INDIANAPOLIS -- The pauses and quivers in coach Chuck Pagano’s voice said it all as he tried to collect his thoughts at the podium on Monday afternoon.
Season-ending injuries have unfortunately become a norm for the Indianapolis Colts this season.
But the latest player to go on the list of having a season-ending injury -- veteran Reggie Wayne -- hit home inside the Colts' organization. You saw it as a handful of Wayne’s teammates, including Robert Mathis and Andrew Luck, stood around him while he was on the ground in pain with less than eight minutes left in Sunday’s victory over the Denver Broncos. You saw it again when Wayne slapped his hand on the bench in obvious frustration as the team’s medical staff tended to him on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium. And you really saw it when Pagano, the always positive motivator, struggled to talk about making up for the loss of Wayne.
“I’ll put the gloves on now that he wore a year ago, I’ll wear them now, and so will the rest of the team,” Pagano said. “We’ll get through this. We’ll be there every step of the way.”
To the outside world, Wayne is a receiver who has played in 189 consecutive games, caught 1,006 passes for 13,566 yards and 80 touchdowns in his 13-year career. But Wayne means more than just those numbers to the Colts. He’s the one who would speak up when necessary to make sure things didn't get off track or do little things like asking questions during the annual referee meeting despite having the same meeting every sesaon.
You can’t just anoint any player to step up in Wayne's absence because there is no replacing Reggie Wayne. The Colts know that, too, that’s why you could hear the pain of losing him when they talked.
Wayne tore the ACL in his right knee when he tried to come back for a throw that was underthrown from Luck in the fourth quarter. Luck said he made a “piss-poor” throw to Wayne.
“I think I feel sick to my stomach about it a little bit,” Luck said. “But I also realize it’s football. I don’t think Reggie wants me holding it over my head that it happened. After the game, though, a big part of me almost felt like it was a loss in a sense because of what happened to Reggie and my involvement in it.”
One of my first up-close encounters with Wayne happened in early August after making the switch to covering the NFL from the NBA. The Colts had just finished up the second of their two-a-day practices when Wayne stood several feet in front of the JUGS machine catching an array of passes.
One-handed passes. Passes that looked too high. Getting both hands under the ball before it hit the ground.
And as Wayne put in the extra work, some of his teammates stood off to the side watching as if they were in awe. You couldn't help but to be impressed.
Wayne wasn't trying to show off because his resume speaks for itself.
He enters each season with the mindset that he has to compete for a roster spot because teams won't hesitate replacing older players with younger, cheaper ones if they feel that player can be more productive than the aging veteran.
“It’s for those young guys because I told them just get in his hip pocket and follow and do what he does on a daily basis,” Pagano said. “You want to stick around for a long time? You want to be productive? You want to write your own legacy? You want to be a guy in the National Football League and not an also-ran, not just a guy that collects a paycheck and stick around for a couple of years? Then just do exactly what Reggie does.”
Wayne is about to face the toughest challenge since he tore the ACL in his left knee while at the University of Miami in 1998. But age is against Wayne this time. He’ll be 35 next month.
“I think we see now that most guys are coming back in a window of 6-9 months,” ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said. “Sometimes it takes up to a year, slightly longer. If you’re looking specifically at an NFL player like Reggie Wayne, you’re talking about it being October when his injury happened. One of the benefits is that you’re looking toward the next season which doesn’t begin until September so you have the better part of a year after the surgery to recover.”
New York Yankees future Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera came back from a torn ACL at the age of 42. Broncos receiver Wes Welker and New England quarterback Tom Brady also overcame ACL tears to still be able to produce at a high level. Wayne’s ethic should allow him to do so, too.
“We'e seen older athletes come back,” Bell said. “The fact that Reggie Wayne is so fit and he works so incredibly hard, and by and large has been a very durable athlete during his career, I would expect it to be favorable that he could recover from this and return if he ultimately desires to do so.”
Wayne will be back. He doesn’t want his career to end like this this. Not with a knee injury and definitely not after he wasn't able to catch the last ball thrown his way. He wants to walk away on his own terms.
“He’ll be back,” Pagano said. “I know how he’s wired. I know what his DNA is. I know how he is as a man. Everybody is going to say no way, but after the conversation I just had with him, just wait and see.”