THE COLTS' REVIVAL—REMEMBER THE DARK DAYS OF 2011?—OFTEN GETS CHALKED UP TO ANDREW LUCK. BUT WITHOUT WIDEOUT T.Y. HILTON AND THE EERILY FAMILIAR BOND HE FORMED WITH REGGIE WAYNE, WE WOULDN'T BE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD STRAIGHT PLAYOFF TRIP FOR INDY
T.Y. HILTON should have been sapped, drained. Instead, he was his electric self despite operating on just a few hours of sleep, and when he touched cleat to end zone on a 73-yard touchdown reception on Nov. 23 against the Jaguars, the world went fuzzy. He cradled the football, rocking it like his daughter, Eugenia, who'd been born at 7:30 that morning. It was a departure from Hilton's usual end zone celebration, the leaping spike and what he calls the T.Y. Dance. But tradition runs deep among the Colts' receivers, and so after his familial nod, he had to find Reggie Wayne.
The two wideouts meet and bump fists every time one of them makes a big play. It didn't matter that Hilton would log 122 receiving yards in Indianapolis's 23--3 win, or that Wayne would have only 10. They're a unit, two links in a chain, and so while Hilton dutifully asked his wife that morning if she wanted him to skip the game, he knew he was obliged to his other family, to the team that's come to rely on him more and more over the past year, and to the man who's helped him become the Colts' next great receiver.
WHEN THE COLTS called Hilton's name in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, they saw a long-term project. Nagged by a quadriceps injury, the Florida International wideout had run a ho-hum 4.34-second 40-yard dash at his pro day—one year after he says he clocked a 4.24 on two healthy legs—and his stock had tumbled. But Indianapolis was in an unusual position: The team didn't need a quick fix at receiver. It had Wayne.
December 22, 2014
That Wayne was coming off his worst campaign in eight years—just 960 receiving yards in the Colts' first losing season since 2001—didn't tell the whole story. He was still one of the NFL's premier pass catchers. He just happened to have played the previous year on an epically bad offense. Wayne was a man left behind. In the wake of Peyton Manning's departure for Denver, only 16 players from the Colts' '10 roster were still around. A complete rebuild was under way. At the '12 draft, the team was able to spin its 2--14 record into a new starting QB: No. 1 pick Andrew Luck. Then came the third round.
As the selection of Hilton was announced, the veteran's phone began to buzz. Friends from Wayne's college days at Miami were texting, calling, telling him to take care of the kid from back home. The two receivers, it turned out, had mutual friends in southeast Florida, where Hilton grew up. Wayne even knew a few of the rookie's relatives. "I didn't know what to expect," he says. "But I felt like, since we knew so many of the same people, I had to go the extra mile." And that he did; no matter how busy he was, how distracted, Wayne answered Hilton's questions and weighed in on his game. He took every phone call, responded to every text. He would look after Hilton—except he quickly learned that the rookie didn't need much looking after at all.
FROM THE MOMENT he arrived in Indianapolis, Hilton could be found almost exclusively in Wayne's shadow. When the team held its first round of installation meetings that summer, Hilton made his permanent seat the one next to Wayne's. As the season wore on, the receivers' children—Hilton has two sons in addition to Eugenia; Wayne has three sons—became friends. And by the off-season, the grown-ups were speaking on the phone or texting every day they were apart. "Once [I knew] I was coming here," says Hilton, "my main thing was just to pick Reggie's brain, learn whatever I could."
With his quadriceps healed, Hilton regained his speed. And when it came to refining his college talent into something that could stick in the NFL, he listened to the veteran with a pen and paper in hand. Wayne laughs as he recalls those early days, when he could hardly open his mouth without the rookie scribbling down notes. Hilton still parrots those early lessons: Run clean, crisp routes. Play your best game on Sundays. Always communicate. Keep your eyes open....
That's the type of attention you might expect from a young receiver in Hilton's position but don't always see, says Colts backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who noticed a huge difference between Hilton and the average young standout: He's open to coaching; he encourages it. After nearly every series, the two receivers still convene to break down what's transpired, and Wayne's advice has helped Hilton read defenses more quickly and refine his routes. "T.Y. is smart enough to realize, I should do whatever this guy does," Luck says, "because [Wayne] has done it really, really well for 13 years."
From the moment he arrived in Indy, Hilton was the ready pupil, and Wayne, who'd spent his first eight years playing little brother to Marvin Harrison, took just as naturally to mentoring. When Hilton showed up, bubbling over with questions, Wayne couldn't help but think back to his own rookie season. On his first day in the Colts' locker room, in 2001, he'd marched up to Harrison, Indianapolis's career leader in almost every receiving category, and told him, "Man, I'm going to make it my business to make sure you're not double-covered no more," before starting into a stream of questions. Despite his natural reticence, Harrison answered every inquiry. Wayne filed those moments away, knowing he'd one day do the same when the right player came around. "[My relationship] with Marv prepped me for this," says Wayne. "I looked at this as an opportunity to take the load off me."
The hospitality paid off. With the kind of bookend receiving threat that could distract an opposing secondary, and with the ball again coming off the arm of a franchise QB, Wayne rebounded hard in 2012: 106 catches. The Colts returned to the playoffs, and Hilton saw enough time at receiver to catch 50 balls, including seven TDs.
HILTON REMEMBERS exactly where he was, on the sideline between reps, when Wayne twisted to the Lucas Oil Stadium turf late in a win over the Broncos in October 2013. Wayne's right ACL tore as he tried to make a cut, putting him out for the year. It was a loss that forced the Colts to grow up, says Luck—no one more than Hilton, who was thrown into a starter's role for the first time.
But Hilton didn't make the jump alone. Because of the timing of the injury, right before Indianapolis's bye week, Wayne barely missed a day with his team. He went under the knife the following Friday, and by the time the Colts traveled to Houston in Week 9, he was able to hobble around the sideline on crutches. "I wanted to stay involved," Wayne explains. "When I was playing, T.Y. would ask, Do you think I should do this or that? I didn't want him to lose that."
Even as he became a de facto position coach, Wayne made sure to maintain ritual, to teach and cheer. Hilton needed those fist bumps, those simple gestures of camaraderie. After Hilton scored the first of his three TDs against the Texans, Wayne was waiting on the sideline, fist outstretched.
Over 11 games without Wayne last season, Hilton's 998 yards accounted for one third of Indy's receiving total; his 72 catches were nearly double that of any other Colt. They had found their next star.
NOW IN his third season, Hilton seems to answer a question for every one he asks. This year he is the receiver who draws double teams, and when he's blanketed, it's on him to provide Wayne with observations from the crowded side of the formation.
The 5'10", 183-pound Hilton appears not all that different in 2014 compared with '12; his mastery of the playbook has improved, and his skills are simply sharper, more practiced. What's changed is his usage: After playing him as their third receiver for much of his first season and a half, the Colts have committed to Hilton as their No. 1 weapon, lining him in the slot and tailoring their offense to keep him clean of contact. His 1,345 receiving yards this season trail only Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas. And, based on his first 14 games, he's on pace to reach 3,481 career receiving yards by year's end. Only four wideouts have topped that total through their first three seasons: Randy Moss, A.J. Green, Torry Holt and Jerry Rice. For putting him in that company, Hilton can thank Luck's arm and Wayne's presence—the veteran's return helped alleviate some of the doubles Hilton struggled against late last year.
The Colts have a three-game lead in the AFC South and on Sunday secured their third trip to the playoffs in the three seasons since Luck and Hilton were drafted. Wayne, meanwhile, is eyeing milestones of his own. With 665 yards this year, he's moved to No. 8 on the NFL's alltime list (14,231), and he's likely to pass No. 7, Harrison (14,580), if he returns next season. In his prime Wayne was the NFL's best route runner, fleecing defenses and separating from coverage in an instant; today he's slowed, battling through triceps, knee and elbow injuries. Still, he's missed only one game this year, and Sunday's 17--10 win over Houston marked his 209th in a Colts uniform, moving him past Peyton Manning for the most in franchise history.
Even with Wayne at partial health, Hilton has been so dominant as to evoke parallels between these Colts receivers and those of the mid-2000s, especially when the younger player so closely resembles Harrison on the field: the wiry build, the game marked by speed and intelligence rather than brute strength. But Wayne sees a danger in such comparisons, and he wants to make sure Hilton knows that he's writing his own chapter, just as Luck is more than Manning's successor. Back in 2012, when he felt as if he was the only remaining player from Indianapolis's glory days, Wayne resolved that he wouldn't talk too much of the past. He believed that telling stories about how it used to be would intimidate more than it would inspire.
By minimizing the comparisons, Wayne has allowed Indy's young players to work toward past successes without being overawed by them. "It's exciting," Hilton says of living up to his predecessors. "Coming in here with Andrew, I just pictured us becoming like Marvin, Peyton and Reggie."
And the circle continues. Hasselbeck points to the design of the Colts' locker room, where veterans are scattered throughout, meaning that rookie receiver Donte Moncrief, a third-round pick out of Mississippi, finds himself in the same corner as Hilton, who knows better than anyone what it means to be in that role. Indy's locker room is built for growth, for veterans to mingle with rookies, for experience to rub off on youth.
Hilton turned 25 last month; Wayne, the NFL's oldest wideout, turned 36 three days later. The elder receiver shrugs at his age and smiles, as if to admit he knows what that means in football years. He won't always be there for the fist bump. But he's done everything he can to put his team in the best possible hands: those of a receiver who could have been just the guy who played with Reggie Wayne, but who instead fell in step, who hasn't gotten lost in the shadow of what came before.
"T.Y. IS SMART ENOUGH TO REALIZE, I SHOULD DO WHATEVER THIS GUY DOES," LUCK SAYS, "BECAUSE REGGIE HAS DONE IT REALLY, REALLY WELL FOR 13 YEARS."
WHEN WAYNE AND HILTON ARE ON, IT'S EASY TO SEE PARALLELS BETWEEN THESE COLTS AND DOMINANT INDY OFFENSES OF THE PAST.