Undrafted out of college, dumped by the Chargers and given away by the Dolphins, Wes Welker has been the Patriots' sure thing
Posted: Tuesday January 29, 2008 9:14AM; Updated: Tuesday January 29, 2008 9:14AM
The room was packed with football players, young ones with a million questions and veterans with no doubts. It was Texas Tech's first team meeting of 2000, and coach Mike Leach was doing a sociological study. From behind the podium Leach watched his newcomers size one another up -- the walk-ons, the high school track stars and the big-name recruits who once owned the spotlight on Friday nights. Standing in the middle of them all, a head shorter than most, was a freshman receiver from Oklahoma City named Wesley Welker. Leach met his gaze and couldn't help but hold it. "If you've seen that Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, Wes was like the chicken hawk," Leach recalls. "He was shorter than everybody, one of those barrel-chested guys with thick ankles. I was thinking, This fella is pretty sure of himself. He had this steely-eyed stare, this look that said, I can whip all their asses."
This season, one NFL defensive back after another has recognized that look at the line of scrimmage, along with its aftermath: the 5' 9", 185-pound Welker darting across the field, finding the soft spot in a zone and turning a short completion into a back-breaking gain, often as the hot read when quarterback Tom Brady was feeling pressure. On a Patriots offense flush with talent, Welker is its most unlikely playmaker, an undrafted, undersized player who developed into someone coach Bill Belichick just had to have.
While there were signs in training camp that Welker might thrive playing alongside wideouts Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth, no one could have forecast his 112 catches and countless key blocks -- except Belichick. Welker had tormented the coach as a receiver, a returner, a special teams tackler and even an emergency kicker for the Dolphins from 2004 through '06, when Miami went 3-3 against New England. "We couldn't defend him, we couldn't cover him," Belichick says. "And a lot of other teams had the same problem." Last March, when the Pats acquired Welker for a second- and a seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft, New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs quietly celebrated that he didn't have to cover him on Sundays anymore. "I [still] face him at practice," Hobbs says, "but nobody sees that."
Welker's coaches at Heritage Hall High couldn't slow him either, no matter how hard they blew their whistles. He treated every drill as a mission statement. During sprints Welker would sometimes dive across the finish line, just to ensure that he was first. "We were always worried he was going to break a rib," says Rod Warner, who coached Welker at Heritage Hall and is now the school's athletic director. "He was like, 'Coach, I wanted to win.' "
On Friday nights Welker stayed on the field for almost every snap. He lined up at tailback, receiver and free safety, returned kicks, kicked off and booted field goals and extra points. A familiar sight was Welker sprinting into the end zone, then trying to catch his breath before attempting the point after. "Right before the snap, he'd tip up his face mask and throw up," Warner says. "It was like it was no big deal."
Says Welker, "You're nervous before games, especially at that age. You're excited to play, you hadn't eaten anything, it's hot out, and next thing you know, you're throwing up. But whenever I threw up, I knew I was going to have a good game."