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"Music was always his passion," says Wes. "All through growing up, he was always about playing in those little bars and little places, trying to get noticed. We always had some place to go on Friday nights."
"I always say I'd play music even if there was nobody in the building," Graham muses. "Well, I'm pretty sure Wes would play football if there was nobody in the stands."
The ability to see where his space will open up, and the instinct to move just far enough and at just the right moment, have done more than keep Welker in the Pro Bowl. They have also helped keep him alive and ambulatory. His size makes him not only a target for the NFL's most prominent torpedoes but also something of an example in a league that has been forced to take its vestigial conscience out for a walk.
In 2008, for example, in a game against Pittsburgh, Welker went down the field and slanted in toward the middle. Matt Cassel's pass sailed past him. Welker took two more steps, and then Steelers safety Ryan Clark made him disappear. It wasn't until the TV broadcasters ran the play in slow motion—and they ran it more than once, God knows—that the full violence of the impact became apparent. Clark, who was flagged for unnecessary roughness, hit Welker with his helmet somewhere between Welker's collarbone and his right ear. Welker's feet kept going forward, but his upper torso went sharply backward in a demonstration of what might be called Zapruder physics.
Back in Oklahoma City, Welker's parents, who say a prayer for his safety before every game, were horrified. "My mom stood up in the house and started crying," says Lee.
"That was the one," recalls Leland, "that really made me sick."
Welker hit the turf, his head bounced, and he came nearly all the way up to a sitting position before falling back down on the ground. But then he got up and made it to the sideline. It was exactly the kind of hit for which the NFL has ostentatiously laid down heavy fines this season, having found that the public has tumbled to the fact that professional football turns young men into old men at a considerably accelerated pace, and from the inside out. Still, Welker says, "I don't feel [the game] has changed all that much. People might be more conscious about not leading with their helmet and trying to take someone's head off, but people are still going to try to make strong, clean, physical hits."
For Shelley Welker, "It's hard to watch sometimes. It's a scary sport. But he's doing what he loves, so I have to be happy."
Which makes it not a little ironic that last season Welker suffered the most serious injury of his career on a play in which no one was within three yards of him. It was Jan. 3, 2010, at Houston; the Patriots had already clinched the AFC East title, and the game had no bearing on the playoffs. Welker ran a route in the first quarter. He had created the space around himself to make his 123rd reception of the year, a new franchise record. He was nearly alone, trying to make a cut after the catch, when the turf at Reliant Stadium, which was apparently laid down with library paste, gave way beneath him. Welker's left knee detonated. He tore both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. He left the field and sat alone on the New England bench with a towel over his face, like a child who believes that if he can't see the world, the world can't see him. Eventually he was carted into the locker room, head still draped. "They left him alone so he could call us," says Shelley. "Neither of us could console him."
Welker didn't stay in seclusion, though. He threw himself into a rehabilitation program in California with Alex Guerrero, the physical trainer with whom Brady had worked to overcome his own severe knee injury two years earlier. "It was just about every day," Welker says. "Sometimes we'd take Sundays off, and even then we'd do something for maintenance—massages, things like that. It was weights. It was bands. It was everything. Not only lifting and agility-type stuff, but doing some routes too."