INDIANAPOLIS – The return from a career-threatening neck injury began with T.Y. Hilton strolling into Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday morning wearing a Michael Jordan 45 jersey.
“I came back like Jordan when he came back wearing the 4-5,’’ Hilton said, quoting the Jay-Z song, ‘Encore’. “It ain’t to play games with you.’’
The return from a career-threatening neck injury began with T.Y. Hilton strolling into Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday morning wearing a Michael Jordan 45 jersey.
“Like Jordan when he came back wearing the 4-5,’’ Hilton said, his mind flashing back to 1995 when Jordan returned to the NBA wearing a 45 jersey rather than his customary 23.
It picked up steam as the Indianapolis Colts offense was announced during pregame introductions and – to the surprise of no one – Hilton was the last to spring out of the tunnel.
The ovation was deafening, even with the roof and window open.
Hilton responded by gesturing to the lathered-up crowd.
It was re-kindled on the Colts’ first offensive play in what would be a 31-3 get-well blowout of the Houston Texans. Carson Wentz pivoted to his right and connected with Hilton with a 12-yard completion.
It had Welcome back, T.Y. written all over it.
No doubt that was on line 1 of the game plan, confirmed Wentz.
By game’s end, Hilton had exploited the Texans – heard that before, right? – for four catches and 80 yards, including a textbook 52-yard hookup on a deep post in the second quarter.
Wentz threw to a spot. Hilton got there.
“With Carson, you’ve gotta run,’’ Hilton said with a broad smile. “If you don’t run, you’re not going to catch up to the ball.’’
Hilton’s fourth catch of the game was a 10-yarder in the fourth quarter, and he injured his quadriceps while diving for extra yardage.
“Yeah, I just grabbed it a little bit,’’ he said. “I’ll be all right.’’
For all the game-long electricity radiating from Hilton and the welcomed dusting of the Texans, the root of it all probably could be traced to Saturday morning’s walkthrough at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
As practice ended, Frank Reich asked Hilton to address the team.
Reich has been part of countless inspirational talks during his three-plus decades in the NFL as a player and coach, and probably has given a few as a coach and ordained minister.
Hilton apparently took it to another level.
“I’ve never forget. I don’t think anybody will ever forget what was said Saturday morning,’’ Reich said. “It was special . . . giving it a way that only T.Y. can do it.
“He is our leader. He’s one of our key leaders and just love him in every way.’’
Hilton smiled when Reich’s critique was relayed to him.
“When T.Y. speaks,’’ he said with a toothy grin, “pretty much everybody listens.
“I just spoke from the heart.’’
Wentz insisted “it definitely gave me goosebumps, gave me some chills. I think everybody felt that. Definitely was very impactful for a lot of us to see just his heart and his emotion and even felt that today.
“Felt that today with him out there and guys kind of rallied around him and everything, so it was pretty cool.’’
It hadn’t been that long ago that energizing the crowd and lifting the Colts were the furthest thing on Hilton’s mind. He had just had surgery in late August to repair the C-6 in his neck – the disc was pressing on a nerve and robbing him of sensation on his left side – and the thought of retirement had crept in.
He decided to press on and return for a 10th year. He was cleared to practice last week and added to the active roster.
Saturday morning, everything flowed out with unbridled passion.
“I just spoke from the heart and a lot of guys felt that,’’ Hilton said. “Just telling them what I’ve been through, what I was going through.
“Everybody’s been through something, man, but what I went through was just crazy. For me to come back here . . . I just poured out my heart to them and they felt that and fed off that energy.’’
Hilton is the longest-tenured Colt – a 2012 second-round draft pick – and has emerged as an undeniable fan favorite. He was a free agent for the first time in his career at the end of last season, but re-upped with Indy for a one-year, $8 million deal. He turned down a more lucrative offer from the Baltimore Ravens.
“It was a little emotional running out of the tunnel,’’ Hilton admitted. “Just hearing those fans, man, makes it all worth it. Then being in the locker room with these guys, this group of men, is unbelievable.
“Just the energy and the juice that I bring to them. At the end of the day, they just feed off my energy. Me being out there brings so much smiles, so much enthusiasm to this team. I just mean to much to them. I’m just glad I did it.’’
As Hilton said, players tend to listen when he stands in front of the room or in the middle of a post-practice huddle.
Jonathan Taylor was all ears.
“You’ve got a guy who’s been around,’’ he said. “He’s seen some of the greats. He’s been mentored by some of the greats, and he is one of the greats.
“When someone like that speaks, you listen. You’d be foolish not to.’’
Taylor mentioned the emotional tone of Hilton’s talk.
“You could see the passion and the emotion that he had from the time he missed and he was really, really, really excited to get back.
“Just having him back, that’s something that we missed. We just missed having T.Y. around, let alone him making those plays on the field.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.