Wes Welker returns to cheers
Patriots camp attracts 17,000 spectators during the wide receiver's first practices
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Not that it's any revelation at this point, but after a day like Sunday, it is a reminder how Wes Welker has become one of the most revered Patriots players in a short time.
From the moment he walked up the steps to the practice field around 9:30 a.m. to when the day ended at 5:30 p.m. with him circling the fields signing autographs for adoring fans, Welker was treated to nonstop cheers.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Stew MilneWes Welker ran drills at full speed but without contact Sunday.
Officially, Sunday was the fourth day of Patriots training camp, Practices 7 and 8 on the team's itinerary.
Unofficially, it was "Wes Welker Day."
The news broke early, at 9 a.m., when director of player personnel Nick Caserio told reporters that the wide receiver had passed his physical and would practice for the first time in training camp.
Shortly thereafter, Welker arrived at the practice fields and -- in one of those feel-good moments in which fans acknowledge a significant milestone -- his presence was cheered.
"Wes is a unique guy, there is no question about it," Caserio said. "Wes works hard, he's got a good skill set, he does the right things, and I think it's a tribute to him and his work ethic and his competitiveness and his toughness to get back on the field."
It was a credit to Patriots fans for recognizing the moment -- sort of like the Fenway Park crowd which cheers a stellar effort from a Red Sox starting pitcher as he comes off the mound in the eighth inning, knowing that his night is over because his pitch count is too high to come back out for one more.
As the practice unfolded, Welker was cheered every time he got his hands on the ball, even if it was a drill in which there were no defenders. He soaked it all up.
"Any time you've got the fans out here, it definitely adds a little bit of motivation," he said afterward. "You know people are watching, so you want to make sure you are looking good and staying on top of your game."
Welker even played to the crowd. At one point in the afternoon practice, after he caught a pass from quarterback Tom Brady, he turned toward the metal bleachers and raised his arms in the air. The place erupted.
Training camp might be tough, but who said you can't have a little fun?
The reaction was similar to what had unfolded last December against the Carolina Panthers, when Welker was clobbered by safety Charles Godfrey only to spring to his feet and single-handedly energize what had been a lifeless stadium and spark the Patriots to victory.
Moments like those reflect how Welker has developed a strong connection with New England fans that have come to respect his production, relentless approach and Rocky-like knack to keep getting off the mat after absorbing a big hit. It's a big man's game, but that hasn't stopped the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker from producing big results.
This is his latest beat-the-odds chapter, and is part of what made Sunday a bit unique.
There were about 7,000 spectators in attendance for the morning practice and 10,010 were there for the afternoon session. The afternoon crowd is believed to be a Patriots record. While Welker's return isn't the sole reason for the spike in attendance, it couldn't have hurt.
The day ended with Welker taking off his shoulder pads and walking toward the sideline to greet fans and sign autographs. He was getting the rock-star treatment, the cheers growing louder with each step he took in their direction.
It was the perfect exclamation point to "Wes Welker Day."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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