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."
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."
"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
dominated in high school, scoring 90 touchdowns and kicking a 57-yard field
goal—he also played soccer at Heritage Hall—most Division I scouts saw short
arms, a small frame and an average 40 time. Tulsa almost gave him a
scholarship, but the coaching staff chose to sign a faster receiver instead.
"I told him, 'You might want to consider a smaller college,' but he wasn't
having any of it," says Welker's father, Leland. "He said, 'If I can't
play Division I football, I don't want to play.' He always wanted to play with
the best, against the best."
changed after several Texas Tech assistants persuaded Leach to watch a game
tape. Leach saw the same physical shortcomings that scared away other programs,
but there were signs that he couldn't ignore. "The film was very
dramatic," Leach says. "I'm watching it, and I'm like, 'If only he was
bigger.' Then he'd make a play. 'If only he was faster.' He'd make another
play. 'If only he had longer arms.' He'd make another play. He was one of the
most competitive people I've met, could focus longer than anyone I've met, and
he took advantage of every moment he had."
In Leach's spread
offense, Welker had little trouble finding holes. His anticipation, quick feet
and peripheral vision made him a tough cover, even when everybody in the
stadium knew the ball was coming his way. "As much as it is a sacrilege to
say, I think a lot of that came from soccer," Leach says. "He was
coordinated, and he had great vision out of the corner of his eyes because [in
soccer] you're always looking for an opening or a lane to pass it to your
buddy. If you're carrying a ball, it's even easier to see the holes and run
acknowledges the crossover between the sports. "When you're playing soccer,
you need good eye-to-foot coordination," he says. "You're in no one
position, no stop in play, and you get a feeling of where everybody is in
space. It's the same in football. You feel that spacing, where the defenders
are, and you set yourself between them and sit in that little zone."