- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- He could maneuver beyond almost anything, brushing away slights with the same ease that he shook off NFL defenders.
Wes Welker not only welcomed contact, he craved it. He didn't just embrace challenges, he invented his own, like the time in high school when he attempted an onside kick without informing his coach. Welker not only lofted the ball the allotted 10 yards, he also sprinted down and recovered it. As everyone in the stadium lauded Heritage Hall coach Rod Warner for his courageous call in the midst of a one-touchdown game, he looked incredulously at Welker and mumbled, "If you're going to do that, could you at least fill me in next time?"
Welker was fearless, a trait honed as an 8-year-old kid when he was torpedoed off a trampoline into the neighbor's yard by his older brother Lee and his friends, who were four and five years older and habitually tortured the little boy they nicknamed "Wuss."
Occasionally when they double-bounced him, Wes would clear the neighbor's fence in midair; other times, he'd fall painfully short. The goal, always, was to propel Wes into the neighbor's pool, which lay beyond the fence, some landscaping and a concrete path.
"We never did get him in that pool," said Clay Moss, one of Welker's tormentors. "I guess we're fortunate nothing went really wrong. I'm not sure we recognized the word 'resilient' at that age, but we knew no matter what we did to him, Wes would always come back for more."
Welker returns to the postseason Sunday when the Patriots host the New York Jets. It is a triumphant comeback for a player who returned from a career-threatening injury with astonishing swiftness and has mastered the art of disproving skeptics and shattering misnomers.
"It's bizarre how he continues to defy the odds," said his brother Lee. "He has such a strong, unshakable belief in himself you really shouldn't doubt him."
Despite leading Heritage Hall to a Class 2A Oklahoma state championship and compiling 3,235 career rushing yards, 2,551 career receiving yards and 90 touchdowns, not one major college program offered Wes Welker a scholarship before the official signing day.
Tulsa invited him for a visit, encouraged him to try on one of its shiny new helmets, then reversed direction the following morning after it signed another bigger, stronger, faster recruit, dismissing Welker vaguely with, "We'll get back to you."
He wound up at Texas Tech, breaking receiving records and earning the nickname "The Natural" for his multifaceted contributions, and still he was left off the guest list for the NFL combine. Nobody drafted him.
Eventually he signed with the Miami Dolphins and racked up more all-purpose yards in his first three years in the league than anyone in NFL history except for Gale Sayers. He was a Patriot killer, scalding New England with big plays, including a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown.
The Dolphins rewarded Welker by offering him an underwhelming one-year deal worth $1.35 million.
Tom Brady studied Welker on film, went to vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and asked, "When is this guy's contract up? He's our kind of player."
New England scooped him up in 2007 for the price of one second-round draft pick and one seventh-round draft pick. Brady discovered his new target was both meticulous and free-spirited, one of the most creative practical jokers in the locker room.
"No one works harder than Wes," Brady declared. "And no one has more fun than Wes. Trust me."
The connection between Welker and Brady was so strong it wasn't unusual for the two to exchange glances at the line of scrimmage and audible the exact same play. Other times, Wes hollered a read to his quarterback, and Brady dismissed him with a diatribe of unprintable words.
Welker didn't flinch. Never has. Not after the biggest hits or the most crushing disappointments.
In his first year with New England, Welker set two records: a franchise mark for receptions and the most spot-on imitation of the franchise quarterback, including the proper "hand on hip" pose and string of expletives that are rarely (if ever) exhibited when Brady is at the podium.
"He's been around me too long," Brady confirmed. "He's nailed my quirkiness."
Welker was Superman. That's what his buddies back in Oklahoma City concluded. Old "Wuss" was an NFL star, hanging with Brady, a fixture at the Pro Bowl.
He could sidestep anything -- except for what happened on Jan. 3, 2010, at Reliant Stadium in Houston, in a meaningless regular-season finale. He ran a simple slant pattern, turned to cut and his knee exploded like a pinata that met the barrel of a Louisville Slugger.
On the sideline, Welker shrouded his face with a towel to conceal his tears. No one had touched him.
"First off I was thinking, 'What's wrong with me?'" Welker said. "I knew, but I didn't want to believe it."
The anterior cruciate ligament and the medial collateral ligament were torn. He was done for the day, the season and maybe, just maybe, forever.
He called his parents from the locker room because he knew they'd be watching, worrying. Leland and Shelley Welker answered the phone, with brother Lee nearby. Their second son, the comedy king, the unflappable overachiever, broke down and wept.
"He was crying out of control," Leland Welker said. "Just devastated."
For two days, Wes Welker slumped on the couch, propped his leg up and ate boxes of Oreo cookies while media experts delivered sober epitaphs. He heard them say he would not play for a year. He heard them say he'd never be the same.
He had a visitor, and it was Tom Brady, who was almost a year and a half removed from his own ACL tear.
"You'll be back," Brady told Welker. "I'll help you."
After one more day, Welker sat up and tossed the last box of Oreos into the trash. It was time to circle Week 1 on the calendar, to have the surgery, begin the rehab, get on with all of it.
"I had made up my mind," Welker said. "I was coming back for the first game whether [the knee] was ready or not."
Leland Welker was relieved when he finally saw his son. He recognized the look. He saw it for the first time when Wes was 4 years old, playing soccer, chasing the ball from cone to cone like all the other little boys until one of his teammates scored a goal. The moms who coached Wes' team hugged the little boy, the kids high-fived him and the parents all cheered.
"At that moment, it was like this little light went on," his father reported. "It was Wes saying, 'Oh, so that's what you want me to do!'"
Little Wes tracked down the ball, stroked it with his foot and made a beeline for the center between those cones. The other boys trailed in helpless pursuit.
"OK," Leland said to his wife. "Here we go."
Persistence -- and pranks
When Wes Welker was 9 years old, he scored 16 goals in a soccer game -- against an undefeated team. He and Lee excelled in tournaments all over the nation, but the best competition was in the driveway of their Oklahoma City home, where the brothers played ruthless one-on-one games that inevitably ended up with them throwing haymakers at one another.
When Clay Moss and the rest of Lee's gang came over, they played brutal indoor games of soccer and basketball, with hockey checks into an adjacent wooden storage area that were not only legal but encouraged.
"Mostly it was all against all," Moss said, "but once in a while it was, 'Give Wes the ball and destroy him.'"
Welker loved his brother and revered his friends, but they were not immune to his pranks. Lee and Wes shared a bedroom, and once after playing basketball all day in the rain, Welker took his soggy, smelly socks and placed them inside Lee's pillowcase. All night long, his brother tossed and turned, trying to locate the rancid smell. He washed his hands, changed his shirt, kicked the dog off the bed, but the odor persisted, all while his little brother giggled in the twin bed next to him.
Welker converted his soccer knowledge into football skills. He created space for himself on the field, understood angles and, of course, could kick the ball.
He nailed a 57-yard field goal for Heritage Hall, longer than the career best of Patriots Pro Bowl kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
"I will say I had a strong Oklahoma wind behind me," Welker conceded.
Once Welker lined up for a field goal and his holder, Paul Long, received a bad snap and frantically tried to corral the errant ball.
"I hadn't even put it on the tee yet and he kicked it out of my hands," Long said.
The kick was good. The legend grew. Welker and quarterback Graham Colton both had such a command of the game they routinely called audibles at the line of scrimmage that resulted in touchdowns.
Welker gleefully sent freshmen up the ladder to the equipment loft for phantom items just before practice, then removed the ladder, leaving them stranded.
"The kids respected him so much," Warner said. "I'd pull him aside and tell him, 'Now I'm going to jump all over you in a minute. You haven't done anything wrong, but I need these other guys to work harder.' He understood his teammates would think, 'Geez, if Coach will yell at Wes like that, I have to take it up a notch.'"
Welker was in on every play -- offense, defense, kickoff returns, punt returns. He went so hard he often vomited on the field in between series. Long recalled one occasion when Welker returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown, then sprinted back to kick the extra point.
"We were about to snap the ball when he turned and threw up," Long said. "We had to move the spot a couple of inches. He was definitely a puker."
Pushing through pain
In the spring of 2010, barely three months removed from knee reconstruction surgery, Wes Welker was in California hunched over, on the verge of vomiting.
He was ecstatic.
Alex Guerrero, the man who oversaw Brady's recovery, was pushing Welker through the pain and the doubt.
Back in Oklahoma, his family fretted that Wes was pushing too hard, that his expectations were unrealistic. In May, Welker's girlfriend sent the Welkers a video from the West Coast of Welker in a harness fashioned by Guerrero, running full speed on the beach. He also made a series of mild cuts.
"OK!" Leland Welker exulted. "Here we go."
The Welkers flew out to visit on July 4 weekend. They observed their son's workout with Brady, which included a cornucopia of cones and bands and medicine balls of all sizes. The grueling conditioning session lasted an hour and a half. When Welker and Brady were finished, their bodies were drenched in sweat.
After lunch Brady and Welker were back at it, this time on an empty field at USC, where they ran hundreds of routes. After another hour and a half, they came over and talked with the folks a bit.
"I thought they were done, but they ran full speed 50-yard dashes, a half-speed 50, then another full-speed 50," Leland Welker said. "They did that 17 times."
By the time the NFL season started, no one was surprised any longer that Wes Welker was in uniform. The Week 1 goal had been met, even though it will be some time before Superman has regained all his powers.
"There was some hesitation, especially early on, when I tried to make the same move I made that day [in Houston]," Welker said. "I didn't have full confidence in it. But every day, week and month, that's gone away."
Deion Branch, another ACL survivor, said the knee is never the same -- only different.
"That's true," Welker said. "You learn to use your wits about you. You understand that maybe the extra yard isn't worth it."
It is a huge and necessary concession, to take care of your body without sacrificing any aggressiveness. That is the new mantra for a guy who has known only one speed his entire life -- warp speed.
Focused on and off field
Wes Welker's reckless abandon was a necessary evil. Without it, he might never have played college football and would not be wearing an NFL jersey.
There were plenty of college letters that came. Leland Welker saved them all in a thick, overflowing binder: USC, Florida State, Oklahoma State. But when it came time to actually recruit Welker, none of the big schools came calling.
The Welkers waited and hoped. One day the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, "Hi, I'm Bobby Bowden," but it was really Lee, calling from upstairs.
Coach Warner sent tapes across the country, imploring schools to look at Welker's unique skill set. Texas Tech coach Mike Leach was intrigued, but wondered about Welker's lack of size, speed and strength.
"We almost missed him, too," Leach said.
The Texas Tech coaches were split. Leach wanted to give the kid a shot. So did running backs coach Art Briles.
"To me, it was a no-brainer," Briles said. "On tape you watched him move from Point A to Point B with so much confidence, effort and intensity. He could do it all."
When Lenny Walls opted to attend Boston College instead of Tech, Welker was in. The Natural ran back an 80-yard punt against Texas A&M and broke one against Texas in Lubbock.
"Best practice player I've ever seen," said Briles, now the head coach at Baylor. "He doesn't take a step on the field unless it's full speed."
Welker set school records in catches (259) and yards (3,069), but the gaudy numbers don't tell the whole story. What impressed Leach most was Welker's ability to adapt and his grasp of the game's nuances.
"He was really good at communicating on the sidelines," Leach said. "I could say to him, 'Is this open?' and he'd tell me, 'No, but I can get this.' It is so valuable to have someone who can shed light on what is going to happen when you snap the ball."
Welker brought that skill set with him to the Patriots in March 2007. He joined the offseason program, worked harder than anyone on the field and played harder than most when the day ended. A snapshot of Welker enjoying the nightlife appeared in a local gossip column, and the following morning he was summoned to coach Bill Belichick's office.
"You haven't caught a pass, you haven't returned a punt, you haven't done anything," Belichick informed him. "Cool it."
"I got the message," Welker said. "I just didn't understand about things like the Inside Track," a Boston newspaper's gossip page.
But what Belichick didn't understand was focus and commitment would never be an issue with Welker. Branch prided himself on the copious notes he took in the Patriots' team meetings -- until he sat next to Welker and realized his playbook was even more detailed.
That preparation enabled Welker to develop the same chemistry with backup quarterback Matt Cassel when Brady went down with his ACL injury in 2008. Cassel and Welker became great friends and partners in prankster crime.
Now that Cassel is in Kansas City, the weekly digs are delivered across the country. When Welker had a couple of drops, Cassel was merciless. And when Cassel threw a pick, he knew a phone barb would be waiting.
"Put Wes, Matt and Larry Izzo in a room, and they are 'The Three Stooges,'" Brady said.
Izzo is gone now too, but he left with three Super Bowl rings. Welker doesn't have any. It's the final challenge that would mean everything. If not for an improbable David Tyree catch and Asante Samuel drop, he'd have one already. Welker tied a Super Bowl record with 11 receptions for 109 yards against the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, but those stats mean nothing.
"I don't think of that game too often," Welker said, "but when I do, it's just a reminder that we've got to do everything we can to take advantage if we get in that situation again."
For a moment, his eyes are gone, locked in elsewhere, and then you realize it's that look, the one he got when he scored 16 goals, ran a punt back 80 yards, torpedoed over a fence without an ounce of trepidation.
The look says it all: OK. Here we go.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
Knee surgery, naysayers, DBs -- it seems none can slow down Wes Welker.