Hiding in broad daylight

Don't recognize this man? Too bad, because Reggie Wayne just might be the best receiver on the Colts. (There, we said it)

Originally Published: May 9, 2007
By Carmen renee Thompson | ESPN The Magazine

Reggie Wayne has never had a manicure. His hands are a battleground, dotted with dark marks, scratches and raised ridges of scar tissue. His brownish palms are enormous, but his fingers are comparatively short, and several of his knuckles are warped and oversize. "They get hurt all different ways," Wayne says. "From catching the ball and falling on them, or they'll get caught in guys' jerseys when you're blocking and they pull away." Dealing with hand aches and pains is something Wayne has grown used to. Even dislocated fingers don't faze him anymore. "Other people will scream," he says. "But I pop mine back in, buddy-tape them together and go back to work."

There's history in their toughness. The same hands that caught the Colts' first touchdown in Super Bowl XLI got their start catching rocks in front of Wayne's parents' house in New Orleans. Back then, 11-year-old Reggie and older brothers Rashad and Ralphrick, along with their pals, would turn a neighborhood sidewalk into a makeshift gridiron, firing rocks back and forth. "The object was to catch them and throw them back immediately," Wayne says. "We were trying to hit each other. One of my friends, to this day, is partially blind in one eye. I didn't catch all of them, but I caught the ones that endangered me."

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And the safest way for Wayne to catch rocks with very sharp edges hurled with unpredictable trajectory and rotation was to let his hands give a little upon contact. "If you could catch those rocks," he says, "you could catch anything."

Football was the Wayne family's sport. Dad Ralph played linebacker at Grambling State. But while Rashad and Ralphrick took to the game quickly, Ralph had to punk his youngest boy into playing. "I was 7, and I told my mom I wanted to play baseball or basketball because I didn't want to get hurt," Reggie says. "When she told my dad, he pretty much up and down called me a coward. So I played it just to get him off my back."

Soon enough, though, he was hooked. Ralph remembers watching football on Sundays with all three of his boys. By the end of the evening, only Reggie was still sitting beside him, soaking up the action and asking questions. "When I was a kid, my daddy used to always talk about Saints receiver Eric Martin and say, 'Man, that boy can catch. He can catch a beauty and a dog,' " Wayne recalls. "I was like, Damn, I got to have somebody think about me like that."

And now people do. "Reggie has some of the best hands in the league," says Edgerrin James, who played with Wayne in college at Miami and with the Colts. "When my son catches the ball well, I tell him he has Reggie Wayne hands."

So if anybody's hands deserve pampering, it's the 28-year-old Wayne's. But he's not having it. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he says. "These are my bread and my meat. I keep them lotioned, I keep them nice and nourished." And for six seasons, they've helped feed Wayne as well. He's won a Super Bowl ring and earned a six-year, $39 million contract. And last February, he played in his first Pro Bowl. "This is Reggie's first," Peyton Manning said at the time. "Really, it should be, like, his fourth."

Yes, well. It's been Wayne's luck -- good and bad -- to line up across from Marvin Harrison, a great role model, a future Hall of Famer and a man who casts an awfully long shadow. But rather than bristle at his permanent second-lead casting, Wayne decided a long time ago to emulate his 34-year-old counterpart, and he has methodically improved his game each season. He caught 77 balls for 1,210 yards and 12 TDs in 2004, 83 for 1,055 and 5 in 2005 and 86 for 1,310 and 9 last season. "I've realized you don't have to be the fastest, the strongest or the smartest," Wayne says. "But the more you're consistent, the more your teammates and the coaches in the league respect you."

Reggie Wayne
Byron Hetzler-US PRESSWIREReggie Wayne had 86 catches for 1,310 yards and 9 TDs last season.
Adds Colts Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday: "His numbers have been there for a while, and he's done what it takes. But he's just been overlooked for so long by playing with Marvin on the other side."

Wayne learned to check his ego at the door in college. In his first season at Miami, he led the team in receptions, breaking Michael Irvin's Miami freshman record for catches. He was the breakout star in a loaded class that included Santana Moss, and he led the Canes in receptions again as a sophomore, which prompted talk that he'd leave school as soon as he was eligible. "Then I started getting a big head," Wayne says. "I lost focus."

With three games left in that season, Wayne tore his ACL while goofing around during practice. All the chatter of declaring early stopped as he moved down the Canes' depth chart. "I was depressed, I wasn't cutting my hair, didn't shave for months, lost 20 pounds," Wayne says. "I was like that guy in Cast Away."

While Wayne rehabbed his knee, roommate Ed Reed played part-time psychologist, nurse and motivational speaker, to help him get his head right again. Recalls Wayne: "At Miami we used to say, 'If you get hurt, your bad,' because the dude behind you is probably better than you."

By the time Wayne came back, in the fall of 1999, Moss had become the breakout star, and Wayne was just a nice second option. But what he'd lost in stature he'd gained in perspective. He refined his routes as the No. 2, focused on catching whatever was thrown his way and became more polished in the process. As a senior, playing opposite Moss, he led the team in receiving yards, had 10 touchdown receptions and finished his Canes career by shattering the school record for catches. The Colts, picking 30th in the first round of the 2001 draft, saw Wayne's body of work and thought he'd be the perfect soft-spoken, soft-handed complement to Harrison.

When he arrived in Indy and witnessed the famous chemistry between Manning and Harrison, Wayne quickly wanted in. "Peyton would nod his head, and Marv would know what he was talking about," he remembers. "But to come to me, Peyton had to explain a lot of things. Me and him, we took a little bit of time."

Wayne also saw that Harrison, while amiable, wasn't exactly the nurturing type. So when the rook wanted info, he went to James, his best friend from the U. "EJ looked out for me, showed me what to do, taught me how to practice," says Wayne. "If I had to figure something out, I went to him. You don't go to Marv unless it's something you really, really need to know. You just watch him. He leads by example."

And the lesson? "Practice, practice, practice. It's nothing outside of football. My thing to get Peyton's respect was to catch whatever ball he threw, even if it wasn't his best ball. My second year, I caught a lot of third downs to keep drives going. As the years went by, I started getting the head bob from him, all the theatrics, the secret codesit let me know I was in there."

Now during practices, teammates marvel at the catches Harrison and Wayne make. And like any fans of the game, they constantly debate who's better. "Both of them are crazy, but I'll say Reggie," says Cato June, who spent four years as a Colts linebacker before signing with the Bucs this winter. "There's never a situation where the ball gets to Reggie's shoulder. DBs don't get many interceptions on him because he attacks the ball so well."

Having learned to share with Moss at Miami, Wayne was well prepared for his role opposite Harrison. He knew from experience that putting his desire to be No. 1 on the back burner didn't mean he wouldn't get his fair share of balls. Even now, Wayne knows his stats would make him the go-to guy on nearly any other team. He also knows that if he ended his catches with a little more showbiz, he might have been summoned to the Pro Bowl sooner.

At six feet, 198 pounds, Wayne half-jokingly describes himself as "an average black dude with a low haircut" and says he's glad his star quality is all in the math. "As much as I'm a Chad Johnson and TO fan, I don't need all the theatrical stuff," he says. "Every once in a while I'm going to give you a little something in the end zone, but I do that only when all my teammates want me to."

Wayne has a kind of sleeper-hit coolness. He doesn't really mind that most people who don't know much about him assume his personality is just like Harrison's: quiet. "I'm a humble dude," he says. "I don't talk trash to nobody unless they talk trash to me."

But if he's not really a bad boy, he's not quite a stereotypical choirboy, either. A self-professed tattoo addict, Wayne has 13, including "Silent" on one forearm and "Assassin" on the other. The largest, across his forearm, is of the New Orleans skyline. Another depicts him kneeling at the grave of friends he's lost. And Wayne plans to get No. 14 inked onto his chest this off-season. It will be a picture of his brother Rashad.

Our hands are said to be our main instruments for interacting with -- and altering -- the world around us. That's most certainly true for Wayne, who can often control his and his team's destinies with his fingertips. Which is why what happened last Sept. 24 made him feel so helpless. Shortly before Wayne racked up 82 yards on four catches as the Colts beat Jacksonville in Indy, Rashad, a delivery truck driver in New Orleans, was killed when he crashed into a guardrail.

Sadly, the Colts famously had been in this position before: gathering together in the middle of the season for a funeral. Several members of the team and head coach Tony Dungy, whose son had died just before the previous season's playoffs, flew to New Orleans for Rashad's service. So did James, who came in from Arizona. "It was tough," James says. "But Reggie's tough."

Wayne didn't take time off during the season to mourn, choosing not to skip any games at all. "My brother was always energetic and had everybody laughing," he says. "He wouldn't have wanted me to just sit and be depressed and cry all day. He'd be like, 'Man, you got to get up from that.' " When he did, his playing was the relief that both he and his family needed. Says his aunt Shirley Wayne: "He was just a bright spot for us."

That helps to explain why, when Wayne made his first trip to Hawaii, he didn't do it alone. He brought 15 relatives along to help celebrate his season and to grieve for his brother. That Saturday during the Pro Bowl, Wayne was the best receiver on the field, catching a game-high six passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.

Before the game, with his family watching from the stands, Wayne did his usual finger stretches, lining up his fingertips and pushing them backward and toward each other. "When I catch the ball, they're nice and loose," he says. "You can tell people who take pride in catching the ball, because they're using their hands, not just cradling it. They can catch it one-handed or away from their body. They work at it. I take pride in my hands."

As well he should. They're battle-tested.