The Colts' victory over Peyton Manning came at a hefty price.
Andrew Luck lost his favourite target and the Indianapolis locker room lost one of its most revered leaders when Reggie Wayne was diagnosed Monday with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that will cost him the rest of the season.
News of Wayne's injury hit hard at the team complex.
Second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton expressed sadness about losing his mentor. Coach Chuck Pagano tried to lean on his standard line about replacing injured players, though it didn't come with quite the same passion, and Luck blamed himself for putting Wayne in harm's way with a low, underthrown ball late in the game against Denver.
"Looking back it again today, there was really no one within 30 yards of him. He probably would have scored if I actually give him a decent ball. I feel somewhat responsible for the whole thing," Luck said. "I think I feel sick to my stomach about it a little bit."
Wayne, who was not hit on the play, immediately clutched his right knee and stayed on the ground for several minutes as Luck, longtime friend Antoine Bethea, other teammates and a group of trainers gathered around. After making the short walk to the Colts' sideline, the man who had played in 189 consecutive games limped into the locker room with tears in his eyes knowing that his season was likely over.
Pagano and teammates were hoping for the best. Instead, they got the worst possible news, and there's no doubt Wayne's absence will hurt the AFC South leaders.
The perennial Pro Bowler leads his team with 38 catches and 503 yards this season. In 13 seasons, all with the Colts, he has 1,006 receptions, 13,506 yards and 80 TD catches — second in each category on the franchise's career charts, behind only ex-teammate Marvin Harrison and ahead of Hall of Famer Raymond Berry.
But Wayne's impact can't be measured merely by stats.
When the Colts (5-2) decided to cut ties with more than a half-dozen high-priced veterans, including Manning, following Indy's dismal 2-14 season, Wayne was one of the few holdovers who decided to stick around and rebuild. He even took less money to stay in his adopted hometown, and quickly emerged as a centerpiece of the Colts' incredible turnaround.
He always plays with passion, which was never more evident than last October against Green Bay. In Indy's first game after Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, Wayne caught 13 passes for 212 yards and almost single-handedly willed the Colts from a 17-3 deficit to a 30-27 victory that ended with Wayne's orange gloves, a tribute to Pagano, barely crossing the goal line with 35 seconds to go.
It's one of the reasons Pagano believes Wayne will return next season at full throttle.
"He's not going out like this. He's not going to leave this game like this. There's no way," said Pagano, who first met Wayne when they were working together at the University of Miami. "He'll fight, he'll get his surgery, and he'll rehab and he'll grind like nobody's ever grinded. He'll do whatever it takes to get back on that football field — even if it's to catch one more pass, make one more block, do one more thing to help this organization win a football game, he'll do it. But he's not going out like this."
Pagano did not say when Wayne would have surgery though it takes most athletes a year to come back. Some require 18 to 24 months, though Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and former Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson did it quicker than that.
Peterson came back in nine months and went on to win last season's MVP Award. The then-30-year-old Woodson returned to play in the Super Bowl following the 1995 season after tearing up his knee in that season's opener.
Obstacles can be more difficult for older athletes such as Wayne, who turns 35 next month and will be heading into the final year of his contract next season.
"There is a thought that the recovery process might be a little slower in athletes as they get older, but there aren't any real studies that show it's harder to recover," said Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, S.C. "We think being a high-level athlete in good shape can help because we know that the strength of the muscle going in plays a role how fast you get back. But being a higher level athlete, also means you have a higher bar to achieve to getting back."
The Colts have seen this scenario before.
In 2007, the then 35-year-old Harrison injured his knee while making a block when another player rolled up on the back of his leg. He missed most of that season and was never the same. He finished 2008 with 60 catches for 636 yards and five TDs but never played another down in the NFL after that season.
Pagano doesn't believe it will happen to Wayne.
"You just look in the man's eye. When he tells you he's going to do something, I can just look in his eye," Pagano said. "Again, I've known him for a long time and watched him work over the years and he says I'll be back, I trust he'll be back."
Since dealing with a high ankle sprain and a sprained knee, which cost him three games as a rookie in 2001, Wayne had not missed a game. That streak that will officially end Nov. 3 at Houston when the Colts return from their bye week.
Pagano would not say if the Colts will shop for another replacement.
For now, they plan to go with the receivers already on the roster — Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, LaVon Brazill and David Reed — and perhaps activate one or both of the team's practice squad, Da'Rick Rogers or Griff Whalen.
Losing Wayne hurts even more because of what has already happened to Indy's offence.
Starting tight end Dwayne Allen (hip), Indy's top two running backs, Vick Ballard (knee) and Ahmad Bradshaw (neck), and starting left guard Donald Thomas (quad) are already on season-ending injured reserve. Wayne is likely to join that list soon.
"The first thing out of his mouth is he feels like he let his teammates down because he can't be there now. That's how unselfish this guy is," Pagano said. "Like I told you, he could give a hoot about the numbers, all that stuff. He just wants to play and help us win a championship. That's what he's dealing with right now."