As the media masses broke up in front of No. 87’s locker at the team complex, a reporter shared statistics that showed an obvious trend: NFL receivers’ numbers typically drop off dramatically when they reach their 35th birthdays. And many of the greats didn’t last that long.
Wayne’s demeanor changed. Competitors always look for any kind of edge. He considered this historical trend a challenge. He set his mind and body to prove he would be one of the rare exceptions to perform at an elite level in advancing years.
The most obvious of the exceptions was Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, who had 92 receptions for 1,211 yards with seven TDs at 40 and didn’t retire until two years later. Hall of Famer Cris Carter had a solid year at 35, then dropped off the next season and played in just five games after that before retiring. Jacksonville’s Jimmy Smith had a 1,000-yard receiving season in his final year at 36.
On his way to a decent season with 38 catches for 503 yards, Wayne tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in the seventh game last season. He celebrated his 35th birthday a month later on injured reserve. Suddenly, priorities shifted to just wanting to be able to play once again.
Wayne needs 27 receiving yards Sunday to pass Carter (13,899) for ninth on the NFL’s all-time list. And if he accomplishes this task at Lucas Oil Stadium, it will come against the Baltimore Ravens, who have their own 35-year-old wide receiver in Steve Smith Sr.
“(The media) all want to write these guys off at a certain age, and we have living proof on both sidelines this weekend that (you can) throw out age,” said Colts coach Chuck Pagano. “They must have both visited the Fountain of Youth down in Ponce de Leon, or whatever you want to call it.”
The old lions lead their teams in receptions and receiving yards, although they feast on young defensive backs differently. Smith plays angry, a diminutive 5-9, 195-pound pass catcher always hell-bent on proving something to someone with a chip on his shoulder pads. The 6-foot, 203-pound Wayne is silky smooth with deceptive speed and incredible hands. As quarterback Andrew Luck says, “He’s mastered the craft of being a wide receiver.”
They’ve come a long way since playing together in the 2001 Senior Bowl after their final college seasons. Another thing they have in common — they’ve motivated each other.
“He’s definitely inspired me,” Wayne said Friday. “We need to find out what he’s drinking so we can bottle it up and give me a sip. It’s good to see everything he’s out there doing.
“He’s doing stuff at 35 years of age that people haven’t done ever in this league. … Hopefully we can continue to give y’all a show and not show y’all our AARP cards.”
Smith said of Wayne: “I have a lot of great respect for him. I don’t know if he does, but I watch his tape and see some of the things that he does, when I was younger and also now that we’re older. When you’re one of the few older guys in there, you’re always watching the fellow senior citizen run some routes.”
Wayne says he watches too much film these days.
“It’s interrupting my family life,” he said. “But being this old, whenever you don’t have the same body that you had when you first got in the league, I think you’re required to watch more film to be able to know more of your opponent even more than you would normally. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been watching so much film, whenever I go out to eat by myself or whatever, I’ve got my film with me, I’ve got my iPad with me.”
Last Sunday, Smith unleashed his fury on the Carolina Panthers, his previous employer for 13 seasons through last year. It’s fair to say he was motivated to show he wasn’t washed up with seven catches for 139 yards and two TDs in a 38-10 rout. Smith has 25 catches for 429 yards with three scores this season.
On a Wednesday conference call, Smith was amused when asked if he was surprised by his start.
“Are you surprised?” he asked the reporter.
“You’ve got my attention, I will say that, yes,” the reporter said.
“That was a nice way of saying yes,” Smith surmised. “I mean, you guys are surprised. I’m not surprised, you always work for something. You work hard and you expect good results and as you continue to keep working hard you expect good results.”
While Smith was humbling the Panthers in Baltimore, Wayne was enjoying his first 100-yard game of the season with seven catches for 119 yards and one score in a 41-17 home rout of Tennessee.
Smith noticed Wayne’s big game.
“Yeah, I love that,” he said. “Reggie’s doing his thing, we’re from the same class. I think it’s awesome, man. I think it’s unbelievable and I think also when he went down with the knee injury, he comes back. You know, this is a young man’s game and you’ve got two older guys playing well. That’s great.”
Smith was asked how long he will play.
“That number is known within the family and when that time comes, nobody will be shocked,” he said. “Put it like this: When I walk away, I’ll still be walking and I’ll still have a giddy-up in my step.”
So he has a timeframe in mind, but he’s not going to share that.
“You’re not part of the family,” Smith said.
Wayne is in the last year of his contract and turns 36 on Nov. 17. He has a chance to surpass Marvin Harrison’s franchise records in receptions and receiving yards. His 23 catches for 307 yards boost career totals to 1,029 receptions for 13,873 yards. Harrison, whose career fell off in 2007 at the age of 35, retired with 1,102 receptions for 14,580 yards.
But Wayne doesn’t talk about records. Nor is he looking ahead to one more candle on the cake. He’s bounced back from a potentially career-ending injury and met that 2013 challenge to be an elite receiver at his age.
As much as Wayne is still driven by competitive desire, he also seems at peace with life and is appreciating each day as it comes.
“Yeah, I am blessed,” he said. “I think that’s rare to play so long with one team. I think Steve has been displaying his thoughts on that in the past, but it goes to show you how rare it is. … I’m one of the fortunate ones that’s able to do it with one team for so long and I appreciate that.
“It’s one of those things that as a player, once you sign your name, you do know the risks, you do know the possibilities. I’ve dodged that bullet a couple times and I’m still here. We’ll see how long, but as of right now, they say, ‘Live in the moment,’ and that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m not worrying about past, I’m not worrying about future, I’m living in this moment right now.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.