FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Their similarities are far deeper than simply owning the franchises that will play in Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium.
For Tom Benson of the New Orleans Saints and Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts, the success of their teams has produced something more significant than the normal degree of gratification that comes with winning football games.
For them, success has brought redemption.
The names Benson and Irsay once were reviled by fans in a couple of NFL cities. Many in New Orleans expressed their contempt for Benson when they suspected in the months after Hurricane Katrina that he wanted to move the Saints from the city, something that Benson now says he never intended to do.
In Irsay’s case, the ire from fans in Baltimore was aimed at his father, not him, after the late Robert Irsay had the Colts’ belongings loaded into Mayflower moving vans on a snowy night in 1984 and relocated the franchise to Indianapolis.
So when Jim Irsay was asked this week if he could empathize with the way Benson once was viewed in New Orleans, he said yes.
“It’s always difficult when you have a very unusual situation like what happened in New Orleans,” Irsay said. “Tom was loyal to the community. They worked through that great difficulty … and I think it speaks volumes for our league as well because as owners we said, ‘This is our partner and we need to consider his circumstances.’
“The league and all 31 other owners stepped up and participated in seeing it through to make sure this day would come, and it has. And what a great story it is — them being in the Super Bowl, them having the Super Bowl in 2013 and just the rejuvenation that’s happened there.”
Many longtime Saints followers say they’re in disbelief that the formerly downtrodden franchise has reached a Super Bowl. Benson said he doesn’t share that perspective.
“I had no doubt at all,” Benson said this week. “This is my 25th year, you know. It couldn’t be any better.”
The post-Katrina scorn for Benson was expressed in part in written messages posted in yards in hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods. The Saints were displaced by Katrina and spent the 2005 season based in San Antonio, playing home games there and in Baton Rouge. There was speculation that Benson wanted to keep the Saints in the Texas city.
“Everyone was so shocked during and right after Katrina,” former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last week. “… When it was over, when it was clear he was going back to New Orleans, I think he had a renaissance of energy of sorts. He hired Sean Payton. He did other things.
“There was a whole change of mind-set, and it snowballed. … He’s become not just a team player. He’s become a leader in the whole renaissance of New Orleans.”
Irsay and the Colts are back in the Miami area for their second Super Bowl appearance in four seasons, trying to add a second triumph for Indianapolis.
Irsay became the franchise’s primary owner following his father’s death in 1997. He almost immediately consolidated outside businesses so that he could put $100 million into the Colts.
The Irsay name perhaps never will be cleared in Baltimore. As Tagliabue said, “There was a lot of disbelief and hurt that something so incredibly tied to the city – the whole Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore phenomenon – could be wrenched away. …”
But Jim Irsay has done his best to do things right in Indianapolis.
Colts coach Jim Caldwell said this week that Irsay “gives us everything we need to win.”