The round table – that's what they came to call it, the Thursday night dinners that became a weekly tradition for a few tightly knit teammates. A decade later the ritual endures, the group bonded by a brotherhood that stretches beyond the field the men once shared.
Turnover became constant. Blame the ruthless reality of the NFL, which claimed a casualty or two every offseason, but sooner or later most of the round table's original members went from current Indianapolis Colts to former Indianapolis Colts. Raheem Brock was cut. Mike Doss was cut. David Thornton signed with Tennessee. Gary Brackett retired. Some would move away, replaced by younger counterparts.
One of the initial members has been there every Thursday of every season, and on Sunday afternoon inside the visitor's locker room at Cleveland's First Energy Stadium, he slumped in his seat as a crowd of reporters hovered a few feet away, oblivious to his existence. While television camera lights danced off the faces of T.Y. Hilton and Boom Herron, heroes of the Colts' stirring, last-second victory, Reggie Wayne's eyes remained fixed on the floor.
Never had it been so jarring, so apparent: They were the present, Wayne the past.
Wayne, the Colts' 36-year-old wide receiver, leaned forward, back to the world, and ran the palm of his right hand over his smooth scalp. While teammates howled around him, relishing in the joy of their triumph, Wayne dressed in silence. He lifted a tank top above his head and slid it gingerly over his shoulders. He grimaced.
A reporter approached and asked him what he thought of his performance.
"I played like s---," he said.
Most of the members of the original round table – started in 2003 – have moved on from football, their days in the game long expired. Wayne remains the outlier, a relic whose football pulse is still beating. He has played long enough to link two distinct eras of Colts history: He is the bridge between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.
But the hard-to-swallow truth is this: Wayne is not the player he once was. Take Sunday. Torn triceps. Sore knee. Bum elbow. In eight targets, the oldest receiver in the league proceeded to drop more passes (three) than he caught (one).
The hints have come – those uncharacteristic drops, the tears that flooded down his face during the national anthem last month, the lack of explosion and elusiveness and dependability he made his name on. His was a career built on blue-collar consistency, on showing up every Sunday, on squashing the doubts that have trailed him since he arrived in Indianapolis 14 years ago. Doubt Wayne? He'd earn the last laugh.
Could he fill the void opposite Marvin Harrison?
Could he become the team's No. 1 receiver after Harrison's exit?
Could he return from an ACL tear last season?
Wayne did it all, and did so without heeding the temptation to ply his trade elsewhere. Edgerrin James, a former college and pro teammate and close Wayne confidant, saw it a decade back. Jettisoned to Arizona after the Colts elected not to bring him back after the 2005 season, James saw the arc of Wayne's career before anyone else.
"I hope you're the one who stays here forever," James told him.
Forever on Sunday reads 209 – Wayne's career games in Indianapolis. It'll be more than Manning, more than Unitas, more than any player who has ever worn a Colts uniform in the 61-year history of the franchise.
A decision beckons. Wayne will become a free agent at season's end, and he's vowed he won't play anywhere else. Hang up his cleats or return for a 15th season? Wayne acknowledges his choice, this time, is as much about family as it is football. His three boys are growing, growing quickly, and he's tired of missing moments he can't get back.
"Whatever the decision is, that will be the decision," he says. "I won't do the whole Brett Favre thing."
Thick into the twilight of his gilded career, Wayne has answered every question but one.
How many Sundays are left?
"You want to squeeze the juice out of the orange as long as you can," he says of this season. "Hopefully, there's still a little bit more juice to squeeze."
The work – Wayne saw it early. Saw Marvin Harrison leave his receiver gloves on the sidelines during practice, because those gloves made catching the football easy, and Harrison wanted the toughest hands on the field. Saw Manning take every snap in practice. Saw Harrison run to the endzone after every catch. Saw Manning, Harrison and James treat practice days like game days.
These guys worked, Wayne thought. He would work too.
"He didn't want to be left out," James remembers.
"The quality of those practices was surreal," adds another longtime Colt, Gary Brackett. "Reggie saw that those guys were always in game mode, so that became his approach too."
Wayne went seven years without missing a practice, 11 without missing a game. He became a Sunday staple, the fourth triplet, mastering the middle the way Harrison owned the sidelines. He became the Colts' Iron Man.
Linger long enough after a Colts training camp workout and you'll find Wayne paired with his trusty companion, the Jugs machine. He'll toss his receiver gloves to the sideline, the way Harrison used to, and snatch a hundred balls under the blazing sun while teammates half his age trickle back to their rooms. It's the sort of work Wayne grew to love a long time ago.
"Marvin Harrison told me one time that you earn your money in practice," Wayne says. "The games? Those are for free."
It stems from his childhood. Ralph and Denise Wayne ran a tight ship for their three boys. Reggie's first love was baseball. Football? Nah. Not for him. He was scared of getting hit. That was until Ralph Wayne, a former college linebacker at Grambling, sat his youngest son down, opened his college yearbook and showed him a picture from his playing days.
"You can't be no chump," he told Reggie. "Because there are no chumps in this house."
From that point, it was always football. Wayne became a two-way star for Marrero Ehret High School outside of New Orleans. In one game, his team trailing 14-0 early, Wayne caught four touchdowns in the second quarter. By his senior year, college coaches were drooling. He chose the University of Miami and became the most prolific receiver in the program's proud history.
But his startling ascent reads smoother than it actually was. Wayne grew so homesick his first summer away that he ran up a $900 phone bill, calling his parents between every two-a-day. In his second start, Wayne played just days after learning his grandmother had died; he caught nine passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. It wouldn't be the last time tragedy touched in the middle of a season.
He left after four seasons and figured Indianapolis was the last place he'd end up. With Manning, Harrison and James all on the precipice of their prime, the Colts' offense was set to explode. Then-general manager Bill Polian sought defense in the 2001 draft.
"Talked to every team but the Colts," Wayne remembers.
But Polian couldn't land the bruising defensive tackle he sought. Four went before the Colts' selection, so Polian traded down and grabbed Wayne at No. 30. The move was met with a chorus of criticism in Indianapolis. Another wide receiver? That's the last thing this team needs.
"That's the first time I've heard his name," a surprised Peyton Manning said after the pick. "I was thinking defense."
The accompanying headline in The Indianapolis Star the following day: "Colts fall back on Plan B."
Hearing that all these years later, Wayne smiles. Plan B has lasted 14 seasons.
"Hey, I could've played safety if they wanted me to."
* * *
The trust – it came quickly. Wayne earned his keep by showing up every day, ready to work. Manning respected that, and steadily, No. 87 paired with No. 88 to form the NFL's most lethal pass-catching tandem over the next decade.
Wayne became a full-time starter by his third season and ran off seven straight 1,000-yard seasons beginning in 2004. He became a six-time Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl champ, a bedrock of reliability, one of the most respected players in the league.
The world championship season of 2006 was darkened for Wayne in Week 3, the afternoon he returned to the locker room after a win over Jacksonville and was met with spine-shattering news: His older brother, Rashad – the same brother who'd regularly send him text messages of encouragement at halftime of games – had been killed in a car accident.
Wayne soldiered on, football serving as his retreat while he mourned the hole in his heart. He was on the field a week later – Iron Man, remember – and caught four passes for 41 yards. He bawled his eyes out on the sidelines after the win.
Four months later the Colts stared at a 21-6 halftime deficit in the AFC Championship game. Wayne said a prayer to Rashad. It was his way of texting, he would say later, his way of seeking his brother's wisdom like he always had in such moments. It calmed him. It inspired him.
Hours later, in the midst of the game-winning drive, Wayne caught a slant over the middle and lost the football. It hung above his head for a split second while every soul in the RCA Dome gasped.
Then Wayne swiped it, saved it, kept the drive beating. The Colts finished. Won 38-34. Two weeks later, Wayne caught the team's first touchdown in a 29-17 Super Bowl triumph over the Chicago Bears.
"There are a lot of guys that are just happy to be in the NFL, and Reggie's not one of them," James says. "It means more to him. We'd drive to and from every home game together, and if he'd drop a pass or something, he wouldn't say a word the whole way home."
Wayne could've found a new home following the disastrous 2011 season. With Manning sidelined, the Colts stumbled to 2-14 and promptly cleaned house. Brackett was cut. Dallas Clark was cut. Joseph Addai and Melvin Bullitt were gone. Manning's exit, too, came soon enough. Wayne was a free agent. He figured his time in Indianapolis had come to a close.
He packed his belongings in the locker room and had them shipped home to Miami.
"Did I want to move on? No," he says now. "But I was ready if I had to."
The calls came in, opposing teams chasing a veteran receiver and proven winner. Wayne locked himself in the office of his Miami home, his sons banging on the door while he waited for updates from his agent. He pondered life after the Colts.
"I was pretty darn close to leaving," he says. "I was prepared for the worst."
In the end, though, he couldn't. The Colts wouldn't allow it. Robert Mathis called him, texted him, begged him to stay.
"Quit bulljiving," Mathis remembers telling him. "Let's go. Let's get it done. Sign the contract."
Wayne's phone rang again. It was Chuck Pagano, an old friend from his Miami days who had just been hired as the Colts' new head coach. It was his job to pilot owner Jim Irsay's ambitious rebuilding effort.
"I can't do this without you, Reg," he told him.
It was all Wayne needed to hear. He took less to stay home, and alongside Mathis, became the backbone behind the Colts' improbable turnaround in 2012.
"His heart was always here in Indy," says former Colts linebacker David Thornton, a member of the original round table and now the team's Director of Player Engagement. "It was clear from the contract he took that he could've made more money on the market. But it wasn't about dollars for him. It was about him being a horseshoe guy his whole career."
* * *
Those orange gloves – they were everywhere that afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium. On third-and-9, Wayne for 15 yards. Third-and-12, Wayne for 15 more. First-and-goal, Luck to Wayne one last time. He snatched the football with those orange gloves while three defenders converged. He twisted, stretched and leaned across the goal-line for the four-yard game-winner.
The crowd serenaded him once more: "Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie!"
The tension was thick, the pressure mounting, and Andrew Luck leaned hard on his trusty target, Wayne, on the most important drive of the 2012 season. They'd trailed Green Bay 21-3 at halftime of Week 3 while their head coach, Pagano, stricken with leukemia, sat confined in a hospital room of the IU Health Simon Cancer
center a few blocks away.
Wayne erased the deficit in those orange gloves – signifying leukemia awareness – with 13 catches for 212 yards. The game ball went to Pagano's hospital room. The win began a 10-3 run that delivered the Colts an improbable 11-5 season and playoff berth. Wayne was the catalyst. The Luck Era had begun.
"There's no better teammate around, and nobody's represented the 'shoe quite like Reggie Wayne has," Pagano gushes two years later.
Wayne knows his good fortune. He spent 10 seasons with Manning. He's on his third with Luck. Receivers rarely have it so good.
"I know guys who've been in the league seven years and are on their fifth quarterback," Wayne says. "I've been blessed. And I still love it. I'm still having fun, playing with these young guys in this locker room."
His staggering numbers are testimony to the breadth of his production. Few have done it better, and longer, than No. 87: He's seventh all-time in catches (1,061), eighth in yards (14,207) and 22nd in touchdowns (82). Only four wideouts in NFL history — Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Andre Reed and Hines Ward — have played more games with one team than Wayne has with the Colts.
"Sometimes, you look at a guy and go, 'How has he stayed in the league this long?'" says Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, an 19-year veteran. "Well, follow Reggie around for a day and you absolutely know why. He still works like he's in his first year in the league."
"Stability, longevity, playmaker," Mathis says. "The ultimate professional."
"The face of the Colts," adds James. "He is Indianapolis. He didn't have to leave, he could just stay there and every time you look up, you're going to see that No. 87."
Sunday will be Game No. 209 for No. 87, and it could mark the final regular season home game for him. He came in with Manning and Harrison and James and will exit alongside Luck and his young protégé Hilton, two eras linked by one man.
Whenever it comes, whenever Wayne slips off his uniform for the last time, whenever he bids farewell to Indianapolis and retires to the sun of South Beach, he might as well plan to have these words emblazoned on his tombstone.