Colts’ owner Jim Irsay on players getting vaccinated: ‘It’s the right thing to do’

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INDIANAPOLIS – The occasion primarily was for Jim Irsay to address the pending enshrinement of Edgerrin James and Peyton Manning in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He addressed that, of course, including James’ decision to have his former boss present him during the Aug. 7 ceremony in Canton.

But Irsay also used Thursday’s Zoom conference call to further the Just Get Vaccinated . . . Or Else message being driven home by the NFL and NFLPA as training camps begin opening across the landscape.

First, the Pro Football Hall of Fame. James gets enshrined Aug. 7 as part of the Class of 2020 with Manning taking centerstage the next evening as a member of the Class of 2021.

“It’s the greatest privilege I can have with the stewardship I have,’’ Irsay said. “It’s just an indicator to me that forging that close relationship and really knowing what great friends we are and how we have each other’s backs and how close we really, really are.

“I mean, these guys mean a tremendous amount to me.’’

A few years ago, Irsay presented Marvin Harrison for induction as part of the Class of 2016. He and Dallas’ Jerry Jones are the only owners in the last decade to handle those chores more than once.

But while Irsay’s demeanor was upbeat and reflective as he discussed two of the most popular and prolific players in Indianapolis Colts’ history, it took on a more stern, darker tone when the subject veered to the team’s attempt to fully vaccinate the players against COVID-19.

According to a memo sent to teams Thursday by commissioner Roger Goodell, more than 75% of the league’s players are at least partially vaccinated and more than half of the teams have vaccination rates above 80%. The Associated Press recently reported the Colts were one of the NFL’s least-vaccinated teams.

“We’re over 50%,’’ Irsay said, “and headed hopefully towards 100%.

“I just encourage all of our guys to get vaccinated. It’s the right thing to do, and we’re trending in that direction.’’

The league previously sent out guidelines that placed significant restrictions on players who choose not to be vaccinated. That included daily testing, wearing masks around the facility and during travel, not being allowed to eat with vaccinated teammates, a limit being in place for how many unvaccinated players are allowed at the same time in the weight room or sauna, etc.

Goodell’s latest memo ramped things up several more levels. In worst-case scenarios – i.e., a COVID-19 outbreak during the season – a team responsible for a game being cancelled would have to forfeit that game if it can’t be rescheduled. Also, players from both teams involved would lose a game check.

Teams that are more fully vaccinated should enjoy a competitive advantage.

And Irsay knows it. He, general manager Chris Ballard, coach Frank Reich, director of player development David Thornton and vaccinated team leaders have reached out to the unvaccinated portion of the roster.

“There’s always a concern level,’’ Irsay said. “It’s professional football. We’re here to win. I know what it means to get in the position to possibly win and have it go sideways on you because of an injury – this is somewhat similar to that – (and) how heartbreaking it is. I don’t want to see us get in that position.’’

He was just getting warmed up.

“It’s always tough to win in the National Football League,’’ Irsay continued. “It’s hard to win, and it’s really hard to win big. You’ve got to make choices. You’ve got to decide: Am I in this to win a championship, and what price am I willing to pay? That’s what it really comes down to.

“Someone pays a higher price, they’re going to take it from you. That’s just the way it is. I go into it saying, ‘Hey,’ I’m going to do anything I can to help us win football games within the rules.’ That’s just the kind of competitor I am.’’

Irsay made it clear he wants similar players on his roster.

“I want guys that are competitive,’’ he said. “I want guys that are willing to pay the price for victory and to step up. It’s an unusual situation. We’ve never had this sort of thing in the history of the league.’’

COVID-19 impacted the Colts last season. They finished 11-5 and earned a wild-card berth – the Tennessee Titans also were 11-5 but won the division based on a tiebreaker – but were without All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and end Denico Autry for a week 12 meeting with the Titans because of COVID-19-related issues.

The defense gave up 449 total yards and 229 rushing yards, both season highs, in a 45-26 loss that clearly had division and playoff seeding ramifications.

Irsay conceded getting vaccinated is a personal choice, but one he fully endorses “as a father, as a grandfather, knowing and having loved ones of all different ages . . .’’

“It’s one of those things where logic has it. You get vaccinated,’’ he said. “It’s the best choice. All choices have risks, there’s no question, and you respect the personal choice that people have out there for their health.

“Getting vaccinated is the right thing to do, and it’s crazy right now to see people dying in hospitals because they wouldn’t get vaccinated. And of course the internet spreads all sorts of crazy rumors, and people come up with unfounded theories that have no scientific data, no medical data to back it up. It’s an aspect of the society we live in.’’

Irsay remains particularly perplexed by players who opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns. Three Colts took that route: cornerback Marvell Tell II, linebacker Skai Moore and safety Rolan Milligan.

“I didn’t understand some things last year,’’ Irsay said. “I’m not going to name names, but I see some players opt out. Why? You’re 23 years old. You’re going to opt out? You’re going to sit at home and isolate in an apartment? I don’t think so.

“And they just miss a whole season. Why? Because someone gave them bad advice, and that’s the way it always goes. You’ve got to be careful who you take counsel from.’’

About those extensions

Irsay remains optimistic the team will be able to secure contract extensions for linebacker Darius Leonard and right tackle Braden Smith “before the start of the season.’’

Players report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield Tuesday for the start of training camp.

“We’re working on it,’’ he said. “Anytime you deal with extensions – I’ve been dealing with them for decades – it takes two to tango, and there’s a compromising aspect (to negotiations).

“If an agent comes in and is asking too much, it doesn’t work. You just say, ‘Well, we’ll wait because we have the (franchise) tag. We always give great deals to our players. It’s been that way going back 20 years.’’

More focus has been placed on Leonard’s extension in the wake of San Francisco signing linebacker Fred Warner a five-year, $95 million extention that includes more than $40 million in guarantees.

“We hope to get them done,’’ Irsay said. “We’d like to see both of those players get extensions before the season starts.’’

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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