ANDERSON, In. — Was it a dropped pass? Difficult to say. Darrius Heyward-Bey had no right to be under that football, overthrown down the left sideline on Wednesday afternoon at Colts training camp. His undisputed track-star speed got him there, but his out-stretched fingers failed him. The crowd sighed. Right or wrong, reporters penned one more check in the drop column. Heyward-Bey frets not.
“I was surprised I even caught up to it,” he says after practice. “I dug, and I didn’t think I was going to get it, but I just threw my hands out there, hoping it would stick. Everybody was just surprised I got to it.”
Heyward-Bey prefers the big picture, overlooking a drop or two, and the media scrutiny that comes with each miscue. He remembers his four rough-and-tumble seasons in Oakland, and one of the few men whose opinion he valued. It was Jan. 2, 2010, when Al Davis phoned his first-round draft pick of the previous April with child-like excitement in his voice. The Raiders were 5-10 at the time, the ink not yet dry on a seventh consecutive losing season, and the 80-year-old team owner had begun to turn his focus to next year. Then, a realization: The Raiders would play against the AFC South next season, meaning they’d get a shot at the Indianapolis Colts, led by Peyton Manning, the game’s preeminent passer.
So Heyward-Bey got an unexpected call from his boss, the man who bucked popular opinion in drafting the University of Maryland wide receiver—previously thought unworthy of such a lofty selection—seventh overall in 2009. He had invested a large chunk of cash in the 22-year-old ($23.5 million guaranteed over five seasons) and wanted to share with the rookie who hadn’t caught more than two passes in a game all season his plans of sticking it to the great Peyton Manning in front of, hopefully, a primetime audience.
“He cared about his players a lot, and me and him had a very close relationship,” Heyward-Bey remembers. “This time he was just telling me how excited he was for the season, and for the fact that we were going to play Peyton Manning.
“He talked about that for like 30 minutes. About the Colts and Peyton Manning. He was like, We get a chance to play one of the best. That was cool, just hearing him get pumped up for that.”
Heyward-Bey is a member of Manning’s team now—only it isn’t Manning’s team anymore. . As Heyward-Bey knew when he embarked on free agency, the Colts belong to Andrew Luck, the second-year quarterback and No. 1 overall pick who helped deliver a playoff appearance as a rookie.
“The way he demands the offense to have a high tempo, you don’t want to disappoint him,” Heyward-Bey says of Luck. “When you have a quarterback who doesn’t have that presence, nobody else cares.”
When Heyward-Bey arrived in Oakland, Jamarcus Russell was the starting quarterback, and the man ahead of him on the wide receiver depth chart, Chaz Schilens, had a grand total of 15 career catches.
“I came in as a rookie with no veteran to learn from,” he says. “It was me. There was no easing into it. I was thrown into the fire.”
The breaks in his routes were sloppy, the routes themselves inconsistent, and worse, his hands were awful. He dropped more than 35% of the balls headed his way as a rookie. But as Oakland’s cast of new quarterbacks and coaches rolled through (seven QBs, three head coaches and four offensive coordinators in Heyward-Bey’s four years there) his reception numbers climbed and his drops diminished. He dropped 8% of the passes headed his way in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus, lower than the league average for the first time in his career.
Then, a regression in 2012, preceded by an April DUI and punctuated by one violent collision with Steelers safety Ryan Mundy during the third game of the season. Heyward-Bey’s chin met the crown of Mundy’s helmet on a deep middle route at the goal line, and the receiver blacked out completely. He was hospitalized for a night with a concussion but returned to the field three weeks later, in his words, unworried.
All things considered, it’s no surprise the Colts are reserving judgment on Heyward-Bey, in the form of a one-year deal. He’s now in a position battle for the No. 2 receiver job with T.Y. Hilton after the departure of free agent Donnie Avery. Essentially, the Colts swapped a slight speedster with iffy hands (Avery is 5-11, 200 pounds) for a larger speedster with iffy hands (Heyward-Bey: 6-2, 216). Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has already commented publicly on those hands, calling for more consistency. If this chance doesn’t pan out, there’s no telling where Heyward-Bey will end up next. But he refuses to view 2013 as an audition.
“I don’t even look at this opportunity as a long-term chance or an audition for another team,” he says. “I just look at it like, hey, this year is this year. Of course, I would love to have a job at the end of this year.”
One of Heyward-Bey’s new teammates can tell him what a shot in the arm a change of scenery can mean. Colts cornerback Vontae Davis knew Heyward-Bey when they were a pair of the fastest high-schoolers in the Washington, D.C., area as seniors. Both were high draft picks four years later, Davis going 18 picks after Heyward-Bey at No. 25 to the Dolphins. Neither completed his rookie contract with the team that drafted him, and neither played in a playoff game until Davis joined the Colts last season, when the jumped from 2-14 in 2011 to 11-5.
“With Darrius, it’s just like me,” Davis says. “I went to Miami, and that didn’t work out as well as I wanted it to. Coming on a team and getting that first playoff experience? It gives you a wake up call that when you put your full commitment in football, it can take you anywhere and anything can happen.”
Heyward-Bey will move on from the sting of an ultimately unsuccessful first NFL stop, if he hasn’t already, but he’s unlikely to ditch all of the memories. There’s still a raspy voice in his head, that of an earnest old man loathe to give up hope.
Says Heyward-Bey of Davis: “Until he died, he just kept on telling me how proud he was that I was getting better, and never be discouraged, and I never was, and never will be.”