By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — They jokingly refer to themselves as the old men of the Indianapolis Colts. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne, outside linebacker Dwight Freeney, outside linebacker Robert Mathis and free safety Antoine Bethea are the primary remnants of outstanding Colts teams of the recent past.
At the end of the current season, the four will have combined for 20 Pro Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl championship, two Super Bowl appearances, three AFC championship games and seven AFC South titles.
Three of them — Wayne, Mathis and Bethea — expect to end their outstanding National Football League careers in Indianapolis. Freeney, however, may have played his final game in a Colts uniform yesterday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Such is life in the NFL, where the initials often mean Not For Long.
Freeney’s contract with the Colts expires at the end of the season. While both sides have expressed a desire for the franchise’s all-time sacks leader to be back with the team next year and for the foreseeable future, professional football is a business, first and foremost.
If a deal can be hammered out that is agreeable — and workable — for all parties, then Freeney might also play his entire NFL career in Indianapolis.
“I think [the idea that yesterday’s home game might be his last with the Colts] does kind of creep in. I think anyone who tells you it doesn’t is lying. You don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the day. The strangest things happen,” Freeney said late last week.
“Look at last year, everybody thought [former Indianapolis quarterback] Peyton [Manning] would be here and he’s not. Two years ago was his last game. Hopefully it’s not [for me] but this is a business from their side and my side. I guess we will figure it out when the season is over. I just appreciate everything this city has done for me, the fans have done for me. It’s been a great ride and hopefully we can continue it.”
Make no mistake. The former Syracuse standout would love to be back with the Colts.
“Absolutely. I’m kind of old school in a way. Back in the day where you couldn’t leave a team, that’s pretty much where you were and that’s what you were known as,” Freeney said. “This is all I’ve ever known, this city, these people, these fans and hopefully I can be a horseshoe again this offseason.”
For his part, Mathis — who signed a new long-term contract with Indianapolis last offseason — would like to see his pass rushing buddy back with the team next season.
“[Freeney has] been here 11 years. We’ve been playing together 10 years so that speaks for itself. It’s almost like we formed a brotherhood. It’s deeper than just a teammate. We call it ‘9398 Bring the Heat Boulevard.’ We kind of coined that term so we want to keep it going as long as we can. Came in pretty much together and in a perfect world, we’d go out together,” he said.
Wayne also re-upped with the Colts after the 2011 season. Bethea, meanwhile, signed his new deal with the team at the conclusion of the 2010 campaign.
Both Mathis and Wayne were named as starters for the AFC squad in the 2013 Pro Bowl, which is set for Jan. 27 in Honolulu.
“It’s very fun [going to the Pro Bowl as teammates] because we’ve kind of been through the fire together, came up the same way,” Mathis said. “I’m very happy for him and I know he’s very happy for me as well. Hard work paying off and it’s just a good place to be in.”
Bethea continues to be impressed by Wayne, whom he has faced off against in practice since joining the team in 2006.
“Just the way he works every day. No days off and if he does take a day off, you know it’s something serious. Week in and week out getting double-teamed, triple-teamed, still making plays, incredible catches,” he said.
“I know the bones and the joints are probably aching right now. He’s been here since Eric Dickerson’s been here [laughing]. It’s fun to see him go out there and make plays.”
He shares the same type of admiration for Mathis, who made the tough transition from hand-on-the-ground defensive end to being a stand-up outside linebacker this past offseason.
“The professional that he is just shows the leader and type of player that he is. Everybody was listening about him and Free [Freeney] and how they are going to adapt to this new defense, this new style, standing up,” Bethea said.
“Those guys had a great year. Rob a Pro Bowl selection five years in a row. He’s a great player on and off the field and I’m proud of him.”
For his sake, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has enjoyed playing, and learning, from Wayne this season.
“I think one, his knack for showing up in big times. Big moments, he controls them. He’s going to make the catch. He’s going to make the play. He’s going to get the first down, the touchdown, whatever you need. He’s going to make the big plays,” Luck said. “Then on top of that, the consistency. Every day in practice, every play on the field. He’s a lot of fun to play with and you learn a lot.
“Offensively, he’s our leader. He’s our guy. We go through him, not just on the field but also how to operate, how to be a professional. He’s sort of our bell cow.”