Tribune Star Correspondent
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 be playing his final game in a Colts uniform this afternoon 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 leaders 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 today's home game might 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.”
He admits that the possibility of today's game being his final appearance in Lucas Oil Stadium with the Colts hasn't completely sunk in yet.
“I guess maybe a little bit when I get [to the stadium]. You really don’t know. This could be it. We’ll see what happens for me and my career later and what they decide to do. Those are all business decisions for both of us. But yeah, I think the later in your career, the older you get and especially when your contract is what it is, you have to sit there and say, ‘Hey this might be it, man.’ Just take in as much as you can take in," Freeney said, adding that battling a nagging ankle injury during a contract year hasn't been easy.
“I’m going to leave that with those guys. I think for me, all I can do is to perform and play. I’ve been a guy that’s played regardless. I think I was supposed to be out four weeks. I’m back in two. They said I’m supposed to be back in six. I’m back in two. I just go out and do what I’m supposed to do and give it my all. If management wants to recognize that and say, ‘Hey we are going to keep you around regardless,’ that’s their decision. I’m sure they will do right by me and factor in everything. When it’s time to make that decision, they will.”
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, who 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.