With mentoring from injured Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton brings a youthful energy

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts had just finished one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, and the young man who capped it off stood in the corner of their locker room, with a neon green "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" backpack slung over his shoulders.

"I knew I was going to need a Ninja Turtle effort today, so I brought my Ninja Turtle bag," T.Y. Hilton said earnestly, with nary a touch of irony.

Hilton, the Colts’ second-year wide receiver, brings a different backpack to every game, and attaches personal meaning to each one. For instance, when he brought his Superman bag, it signified that "somebody gave Superman his cape," he said.

"It depends on the mood I’m in," Hilton said. "That’s what type of super hero I put on my back."

Hilton, 24, has delivered youthful energy and wonderment to an offense that required him to produce more after superstar Reggie Wayne, the 35-year-old veteran receiver and Hilton’s mentor, tore his right knee’s anterior cruciate ligament in Week 7.

Hilton had the finest game of his career in last Saturday’s AFC wild-card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, who led 38-10 with 13:39 left in the third quarter. The Colts stormed back for a 45-44 victory — tied for the second-largest comeback in NFL history, and the biggest in a non-overtime game.

Hilton caught 13 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns, including the 64-yarder that put the Colts up for good with 4:21 remaining in the game.

The duo of Hilton and second-year quarterback Andrew Luck is peaking as the Colts prepare for tomorrow’s divisional game at New England, which ranked 18th this season in passing yards allowed per game, but fourth in lowest completion percentage surrendered.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano dubbed Hilton "a game-wrecker," and it’s hard to dismiss that as hyperbole after Hilton’s past two games. In the regular-season finale against Jacksonville, Hilton had a career-best 155 receiving yards. It was his fifth 100-yard game this season, following five last season, when he did not start as a rookie.

Hilton, a third-round draft pick from Florida International, arrived in Indianapolis and became teammates with Wayne, who ranks eighth in NFL history in catches, 11th in receiving yards and helped the Colts win their first Super Bowl in 36 years, after the 2006 season. Hilton grew up in Miami. Thirteen miles south of Hilton’s high school, Wayne starred at the University of Miami from 1997-2000.

Hilton turned 8 years old during Wayne’s freshman year with the Hurricanes.

"I kind of was nervous at first," Hilton said of meeting Wayne. "You know, I’m in a meeting room with Reggie Wayne. After that, whenever I got a chance, I would pick his brain. Whatever I could ask him, I made sure I asked him."

From defensive tendencies to route-running techniques, Hilton sought Wayne’s advice. They developed "a big brother-little brother relationship," said receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, in his first season with the Colts.

Hilton is still very much a kid, carrying not only those backpacks, but also the name from his childhood. Hilton’s given name is Eugene, which could not sound more adult. But his parents, Tyrone and Cora, long ago nicknamed him Little T.Y., after his dad. It stuck.

Playing in Wayne’s shadow last season, Hilton had 50 catches for 861 yards, second on the team behind Wayne. Hilton ranked first with seven touchdown catches. Before Wayne’s injury this season, Hilton averaged 58 receiving yards per game. Since, he has averaged 89. In the regular season, he led the Colts in catches (82), yards (1,083) and touchdown catches (five). All the while, Heyward-Bey noticed some of Wayne’s freelancing style rubbing off on Hilton.

"T.Y. just knows how to get open," Heyward-Bey said. "That’s what Reggie does. So many guys are so by the book. They’re going to run (the route) just the same way they put it up on the diagram. But that’s not how football’s going to be. There’s going to be people in the way. (Wayne and Hilton) are really good at just knowing how to get open and catching the ball."

A receiver "can earn that" right to run a route differently than planned, said Colts backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Wayne has long since earned it. With each impact game, Hilton is earning it, too.

"I’m always freelancing," Hilton said. "You can’t be too detailed in your routes, because defenders watch film and they know how you do this or do that."

Hilton will sometimes "give you the mailbox signal," Hasselbeck said, quickly lifting his arm to form an L, in the manner of an up-turned mailbox flag, or a receiver waving to a quarterback that he is open.

"It means, like: ‘I’m gone. Forget whatever the play was. I’m gone,’ " Hasselbeck said.

However Hilton gets open, the Colts desperately needed him to do it after Wayne’s injury — a sight Hilton described as "painful." But even as Wayne went on injured reserved, he assured the Colts’ other receivers that "I’m going to be around, and I’m still going to be able to help you out," Hilton said.

So now, during the Colts’ receiver meetings, Wayne sits in the back of the room, a few rows behind Hilton, who is up front.

"Whenever I have a question, I look back," Hilton said. "And he knows that once I look back, I’ve got a question."

Bookmark and Share
blog comments powered by Disqus