CARMEL, Ind. (WISH) – Colts owner Jim Irsay’s arrest Sunday night on four felony counts of possession of a controlled substance follows a documented history of prescription drug abuse stretching back nearly two decades.
Problems may have begun surfacing decades earlier, however, when Irsay was in college at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Court records obtained by our sister station WISH-TV show Irsay was arrested in Dallas County, Texas on a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge on January 16, 1979. According to court records, he was later found “not guilty” of the offense by a judge.
But, his battle with substance abuse wasn’t over.
In 2002, Irsay admitted that he had become addicted to painkillers. Several reports show Irsay was first prescribed Vicodin in the 1990s following several different surgeries on a chronic back injury sustained during his football playing days at SMU.
According to reports filed by the Associated Press at the time, Irsay sought substance abuse treatment at least three times, beginning in 1998. AP stories at the time also cited multiple sources who alleged that Irsay overdosed on prescription drugs in both 2000 and 2001.
Then, in 2002, reports surfaced that Irsay was the target of a federal Drug Enforcement Administration probe into prescription drug fraud, along with two Indianapolis-area doctors who were under investigation for prescribing excessive amounts of painkillers.
No charges were ever filed against Irsay in connection with that case.
But, in response to those reports, Irsay did admit for the first time that he had developed a dependence on prescription painkillers.
“After several years of orthopedic operations and procedures, accompanied by long bouts of chronic pain, I became dependent on prescription pain medications,” Irsay wrote in a 2002 statement to the media. “This summer I sought professional help at a nationally recognized facility located outside Indiana. I have successfully dealt with my dependence and my chronic pain issues.”
Addiction specialists say that promise is often hard for addicts to keep.
“By and large, that’s the trend, to where someone needs repeated exposure to education, repeated exposure to therapy, repeated exposure to treatment in order for them to “get it,” and begin to put together, proactively, a lifestyle of recovery,” said Fairbanks Addiction Treatment Center Assistant Director of Adult Services Tobyn Linton.
Still, Irsay seemed to have embraced that recovery.
“It’s a lifelong thing,” he told USA Today in 2007. “It’s something you deal with every day for the rest of your life.”
Linton says that admission is key to recovery.
“It is a lifelong process. People refer to recovery as a journey, and not as a destination. It’s those little days you put together, one day at a time, and then looking back and reflecting now and then,” he said.
Linton said prescription drug abuse has grown quickly in Indiana, outpacing national rates, and has reached across all gender, race and income barriers.
“Addiction knows no bounds. It’s non-discriminatory. It can affect a seemingly well put together person. And, it can affect people who don’t appear on the outside to have their life together. That’s a real myth we try to work against,” he said.
Irsay spoke publicly about his use of drugs and alcohol as a college student and young adult. And, in a 2010 interview with USA Today, he said he had been “clean and sober” since 2002, in part because of his father’s addition to alcohol. Robert Irsay, who moved the Colts to Indianapolis from Baltimore in 1984, died in 1997.
“The alcohol turned him into Jekyll-and-Hyde, and he was a bad Jekyll-and-Hyde drinker,” Irsay said in the story, which was printed shortly before the Colts played in their last Super Bowl. “But, there was a part of him that said ‘I don’t want that to happen to my son.”
More recent public affirmations of sobriety were made on Irsay’s most popular communication medium: Twitter.
“I don’t drink…haven’t in over 15 years,” he wrote in a tweet last October.
Then, in December, he addressed the issue again.
“Sorry to ruin your theories…but I don’t drink…at all,” he tweeted. “I’m allergic to alcohol…I break out in handcuffs if I drink!!!”
Still, if Irsay relapsed into additional prescription drug abuse, experts say it wouldn’t be a unique situation.
“I hesitate to say that there is any sort of usual situation, because we’ve heard of cases where someone will put together 6 years or 15 or 20 years [in sobriety], and for whatever reason, those triggering reasons and external cues come together at the wrong time and wrong place and trigger a relapse,” Linton said. “As a treatment provider, it doesn’t matter how you get to the door. You just have to be willing to accept the help.”