choice.
General Manager Ryan Grigson and Head Coach Chuck Pagano are new to Irsay's organization and each equated the selection of Luck as making them among the most fortunate people on the planet.
In his fourth decade with the Colts and nearing the start of a second one at the top of the company, Irsay felt the same way. The significance of the opportunity to nab a collegiate quarterback of Luck's stature did not escape Irsay, and his feelings came from deep within.
"I couldn't be more excited. We were really blessed as a franchise to have such a player and such a person (as Andrew Luck available)," said Irsay. "When I was doing the interview process (last January) and talked to some of the top personnel people in the league for our general manager position, the comment you always got from them was, 'He is the best player I've scouted in 25 years. He is the top prospect I've graded in 20 years.' That sort of reputation of greatness has followed Andrew around, and he's handled it with so much humility. We are fortunate as a franchise to have him. We are really excited about this new era, and we look forward to doing great things as we go forward in this decade."
Asked the similarities of the drafting of Manning and Luck, Irsay provided the perspective.
"There are really are a lot," said Irsay. "I just remember Peyton could have come out his junior year, and probably would have gone to the Jets. He stayed (for his senior year in 1997). We struggled, lost to Minnesota (in the 1997 finale). I came home and Arizona was playing in the late game, and Jake Plummer brought them back from nine points down with about seven seconds left, threw a touchdown (pass), and I ran around the house like a madman. My family thought I had lost my mind. I knew what it had meant when Arizona won that game.
"This time it was a little bit different. It looked like we were going to have the number one pick. Then when we finally did, it was significant, because Andrew (Luck) has been the number one pick for several years. He has been elevated at a certain level. When you talk about people in the NFL, 99 percent would tell you that if they had the pick they would take him."
Manning was a quarterback who authored extreme success for a long period of time. Irsay fondly lived through those times, seeing his team perform at the league's elite level and having it achieve a national following that rivaled other great eras in franchise history.
That recent era is consigned to history and only the present matters. Irsay bridges those times while planning for future success.
"I think when I look back and have seen Peyton come in and looked to Andrew now, I look at the picture and I am older. I look how young Peyton was and look at Andrew come in and see his birth date, and I realize how time has passed," said Irsay. "It is really a blessing. In life and business and sports some good luck helps. I think we were fortunate to have the stars align where Andrew was there when we had this pick."
For many years prior to 1998, the Colts struggled to have the key person under center. The team routinely competed in the AFC East against stalwart teams that were directed by, among others, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. Times changed for Indianapolis with Manning on board, and Irsay has seen other franchises struggle as his once did in finding that key quarterback.
"I feel really excited and blessed to have Andrew," said Irsay. "If you look at teams, Denver, San Francisco, Dallas and other teams where they left that great era with the franchise quarterback, they got back to (being) competitive, maybe made the playoffs at 9-7, and fell back down, because they just couldn't, even in a 20-year period, push back and get back to greatness because they couldn't get that guy. I think it is really fortunate that we get to put the piece in place now and build around the franchise quarterback."
Irsay is learned enough to know a star quarterback gives a team more than a puncher's chance to compete. Having one such as Manning, Marino or Kelly means a team has a shot to win every Sunday, a chance to be relevant in any conversation. To achieve and sustain greatness, it takes more components. Irsay is aware his club's progression since 1998 meant more than special talent at one position.
"The biggest myth, whether it is Andrew, Peyton or whoever, you need the rest of the guys," said Irsay. "When we look back, we started off 3-13 (in 1998), and we didn't win a playoff game for almost six years. It wasn't until Reggie (Wayne) came in, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis where we were really a Super Bowl contender and not just competitive. It takes a lot.
"This is just the beginning. I couldn't be more excited about where we are to get back to greatness, but we have big decisions to make going forward in the next couple of years to achieve that, because it takes a lot to win it all. You just can't do it with the quarterback."