Just before midnight Sunday, in the midst of a celebratory night with some Indianapolis Colts teammates and several of their friends, 12th-year wideout Reggie Wayne stepped outside of a downtown Indy establishment and lit up a celebratory cigar.
"I'm just out here with the normal folk," Wayne told me toward the end of our 15-minute phone conversation. "You know – my people."
Wayne was laughing as he spoke, but I've known him long enough to understand that he seldom says anything entirely in jest. In this case, he had good reason to celebrate the Colts' emotional, dramatic, come-from-behind, 30-27 upset of the Green Bay Packers with the fans of Indianapolis, for they – along with the franchise's sentimental owner and passionate head coach – played a very legitimate role in the five-time Pro Bowl receiver's unexpected return to the rebuilding organization.
What Wayne did Sunday against the Packers was truly astounding: The 33-year-old wonder caught 13 passes for a career-best 212 yards, including the game-winning touchdown reception with 35 seconds remaining while fighting through severe cramps. The victory served as a tribute to leukemia-stricken head coach Chuck Pagano, who later placed a call to his star wideout and longtime friend from a nearby hospital room.
To those who've followed Wayne's Indy career, from his dissatisfaction with his contract in recent seasons to his virtual disappearance into irrelevance during the Colts' hellish and abrupt 2011 belly-flop, the fact that he's still wearing a horseshoe on his helmet might be even more stunning.
Know this: Wayne, an unrestricted free agent after last season, was surprised he re-signed with the Colts, too. Last March, a few days before the start of free agency, he figured he was headed elsewhere, given that Indy had just released future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and was clearly in start-over mode.
More than anything, the silent treatment Wayne was getting from the organization that picked him in the first round of the 2001 draft spoke volumes.
"I already considered myself gone, because I never heard from the Colts," Wayne said. "So I had no choice but to think, 'That's a wrap.' So I'm thinking about teams that need a veteran receiver, looking at the board to see where I fit in. Because I knew it wasn't here.
"Then, all of a sudden, about three days before I hit free agency, I got that call."
The call came from Pagano, who had known Wayne since he coached receivers at the University of Miami and Wayne was a freshman pupil. Newly hired by owner Jimmy Irsay, like general manager and fellow newbie Ryan Grigson, Pagano became convinced that Wayne's subpar stats from 2011 (75 catches, 960 yards, four touchdowns) were a function of shaky quarterback play in Manning's absence, rather than physical decline.
With emerging wideout Pierre Garcon also headed for free agency (he would sign a five-year, $42.5 million deal with the Washington Redskins) and at least one team (another AFC squad) rumored to be in hot pursuit of Wayne – the player refused to divulge which franchises sought his services – Pagano, Grigson and Irsay made a last-ditch recruiting pitch.
"I was at home in Miami getting ready for free agency, my kids running around, nothing but noise, when I saw a '317' number flash across my phone," Wayne recalled. "I answered it to see what was up. As soon as I heard the voice on the other line, I knew it was him. I've been knowing Chuck Pagano for a long time. This is beyond 'head coach.' This is family."
After exchanging pleasantries, Pagano got down to business.
"I was telling him congratulations, yada, yada, yada, and he said, 'Hey – I can't do this without you,' " Wayne recalled. "He told me, 'Take a leap of faith.' I've been knowing him for 16 years, and I knew I'd go balls to the wall for him, no matter what. I trusted him. That meant a lot."
It meant even more to Wayne when, shortly thereafter, he got a call from Irsay, who spoke of launching a new era (symbolized by the impending selection of former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall draft pick) with an old, familiar stalwart in the offensive huddle.
"I'm gonna be honest with you: When I got that [second] call from Jim Irsay, that was huge," Wayne said. "Jimmy was saying, 'You're family. We need you. You're a Colt. We want you to stay.' That was the icing on the cake. He's the big boss-man. He's not going to sugarcoat anything for you. When he says that stuff, you know it's real."
As free agency began, there was talk that Wayne would wait to see where Manning would end up before targeting that specific team in hopes of a reunion. Instead, while Manning took his time, ultimately choosing the Denver Broncos, Wayne quickly re-upped with the Colts for a reported $17.5 million over three years.
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: RB Donald Brown on Colts' victory]
In the end, despite having just endured a miserable, 2-14 season during which he had countless I am so out of here moments, Wayne decided he didn't want to leave the only NFL city he'd called home, even if it meant taking significantly less money. Asked about the team that made him the most lucrative offer, Wayne said, "I'd never tell that story. I had some places I could've gone. I left millions on the table."
As for the emotional part of the decision, Wayne conceded that his affection for Indy played a role.
"When [expletive] gets tough, everybody says weird [expletive]," Wayne said. "When everything calms down, you realize the bigger picture. Staying here was the bigger picture. The grass ain't always greener.
"I didn't see myself anywhere else. It had been 11 years, and I've got a lot of fans here. I may have fans throughout North America, but I have more here than anywhere, and I knew Indy was my place."
Still, Wayne conceded that when he showed up for his first post-Manning minicamp, "I didn't know what I was walking into."
To say Wayne has been pleasantly surprised would be a vast understatement. It starts with Luck, who in the receiver's words "has exceeded what I expected. I didn't expect this dude to be this good. If we were just running vanilla stuff, he'd be even better right now. But they're throwing so much stuff at him and he's handling it all. He'll be even better in the long run."
When I went to visit Luck during his final days on the Stanford campus last May, I texted Wayne to let him know, and he texted back almost immediately: "Tell him to throw me the ball." (Again, Wayne seldom says anything entirely in jest.)
Think Luck got the message? Wayne has 36 receptions for 506 yards (third in the NFL) and on Sunday moved past close friend and retired ex-college and Indy teammate Edgerrin James into second place on the Colts' all-time yards-from-scrimmage list.
"He's playing young," James said Sunday evening. "He's going to have a career year, maybe break the single-season reception record. It's great to see. I'm so glad he's back."
That would mean surpassing the mark set by another ex-Indy wideout: Marvin Harrison, to whom Wayne once played second banana in the Colts' offense, caught 143 passes in 2002. For what it's worth Wayne, after four games, is on pace for 144 receptions and 2,024 yards, which would shatter Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 in 1995.
Even if Wayne slows down, helping the Colts (2-2) reach .500 by beating the Packers at Lucas Oil Stadium at the start of Pagano's indefinite leave of absence will go down as one of his most memorable Sundays.
It wasn't subtle, either. Wayne, despite being blanketed by future Hall of Fame cornerback Charles Woodson, made one of the greatest catches of his career in the second quarter, reaching out with his left hand to somehow snatch a 30-yard pass from Luck (while drawing a moot pass-interference penalty) and somehow landing with the ball in his gut at the Green Bay 6-yard line.
Still, Wayne and his teammates went into halftime trailing 21-3. The Colts were not a happy bunch as interim coach Bruce Arians prepared to address his players.
"We wanted to win this for Chuck so bad," Wayne said. "At halftime we were so pissed off at each other. We didn't play up to par. We didn't play like a team that was hungry. We challenged each other, got in each others' faces, said, 'Hey, let's be accountable to each other. Let's trust each other to go out and perform the way we know we can.' "
The Colts responded with 19 consecutive points, and when they fell behind again, with the Packers taking a 27-22 lead on Aaron Rodgers' second touchdown pass to James Jones with 4:30 remaining, Luck and Wayne simply wouldn't let Indy lose.
On Indy's 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive to win the game, Luck completed five passes to Wayne – two of them conversions on third-and-long. Finally, on first-and-goal from the 4, Wayne slipped to his left, caught a crisp pass from Luck and deftly lunged the ball across the goal line past a trio of defenders.
Call it a leap of faith. And, whatever you do, don't call it a coincidence.
"I've got 12 years in the league and gained 12,000-plus yards," Wayne said. "[Expletives] aren't just giving me that. Charles Woodson's one of the top corners out there. I've got nothing but respect for him. He plays hard, to the whistle, and he's a Hall of Famer.
"But today, as a team, we had to give that extra effort. I know I had to sacrifice my body to get it done for Chuck. I was cramping up on that last drive – I never cramp, but I was hurting pretty bad. But I had to give everything I had, because this was too important."
Four hours after giving his old friend and ailing coach a small measure of joy during a daunting experience, Wayne got a call from Pagano, who was in his room at the Indiana University Health Simon Cancer Center.
"He sounded like the Chuck I've been knowing all these years, the same guy who used to talk smack to defensive backs on the practice field [at Miami], and then they'd take it out on us," Wayne said. "He told me he was happy for us. I said, 'Nah, man, this is for you'.
"I said, 'It doesn't stop here. It keeps going. I don't know when it stops, but this was for you, and we've got to bottle this up.' He said, 'Enjoy this for the night, then get ready for the Jets next Sunday.' That's exactly what I plan to do."
And with that, Wayne took a final puff of his cigar, got off the phone and headed back inside to mingle with his people.
1. Three one-word thoughts on the record Saints quarterback Drew Brees set Sunday night for the most consecutive games (48) with at least one touchdown pass, eclipsing Johnny Unitas' longstanding mark: Cool. Overhyped. Impermanent.
2. The Battle of Pennsylvania featured only two plays from scrimmage of at least 20 yards – and none longer than 24 – and I'm not sure if this makes me regard the Steelers and Eagles as bona fide contenders, or teams lacking the offensive punch to compete for a title.
3. If any young, elite running back has ever taken such a precipitous, prolonged and possibly permanent plunge as the Titans' Chris Johnson (15 carries, 24 yards in Tennessee's 30-7 defeat to the Vikings) – without suffering a serious injury – please bring him to me, so I can ask him what's up with CJWTH.
4. With all the pink cleats and towels on display during the NFL's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, wouldn't it be interesting if one otherwise non-buzzworthy franchise took it to another level? My 13-year-old son's idea: "The Browns should wear pink helmets."
5. Given how in-sync Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers have been the past several seasons, it was jarring to see the Packers quarterback let the play clock dwindle and burn his final timeout under duress with eight seconds remaining against the Colts – depriving the Pack of a shot at the end zone or a chance to get Crosby closer than 51 yards for a potential game-tying attempt.
[NFL winners/losers: Michael Vick is best option at QB for Eagles right now]
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That, thanks to a fateful postgame meeting with a certain MVP quarterback a couple of weeks ago, I now know how to pronounce the word meme (it's meeme) – and I can now purchase a commemorative T-shirt bearing the likeness of my favorite NFL columnist.
2. How a dependable, veteran halfback like Denver's Willis McGahee could make two unconscionable mistakes in the fourth quarter of the Broncos' 31-21 defeat to the New England Patriots on Sunday. Had McGahee held onto an easy fourth-down pass from Peyton Manning in Pats territory with 10:50 remaining and kept a tighter hold on the ball he fumbled away in the red zone with 3:42 to go, we might have been treated to another Manning-Tom Brady classic, perhaps with the outcome reversed.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Though I've certainly been one of Matt Cassel's many critics in this and other seasons, I'd happily go on a rant about how disturbing it was to hear some fans at Arrowhead Stadium cheering when the Chiefs' quarterback went down with an apparent head injury in the fourth quarter of Kansas City's 9-6 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens. I won't, however – because Chiefs tackle Eric Winston, one of the league's more thoughtful players, did it more eloquently and poignantly than I could have hoped to in his postgame comments.
"We are athletes. We are not gladiators," Winston said after gathering reporters in the locker room to record his views. "This is not the Roman Coliseum." I urge you to click on the above link, and to read and consider Winston's remarks in full, as they pertain to Cassel's experience and to the way you process professional sports in general. And I agree wholeheartedly with the four-word text Winston sent me Sunday evening in reference to his remarks: "Had to be said."
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Haven't watched a play of football and it's been the best [Sunday] in a long time"
– Text Sunday night from Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whose team was off after losing to the Rams 17-3 on Thursday night
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