By Joel Erickson
Written for the LSWA
Reggie Wayne left such an indelible mark on his teams that it’s hard to imagine him playing for anybody else.
For example, when Ed Reed thinks about the first time he met Wayne, he thinks about heading home from his own high school football games, flipping on Friday Night Football and marveling at the John Ehret receiver who seemed to create his own highlight package every week.
When he went to Miami, Wayne was the main target on the Hurricanes teams that lifted an iconic program out of the hell of NCAA probation and set up a national championship run.
And in Indianapolis, Wayne became a key piece in a Peyton Manning-led passing game that redefined offense in the NFL, then stuck around for 14 years, the rare NFL player to spend his entire career with only one team.
Funny to think how close the silky-smooth receiver with the flytrap hands came to cementing his legacy in other locales, instead of the places that led to this year’s induction in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, June 30 in Natchitoches.
“I don’t think there’s any athlete who doesn’t want to feel appreciated or respected,” Wayne said. ‘There’s been so many greats that have come out of the state of Louisiana. Just to be a part of that, it’s an honor.”
Wayne’s bloodlines seemed primed for football. His father, Ralph, played linebacker for Grambling in college, then spent his career as a football coach at O. Perry Walker in Algiers.
But the sport that first captured Wayne’s heart wasn’t his father’s.
“Football just wasn’t my thing,” Wayne said. “I grew up watching Ozzie Smith and the Cardinals. I wanted to play shortstop ever since I was small.”
Wayne grew up playing shortstop and third base, at least until football got its hooks into him when he got to high school and saw the bright lights and the passionate fan base that followed John Ehret football.
Every once in a while, though, he wonders what might have been.
“I don’t have any regrets in my life,” Wayne said. “I don’t, but if there was one that I can take out, it’d just be, where would I be baseball-wise these days? Because I thought I was fairly decent.”
Obviously gifted, Wayne joined a John Ehret team that initially wasn’t suited to his talents. When he started playing football in high school, he was a running back and quarterback, trapped in an option offense. He spent his first two years of football on the perimeter, mostly blocking.
Wayne started to wonder if he should leave John Ehret.
“I was kind of like, ‘You know, I can go to O. Perry Walker where my dad’s at, and they throw the ball every play,’” Wayne said. “They’re three and four wides every play. I kind of kept it to myself and told some friends that I was debating on doing it, and a couple of those friends went to the coach and told him there was a possibility that I was going to leave.”
The ball came to Wayne so many times the next week that he remembers telling his coaches to back off just a bit.
And when the ball started coming Wayne’s way, so did the schools. Recruits are allowed to take five official visits; Wayne took three, in part because some of the biggest schools in the SEC didn’t realize what they had on their hands. Tennessee pulled his offer right before he visited, telling Wayne they’d given it to another receiver; Florida told him the Gators didn’t think he was fast enough. Another visit was a courtesy to a former coach at Oklahoma State.
For a little while, Wayne was committed to LSU, at least until he got a call from Miami wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson.
“I’d never thought about Miami; they were on probation at the time,” Wayne said. “I pretty much had my mind made up, and he was like, ‘Give me a shot. Just one chance.’”
How Johnson convinced Wayne is up for debate. Now back in his second stint as the Saints’ receivers coach, Johnson is pretty sure he sealed the deal by offering Wayne some pointers on a post-corner over the phone, pointers that led to a touchdown the next week.
Reed also remembers Johnson putting the two prized recruits together in the car on a long drive and letting them build a relationship that carried weight when they took a visit to LSU together, and Wayne could tell Reed wasn’t feeling his state school.
Wayne has a different explanation.
“It was a big family,” Wayne said. “I saw something I didn’t see at LSU or Oklahoma State.”
Wayne went to Miami, roomed with Reed and instantly made a mark on the program.
“He was on a mission,” Reed said. “His first year was all his doing. All his will. All his goals for himself were to be the best receiver, make all the catches, every last one of them that came his way.”
Wayne caught 48 passes as a freshman, breaking Michael Irvin’s record for catches as a freshman. From that season forward, Wayne was a devastating target, a player who had a knack for coming up with catches in big games and still holds Miami’s record for receptions in a career, with 173 over four seasons.
The best part was that Wayne got to cap his career with three catches for 49 yards at home in a 37-20 Sugar Bowl win over Florida, the team that told him he was too slow.
“In 35 years of coaching, best hands I ever had,” Johnson said. “If you watch some of the catches he made, some of the plays he made against the Florida States, teams like that. … Whoever we played against, this guy made plays.”
Indianapolis drafted Wayne with the 30th pick of the first round in 2001. In hindsight, he couldn’t have landed in a better spot. At the time, though, Wayne wasn’t sure that was the case.
“I knew about Peyton and all that stuff, but when I got there, they’d really only had one winning season,” Wayne said. “I didn’t know anything about the Midwest. … And also, you know, my rookie year, I had Jim Mora as my head coach. … He didn’t even want an offensive dude, he wanted a defensive guy, and they went and drafted me, so I had to get used to all of that.”
But Wayne fit with the Colts better than anybody could have known. Manning was already establishing his legendary work ethic, Marvin Harrison had the same personality, and the Colts added a receiver who was ready to get right in there with them.
“There was no secret why he was as great as he was,” Colts teammate Brandon Stokely said. “It’s because of the way he worked. He didn’t come into the NFL his rookie year and have a superstar season, but he worked his way to becoming a great NFL receiver.’
Wayne caught 27 passes as a rookie, 49 in his second, 68 in his third, broke through with a 77-catch, 1,210-yard campaign in his fourth season and never looked back. From that moment on, he was one of the most devastating weapons in a Manning-led offense that dominated the NFL.
Being drafted to Indianapolis ended up giving Wayne a third home to go along with the New Orleans area and Miami. Wayne spent most of his 14 seasons with the Colts playing for the same quarterback, the same coach, in the same offensive scheme. Off the field, he had time to build relationships and sustain them, eliminating off-the-field concerns and racking up numbers as he chased the game’s ultimate goal, a Super Bowl prize Indianapolis picked up in Super Bowl XLI.
“Once you’ve got it, it was all good from that point on,” Wayne said. “I loved everything about it. I think we all did. There was no team in the decade that won more games than us. That was a testimony to all the work we put in. Now, we damn sure don’t have enough rings to show for it, but we do know we were a pretty good group.”
Along the way, Wayne established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL.
While his old Miami roommate built a career as one of the best safeties the NFL has ever seen, he relished his meetings with Wayne, a player he always knew was destined for stardom at the game’s highest level.
“Reggie was really ready for the pros, he was ready for it in college,” Reed said. “His precision route-running, his mentality of knowing the game, knowing what was going on, being able to communicate with his other receivers and his quarterback, his mind for the game was on a whole ‘nother level.”
Wayne, who retired after 14 seasons, 1,070 catches, 14,345 yards and 82 touchdowns, is still around the game. An analyst for the NFL Network, Wayne has also dipped his toe into following in his father’s footsteps as a coach, testing out the waters as a volunteer coach for the Colts this offseason.
And as the dust settles on his remarkable career, Wayne is starting to reap the rewards of his brilliant play. A member of the University of Miami’s Sports Hall of Fame since 2011, Wayne will enter Louisiana’s Hall, then take his place in the Colts’ Ring of Honor in November.
All that’s left is a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a possibility that is difficult to handicap, given the recent explosion in receiving numbers.
“I don’t worry about it,” Wayne said. “I told you what matters to me: what my teammates think of me as a person and as a teammate, and what my opponents think about me every time they played me.”
Stokely believes Wayne’s a Hall of Famer. So does Reed.
If and when that honor comes, and even if it doesn’t, after the mark he left on three cities, Wayne’s place in the history of football is safe and secure.