INDIANAPOLIS – Reggie Wayne's football career has led him to many different collegiate and professional playing fields.
One of the least visited for him, however, is the one nearest the house where he grew up.
Wayne was reared in Marrero, Louisiana, a town just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Though the Mercedes-Benz Superdome stands approximately 27 stories high and was opened three years prior to Wayne's birth, he did not grow up in the shadow of the football edifice. Marrero was just beyond its reach.
This Sunday, Wayne will be playing in the stadium for only the fourth time in his life. Wayne was in his third year with Indianapolis when the club visited the Superdome on September 28, 2003 for a Sunday Night game against the Saints.
It was a memorable night for Indianapolis. The Colts hummed to the tune of 55 points in a victory over New Orleans. Quarterback Peyton Manning was making his second appearance in New Orleans as a member of the Colts. His high school team, Isidore Newman, had played in the stadium more than once during Manning's prep career. His previous exposure to the Superdome could have helped as Manning completed 20-of-25 passes for 314 yards and six touchdowns. In having more scoring passes than interceptions in the game, Manning hit four different teammates for touchdowns. Marvin Harrison caught three, while Dallas Clark, Dominic Rhodes and Ricky Williams had the other ones. Wayne was in his first season as a starter and would have 68 receptions for 868 yards and seven touchdowns in 2003 but in the game against the Saints, he had three receptions for 26 yards.
The end zone was as foreign a territory that night for Wayne as the stadium was for him growing up just a few miles away from it.
Kids growing up in New Orleans when the Saints were created in 1967 could get in venerable Tulane Stadium, the Saints' home stadium through 1974, on a youth ticket for $1.50. Prices spiked a bit when the Saints moved into their new arena.
When Wayne became of football age, the Saints were humming under Head Coach Jim Mora. Stars for the team in those days included running back Dalton Hilliard, a Louisiana-bred running back from LSU and Bobby Hebert, also a homestate product just up the road from New Orleans. A storied linebacking corps – Pat Swilling, Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills and future Hall-of-Famer Rickey Jackson – was making an impact on the league. Wayne's favorite Saint, wide receiver Eric Martin, also an LSU Tiger, was in the middle of a seven-year run (1987-93) as the team's leading receiver.
Wayne, however, followed from afar, even if that meant from just across the Mighty Mississippi. His family did not have tickets. It was not that the family could not go, it was just that it did not.
Reggie was one of three sons born to Denise and Ralph Wayne. The senior Wayne, now retired and celebrating a birthday in the coming days, was a coach and athletic director at O. Perry Walker High School. Reggie's mom is a devoted churchgoer. Being in the Central Time Zone, Saints games typically started at noon. Church won more often on Sundays than did the Saints.
"I didn't attend any (games), to be honest, but I was one of the biggest fans ever," said Wayne. "I can remember tons of time coming home from church with my mom and going in the house and catching the games on TV. There were tons of times when it was blacked out and me and my dad had to listen on the radio. I remember those days cheering for the Saints, just a diehard Saints fan. That changed in 2001 when I was drafted by the Colts."
Wayne played at John Ehret High School, a 4-A public school that had won previous state championships in 1981 and 1985. Wayne was a two-time all-state choice who had 50 receptions for 930 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior. His team, however, could not stay alive in the state playoffs to reach New Orleans.
"For you to play in the Superdome, it had to be the championship game," said Wayne. "Unfortunately, John Ehret never got past the quarter-finals in my four years. Me being in the NFL now and getting a chance to go is kind of the dream you had in high school of playing in the Superdome. I'm still fulfilling my dream. Whenever I'm at home, I'm still like that kid in high school wanting to play there. I'm fulfilling my dream still and should have fun."
A large part of Wayne's dreams as a youth involved the Saints and the players who starred in the black and gold. Wayne looked up to Martin for the example he set, and that helped him create a persona in games he would play with his friends. Wayne truly liked Martin's style.
"He was a silent assassin," said Wayne. "Not many people really gave him credit for his contribution for what he did on the team. He was just a guy who went about his business. When the ball was thrown to him, he caught it, made some movements, scored touchdowns and just went on to the next play. You never heard anybody talk about him. It was always other receivers in the league and what they were doing. Obviously there was Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and those guys, so it was kind of hard not to speak about those guys. You never heard Eric Martin complain about anything. He just went out there and took care of business. He was there week in and week out. That kind of showed me (that) you don't have to worry about what everybody thinks on the outside as long as the guys in the locker room understand your role and knows what you're doing, then everything will be all right. I took that with me. I just loved to watch him play. I felt like he was exciting. Even though growing up I didn't consider myself a receiver, he was one of the guys who really made me want to be one. I watched him a lot. I emulated him a lot as a kid. Me and my friends in Marrero had to pick an offensive guy and a defensive guy. I was Eric Martin and Pat Swilling. My buddy, Robert, he was Rickey Jackson and Dalton Hilliard. Another friend was Frank Warren and (Craig) 'Ironhead' Heyward. We all had our guys. Just growing up and watching those guys, it always was a good feeling."
Wayne went on to a four-year career at Miami, where he started 42 games and set the then school record for receptions (173), while his 20 touchdowns placed him with Lamar Thomas and Michael Irvin as the only Hurricanes at that time with 20 career scoring receptions.
Appearing in bowl games is a near-annual rite for Miami, and Wayne played in the Sugar Bowl against Florida following his senior year. It was his first-ever game in the Superdome. He had three receptions for 49 yards. He did not score.
Wayne was the top draft choice for Indianapolis in 2001. A preseason game in New Orleans in 2002 gave Wayne his second crack at playing inside the domed stadium. The regular season game in 2003 was the third chance to play in his hometown.
Statistics in preseason games do not count, but Wayne scored on four- and seven-yard receptions in 2002. Occurrences he remembers to this day and they count, if only for him.
"If the preseason counts (then I've scored there)," said Wayne. "If you don't count the preseason, then no (I haven't). It would be great to get that one under my belt. Just to get in that end zone back at home (would be great). You want to score every time you're out there, but you definitely want to score when you're home."
Wayne has visited plenty of other NFL sites on multiple occasions. The Superdome is not one of them. When asked if the novelty of going home has worn off, he is certain the feeling still is strong.
"Not necessarily," said Wayne. "You always like to go home and play. This is my third time going back home. The first time was a preseason game (2002), then we played a regular season (game in 2003). In my 11 years, this is my third time. You don't get the chance to go back home often. Whenever you do, you're excited. About going home, I will be pumped up about it until we arrive at the stadium. Once we arrive at the stadium, it's business as usual.
"I still have my friends, all my family's still there, for the most part…I will kick it with them a little bit, just talk about non-football (things). It's always good whenever you're going to the '504' (the New Orleans area code). (You) just kick your feet up and talk about the good, old times."
Wayne purchased 50 tickets for Sunday's game after estimating, "I could have easily been in the hundreds." He will have family and friends in attendance, and it was family and other occasions that have drawn him to the stadium much more often than for football games in which he was a participant. There are events other than NFL games that caused him to darken the doorway more frequently. He would like to visit a certain area on Sunday.
"I went to quite a few Bayou Classic games, Grambling versus Southern. My mom and dad graduated from Grambling. Both my brothers went to Southern. Other than that, not very many times, a Sugar Bowl in college," said Wayne of his rare visits to the Superdome. "Those are all memories that you always remember. I went to a couple of Essence Festivals in the Superdome. I've been there. I can tell you where everything is. I just need to tell you where the end zone is. That's the next mission."