Part of genius is realizing that to look is only to begin to see. Someone looks at a block of marble and sees David. Someone else looks at a river and sees a boy and a man on a raft, one white and one black, floating through the purple twilight in a country facing the bargain that allowed it to grow but betrayed its ideals. Someone else looks at an ocean and sees a continent on the other side, real and solid, even though he has yet to step onto its shores. The eyes are the windows to the soul and all that rot, but they are something else as well. They are the engines of imagination. Geniuses see what isn't there but ought to be, damn well should be, inevitably will be. In this, seeing truly is believing.
Wes Welker's eyes are blue-gray and wide. Their gaze is steady, and their focus is like something alive. It misses nothing in a circular field of vision that seems greater than other people's. Welker sees spaces that nobody else sees. He looks at a field where everyone seems to be colliding and sees a place to run. He looks at a game played by much bigger men and sees a place in which a man who stands 5'9" and weighs 185 pounds can create a kind of art. An old friend of his remembers a broken love affair and sees the words of a song, a deep blue tint on every syllable. Wes Welker looks at a noisy, crowded, violent profession and sees a career.
Watch him yourself. You can look at what he does, but you won't see what he's creating, not until after he's made it. Watch him dart 22 yards through the Indianapolis secondary early in a game in November. A linebacker, Pat Angerer, comes up to cover him. Welker is looking at Angerer, but he's seeing the play he's going to make. He dips inside and then breaks outside—sharp, quick moves of no more than a single step. Angerer goes altogether gelatinous. The passing lane, the space that Welker saw even before he left the line of scrimmage, opens up, and Tom Brady delivers the ball. Welker cantilevers a bit in the air and makes the catch for a touchdown.
"I came off the line, and Tom saw that I had a linebacker," Welker says later, reversing the terms of the football argument. Usually it's a defender who says he has somebody. Welker's art has its own syntax. "Tom saw what I was doing," Welker concludes, "and he just put the ball there."
He looked at football and saw in it things that nobody else saw—such as Wes Welker. He came out of high school as the Oklahoma player of the year and couldn't get a Division I scholarship offer. He finally got an 11th-hour call from Texas Tech and so prospered in the mad-scientist spread offense devised by coach Mike Leach that Leach redesigned the position of slot receiver to suit Welker's abilities. By the time Welker left, in 2004, he'd caught 259 passes for 3,069 yards, both school records.
He wasn't even invited to the NFL combine that year. He was judged too short, too slow, his gaudy numbers a mere product of Leach's offense. He went undrafted, but he was invited to the Chargers' training camp and got cut three days after the first game of the 2004 season. San Diego offered him a job on its practice squad. Welker turned it down and signed with the Dolphins instead. He saw a space in Miami where he could pull off the plays he'd always seen himself making.
Despite the fact that the Dolphins never settled on a quarterback, Welker's ability to see holes in defenses and turn eight-yard catches into 12-yard gains was noticed, particularly by the Patriots, who simply couldn't cover him. He tormented Brady and New England coach Bill Belichick until they decided they'd rather have Welker playing for them than unraveling the seams of Belichick's elaborate defensive tapestries. In 2007 New England traded a second- and a seventh-round pick for Welker.
In his first season with the Patriots he caught a league-high 112 passes for 1,175 yards and developed an intensely symbiotic communication with Brady. As Randy Moss drew double coverage deep, Welker looked at the middle of the field and saw a limitless vista of slant routes and turn-ins and square-outs. He and Brady exploited them all. "He'll talk to me—on the sidelines it'll be, 'Hey, Tommy, this looks good to me' or 'I like this route here,'" Brady says. "He's usually right too."
Welker laughs and says, "I was always like that. In college you'd see Coach Leach kind of pondering, and I'd be over here signaling him. He'd call a play, and I'd say, 'Why don't we call 94-H?' H was my position."
In 2007 New England broke offensive records from hell to breakfast on its way to a 16--0 regular season. Welker continued to prosper over the next two seasons. He had 111 catches in '08, and last year he finished with a league-leading 123—second most for a single season in NFL history. Welker's three-year total of 346 receptions from 2007 to '09 stands second only to Marvin Harrison's 354 catches from 2000 to '02. On Sunday, in the Patriots' 36--7 victory in the snow in Chicago, Welker had eight catches for 115 yards, raising his totals to 80 and 787 for the season. With 20 more catches in his final three games, he would become only the second player, after Harrison, with four straight seasons of 100 catches. Thanks in no small part to him, New England is 11--2, tied with Atlanta for the best record in the league.