The following is an excerpt from Ralph Cindrich’s book, NFL Brawler, which is available now at NFLBrawler.com or on Amazon.
His own mother called him the devil.
Bob Irsay had no problem pissing people off. Irsay took the Baltimore Colts; a proud franchise filled with legendary players, and moved them out in Mayflower trucks in the middle of the night, leaving an entire town without a team.
Bert Jones, a former quarterback for the Colts, once gave a description of Irsay to the Baltimore Sun.
”He lied and he cheated and he was rude and he was crude and he was Bob Irsay.”
“He’s the devil on earth that one,” his mother famously said in Sports Illustrated.
Irsay made his fortune in the blue-collar heating and cooling industry and had a persona to match it. Rugged build. Glaring eyes. A notorious temper and a never-ending thirst for booze. I would soon find all this out for myself. Bob and I were headed for a war.
Irsay wanted one of my clients, Craig Erickson, a gutsy quarterback who took the Miami Hurricanes to a national title in 1989. After college, Erickson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fourth round of the 1992 NFL Draft. Paul Gruber, another client of mine with the Buccaneers, always said he loved Craig – “because he had stones.”
But Craig was stuck behind fellow quarterback Trent Dilfer, who was picked No. 6 overall in 1994. I wanted to usher Craig out of Tampa and get him a significant raise in the process. All I had to do was work out a trade with Irsay and the quarterback-starved Indianapolis Colts.
TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 11: Head Coach Sam Wyche of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers goes over a set of plays with the Quarterback Craig Erickson #7 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the side lines before a NFL game against the Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Stadium on December 11, 1994 in Tampa, Florida. Tampa Bay won 24-14. (Photo by Michael J. Minardi/Getty Images)
The Colts were interested, but their front office people wanted to see Craig go through a workout first, which wouldn’t help my client in the slightest.
Craig wasn’t a workout warrior. He didn’t have tremendous arm strength or any of the other physical attributes that impressed people in one-person drills. He had a bunch of intangibles that couldn’t be measured by a stopwatch or a scale, and won a lot of games with leadership and guts. But if Irsay saw him practice live, it might kill the whole deal. So I stalled. And Irsay got pissed.
Turns out multimillionaires are used to getting what they want. Who knew?
Worse yet, Irsay had one of my old friends working for him. Bob Terpening, who drove me to the airport after I got cut with the New England Patriots, was on the Colts’ staff. Terp was an ever-present pain in my ass. If he drafted one of your clients, he’d be happy to sit on him until he signed. This time, Terp kept calling me, demanding a workout with Erickson. I told him to pound salt. Over and over and over again.
“What am I supposed to tell Bob?” Terp asked, like we were old pissing buddies.
“Tell him I said to go fuck himself. That’s his problem.”
Deep down, I kind of enjoyed throwing gasoline on Irsay’s fire and jacking around tough guy Terp. I lived for these wars. Before long, Irsay started calling me himself, his rage building with each ring. I let the calls go through to my answering machine. Then, I’d return them when I knew Irsay couldn’t be reached. I could be a devil too.
It was cat and mouse with old Ralph in Pittsburgh and big, bad Bob in Indianapolis. Eventually, we’d have to meet. The shit couldn’t avoid the fan forever. To hell with it, Irsay finally said, he’d seen enough on film. We’d meet in Indy to settle the terms of Erickson’s new deal.
Praise the Lord!
I can be a religious son of a bitch too. Part I of this terrible script was over.
But a second act was soon to follow. I called around and did some reconnaissance on Bob. Every person I talked to told me he was equal parts asshole and drunk. He started drinking at noon and his mood soured soon afterward. If I were smart – and decided to operate that way for once – I’d be out of his office before he ever finished his first glass. I scheduled our meeting for early in the morning – 7:30 a.m. Since Bob was a construction guy, he was fine with it. He was used to those blue-collar hours.
We met at his estate ranch and soon got down to business.
Hours passed. The 7:30 start turned into 8:30, then 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, and – damn it! – noon. We hadn’t taken a single break. Both of us were frustrated, moving closer and closer to a fistfight. I wanted a BIG signing bonus, – which is the only part of a contract that’s completely guaranteed – with few qualifications and high base salaries and additional bonuses. Bob wanted lots of incentives, protecting his pocketbook if Erickson didn’t produce. Well, I loved Craig but I didn’t like Bob’s plan one bit. That sure as hell wasn’t gonna work.
We were going nowhere – and it continued like that for a few more hours. Noon became one, then two or so. We were both pissed, nearing the point where violent ends seemed like a pretty good idea. I looked at my watch. Irsay was snorting – literally snorting with anger. He wanted blood. Outside of the swine world, snorting is probably not a good sign.
“I’m having a drink, do you want one?” Irsay demanded. The prick asks for nothing. He didn’t want me to have one.Neither of us wanted to reach any common ground, let alone a mutual drink. But he jerked me around with my time and my money so… “Sure, what the hell,” I said.
At this point, I figured things were about to get ugly. But after a full day of utterly wasted time, ugly was a reasonable approach, maybe fucking ugly was the only approach this late in the afternoon to get the anger out of me.
I looked around and the only other person I saw was his driver outside the office. He was stocky, but not real big. If we threw down, I liked my chances. Maybe the driver knew Kung Fu or some other martial arts shit, but I was a champion wrestler and a linebacker tough enough to play in the NFL. If I got into his body first – and I would – I could twist and turn him to see parts of his body he had never seen before.
As for Irsay, he was an old man but still a mean, thick, son of a bitch who reminded me of AJ. I could get him in a Chinese chokehold or a headlock and make him call his momma a whore. But given what she said about him in Sports Illustrated, I’m guessing he might do it himself now that he was one drink deep.
Hell, at that point, I was angry and itching for a fight myself. King Kong or Bob Irsay, either one, I’d kick them in the nuts if I had half a chance. Everything I had heard about Irsay was coming true right before my eyes. He was mean, ugly, and angry and seemed certain to sucker punch me if the situation arose.
“What are we drinking?” I asked. “Vodka, you want some?” “Is it any good?” I jabbed him a bit more just to send his blood pressure higher. He stopped, looked at me, sensed that I was being a smart ass, but also knew I was more than willing to fight too. Old Bob had no easy exit. I wasn’t backing down.
I was waiting for his pour or his punch, whichever came first. And I figured with his private bar and big band music playing in the background, he’d pull out a few Waterford crystals or a couple of nice glasses if we were going to be drinking.
I was wrong.
Irsay grabbed a sleeve of Coca-Cola stadium cups that were probably stolen from one of his concession stands. He put two of them on the table and filled one with Vodka about a quarter of the way. He poured mine to the same level, but I upped the ante, pushing my cup up further and asking for more. I was a lot like Dan Aykroyd calling for more champagne in the restaurant scene from Blues Brothers. Bob and I locked eyes, played chicken, and Irsay said nothing else. He poured mine up even higher – half full. But we hadn’t agreed on anything yet, so there was certainly nothing to toast.
He took a sip and looked at me. I followed by chugging mine – all of it – and slammed my cup down so hard he must have jumped two feet.
I needed that first drink just to settle my nerves, but my actions had other consequences too. I had just thrown down the gauntlet in front of Irsay.
Bob’s eyes were wide open and perhaps he was still snorting too. He chugged his own vodka and slammed the cup down in a thundering response.
Somewhere in the past few minutes, logic and reason had left the room. I was doing what everyone said not to, going against all the plans I had so meticulously made. I was drinking with the Devil.
It went back and forth like a spirited game of Ping-Pong, each round ending with more vodka sliding into our stomachs. Before long, he was running up and down the bar like a jolly old elf, laughing along the way, grabbing whatever Vodka bottle seemed to suit his fancy.
“Here, try this one from Poland. Here’s another one made from…. Here’s another…”
We were both hammered in an hour or so. I never expected this. I hadn’t eaten anything all day except for a half-assed, hurried breakfast early that morning. You learn in my business to eat when you can. I didn’t have any Pepto Bismol and wasn’t sure what I might do to recover. At one point, I went to the bathroom knowing I had to go, or should go, but if nothing else had to get away for at least a few seconds and maybe splash some water on my face. My whole body was pretty much numb when I approached the urinal. My apologies to the cleaning lady if I missed, and I probably did.
It reminds me of a well-known coach turned announcer who took a piss in the owner’s closet mistaking it for a bathroom. Just a regular night for him.
In my case, I was drunk and vulnerable and in dire need of a hotel room. I had to get the hell out of there.
“Did you bring a coat?” Irsay asked me.
He was asking if I had a sport coat, some suitable attire for a social event. I did. AJ always had me take a coat, and at a minimum, a roll up tie just in case. I never went anywhere without it.
“Come on, you’re going with me to a barn party.”
Irsay took me to a barn party that was one of his charity events, a literary reading featuring notable authors and their published works. He led me around to each of the social circles, introducing me to everyone – and I mean everyone – as his own son. “Hello, how are you?” he said. “This is my son…. Ralph.”
He laughed after each introduction, then moved onto the next group and did the same thing, again and again, laughing his ass off the each and every time. There was an auction like there always is at those type of events and Irsay bid way too high on something in my name, laughing the whole time the price was flying up. I didn’t know about it or see it, but I received bills from that night for three straight years.
Nowadays, I would have just paid for the damn thing to end it, but I never did back then. Terp likes to bust my balls and still asks me to this day if I ever settled my debt.
The hijinks continued for a few more minutes. Big, bad, Bob Irsay was having the time of his life. We left the party after one tour around, having made our social appearance.
Somewhere amidst all that nonsense, the devil had lightened up. He told me to meet him early tomorrow morning for coffee and doughnuts. I told him that I didn’t like doughnuts, that I’d rather have bagels, just to let him know who was still boss.
Bob gave me the infamous glaring eyes, but they melted quickly into a much softer smile.
Bagels it is. I figured I was family now.
We met the next morning and finished the entire Erickson deal in an hour. I got everything I wanted – a big signing bonus and a great base salary with incentives to boot.
It was an outstanding contract. And I had beaten big, bad, Bob Irsay but he didn’t give a single shit. I don’t know how many of those fun evenings he has shared with others. To this day, when I pour some vodka I think of him.
Cheers to you Bob. And your shitty stadium cups too.
But, I prefer to raise a nice crystal, a Waterford glass, and drink it all down with my toast:
“I don’t know where you are Bob, but wherever it is, I know this – If you were cremated, you’re still burning.”