INDIANAPOLIS — Each afternoon at training camp, Reggie Wayne trots over to the JUGS machine, sheds the pads and begins his post-practice magic show.
Teammates watch in awe seeing a 13-year veteran still spending this much time day after day, catching ball after blazing ball in the scorching summer heat. They’re even more impressed as Wayne hauls in the mechanical fastballs with one hand or two, inches off the turf, near his head or coming straight into his chest. Few, if any, touch the ground.
It doesn’t take the players long to figure out why Wayne makes spectacular plays look so routine on game days. He’s already done it thousands of times on the practice field.
“He’s always been that guy,” Redskins receiver and college teammate Santana Moss said. “When we first came in as freshmen, Reggie Wayne, we knew, was our guy. He started right off the bat. We always said he could catch a BB in the dark. The best hands I’ve ever seen.”
While some might debate where Wayne belongs among today’s greats, there’s no quibbling with Moss’ broader point.
Wayne has been one of the game’s best receivers for at least a decade and, at age 34, the six-time Pro Bowler shows no signs of slowing down. He’s Andrew Luck’s favorite target, still the Colts’ leader in the clubhouse, and needs only 10 more receptions to become the ninth member of the NFL’s 1,000-catch club. It could happen Sunday against Seattle with a big performance.
But Wayne’s value to the Colts cannot be measured in numbers alone.
Inside the locker room, teammates universally describe him as a pro’s pro, the guy willing to sacrifice anything to win. This summer, Luck dubbed Wayne the team’s “real” president. Just this week, longtime teammate and close friend Antoine Bethea acknowledged younger players would be “fools” not to learn from Wayne.
Wayne is so beloved in the Indianapolis community that if he’s not the city’s favorite Reggie, he’s certainly No. 2 behind former Pacers star Reggie Miller.
And Wayne is so committed to this team and this city, he turned down a bigger payday and a chance to team up with an old college pal, Houston’s Andre Johnson. Instead, he chose to help restore the luster to a Colts team that had gone 2-14, cut Peyton Manning and seemed miles away from Super Bowl contention. Somehow, he helped the Colts make a historic turnaround and get right back to the playoffs.
“Reggie showed us how to work. He showed us how to be professionals, sort of how to play football at a high level,” Luck said. “(He) always made sure we were on the right path. He’s not the most talkative guy, but if he had something to say, he’d say it and everybody listened. He commanded everybody’s respect, I think also demanded it in return. We would be nowhere without him. I really believe that.”
Never afraid to show outward emotions, Wayne wore red, white and blue shoes for the 2011 season opener — a tribute to America on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He risked a league fine by wearing orange gloves, the color of leukemia awareness, after longtime friend and Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer. He fought through the grief of his brother’s death in September 2006 by simply asking teammates to pray for his family.
And he fought back tears when his hometown of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, then throughout Pagano’s battle.
“The things he does, like the orange gloves, it just shows that he’s human, that he’s just like everybody else,” Bethea said.
Off the field, he is like everyone else. On it, few can compare. Wayne’s resume looks like this:
—Two Super Bowl appearances and one ring;
—204 consecutive games played since 2001;
—One of six NFL players with four 100-catch seasons;
—Part of the second-most prolific passing tandem in league history, with 779 receptions for 10,602 yards and 67 TDs from Peyton Manning, second only to
Manning and Marvin Harrsion;
—130 regular-season wins, fourth on the Colts list behind Manning (142), John Unitas and Jeff Saturday (132).
—About to join the likes of Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez, Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Harrison in the 1,000-catch club, with a chance to finish his career with Harrison as the most prolific receiving teammates in league history;
—A chance to crack the top 10 in yards receiving and the top 15 in touchdown catches.
What does it mean to a workaholic like Wayne?
“That I’ve been playing a long time. It means I’m doing my job. I just want to be able to do my job,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, I want to be where I’m supposed to be, get there on time, and help this ball club win games. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since I first got here.”
But Wayne stills finds ways to have fun — with a message.
One year, he showed up at training camp in a cement truck and kept a custom-made construction helmet inside his locker to symbolize what the Colts needed to do to reach the Super Bowl.
Last year, he drove to training camp with members of the National Guard, signifying the need for the Colts to stick together like brothers in arms.
This year, he arrived on Indiana University Health’s LifeLine helicopter along with Matt Sercer, a Colts fan who climbed out months after doctors told him he may never walk again after severely injuring his leg and foot in a farming accident. Wayne said Sercer’s improbable recovery should inspire the Colts to dream big.
There’s no real secret to his success, though.
“His work ethic, his passion for the game, his love for football, team first, self second, none of that has changed,” said Pagano who was on the University of Miami staff when Moss and Wayne arrived as freshman. “Since I’ve known Reggie (Wayne), he’s been that same guy. The only thing that’s changed is his level of play. He’s just gotten better over the years. It’s not by chance. It’s by choice.”
Harrison used to say, “They pay you to practice, you play the games for free.” It’s a motto Wayne took to heart and has continued to pass down.
A year ago, when the Colts were one of the youngest teams in the NFL, the JUGS machine was a lonely place after practice.
But day by day as Wayne continued to catch passes, the number of young receivers watching and participating increased. By the end of camp, they were all waiting for Wayne to finish so they could take a turn. Now, they’re just waiting to see Wayne take his place among the league’s all-time greats.
“I’ve been around a lot of great players, but he’s got to be front and center,” four-time Super Bowl winner Adam Vinatieri said. “He never takes a day off. He never misses a practice. He’s a guy you can always count on for 100 percent effort every single day of his life.”