Commentary

Once a role player, Patriots' Wes Welker now a budding star

Updated: January 28, 2008, 12:57 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

wes welkerRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesWes Welker's 112 catches are the most in NFL history by a player in his first year with a new team.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- She went to her bedroom and cried that night, not because of what the man said but because she knew the whole world was wrong. One hundred and five faxes, 104 "no"s, and it was about to end there, on a harsh winter day, when Wes Welker sat at a long table at the University of Tulsa. All he wanted was a scholarship.

If you sign Wes, his mama said, you won't be sorry. If you sign Wes, he'll change your program. The coach turned to Shelley Welker and sized up her 5-foot-9 son.

"Well, my mother would like me to be head coach of the Dallas Cowboys," Keith Burns told her. "But that isn't going to happen."

This is not a story about a little man playing on the world's biggest stage. That's too cliché. It is about doors. The glass front door at the Welker home is open late Wednesday afternoon, and Wes' chocolate Lab, Nash, is lounging in the backyard. It is not a coincidence that he named the dog after Suns point guard Steve Nash, who also happens to knock around in a 180-pound body.

It is not a surprise that everyone in the Welker home has a problem sitting still. Every five minutes or so, Leland, Wes' dad, stands up and asks his guests whether they need anything to drink. He's got Coke, Coke Zero, diet, milk, water. Are you sure you don't want to try the Coke Zero?

He finally sits back down and eyes a magazine on the table that has Welker's stubbled, GQ face on the cover. It's almost too East Coast for Wes.

"It's been hard for us to talk," Leland says in a soft Oklahoma twang. "I feel like we're bragging about our kids. I hope I'm not coming across as overbearing."

[+] EnlargeLeland and Shelly Welker
Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN.comShelley and Leland Welker, at home with a portrait of Wes.
They'd prefer to be low-key because that's the way Welker has been throughout his career. It's impossible now. Nine years after college football shunned him, four years after the Chargers cut him, Welker is a mega star headed for the Super Bowl with New England.

He is a perfect fit, finally, in a world that measures itself with tapes, scales and 40-yard dashes. He is a big reason the Patriots are 18-0 and flirting with NFL history.

And none of it would have happened if Welker had accepted one no.

"We tried to teach that, to run after your dreams, don't let people tell you no," Shelley says.

"That's why it's such a great story. When one door would close, another one would open."


A car door opened, and Wes Welker eyeballed his first challenge. He was 2, maybe 3 days old and meeting his big brother, Lee, for the first time. Lee raised his 4-year-old fingers and pinched Wes in the nose. Hard.

"You can't do that!" Shelley said.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Welker FamilyWelker, at the age of 4, had a bunny named "Thumper."
Lee was just tweaking him, which became sort of a childhood hobby. Big boy kicks little boy's butt in soccer. Little boy gets clobbered in football. Big boy's mom asks him to go easy.

"Are you kidding me?" Lee says. "I would never, never let him win. And he had to get used to it. Either he was going to have to quit playing the sport of football or soccer or whatever he happened to be playing that day, or he had to get better and tougher."

Lee was actually the tame one in the family. Wes was 2½ when he climbed his first tree and sat on the roof until Leland pulled in from work. Incredible balance, unlimited energy. "Hell on wheels from the get-go," Leland says.

When Welker reached high school at Heritage Hall, a private college prep school that oozes manners, he was both exasperating and entertaining. He'd play offense, defense and special teams in practice, then dive to the line on wind sprints because no sir, he was not going to be beat.

He'd vomit at least every other week during a game. Coach Rod Warner still has it on film. See Wes run 50 yards for a touchdown, charge back onto the field to kick the extra point, then turn and ask for a minute so he can throw up on the 10-yard line.

"It wasn't nerves," Warner says. "He just pushed his body so hard.

"The people in the stands would just start applauding. He gave it all every single drill, every sprint, every play."

He became a legend in the red Oklahoma clay. Before Welker, Heritage Hall had just one 10-win season in 30 years. It has averaged 11 wins a year since. Welker led them to a state championship as a junior and scored 24 points a game as a senior … in football.

And when he was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year, his followers assumed he was headed for the big time. They didn't know prototypes. Being 5-9 was one thing. Being 5-9 with a 4.55 40-yard dash is enough to make you recruiting repellent.

[+] EnlargeRod Warner
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comRod Warner, Welker's high school coach in Oklahoma City, still calls or texts him at least once a week.
The weekend before letter-of-intent day, Warner sent out 105 faxes. "This kid is still available," he said, "if anyone is interested."

He called Tommy McVay, an old friend who was working at Texas Tech.

"Tommy, he's the best player I've ever coached."

Everybody says that, McVay said.

But Tech coach Mike Leach, a spread-offense guru known around Big 12 circles as the mad scientist, tried to open his mind as he popped in the video.

"You go through the internal debate the whole time," Leach says. "Wow, he's just a little too small, ooh, he's a little too slow … oh, he plays both sides of the ball?"

Welker flew to Lubbock after signing day while Leland and Shelley followed by car. Something felt right, she'd say. Like Wes was meant to be there.

Within weeks after school started, the Tech coaches were calling Welker "The Natural."

"Everybody," Leach says, "seemed to feel like he could do anything."


As Welker's numbers exploded and the legend grew, people outside of Lubbock, Texas, wanted to know more about his will. He didn't get his tenacity as the son of an oil-rig worker whose family ate when it could. His dad was an engineer for Southwestern Bell.

He never was one for much introspection. Wasn't much time for it. But he could flip from game-day serious to prankster, leaving fake dog poo at shopping malls just to watch people laugh.

"I remember when they brought him in, he was 5-7 and very unassuming," says former Red Raiders quarterback Kliff Kingsbury. "I thought he looked like a frat guy. We're offering this kid a scholarship? Definitely on looks, he didn't pass the test. But on the field, he was an unbelievable kid."

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Welker FamilyWelker, with his brother Lee and parents Leland and Shelley in 2001, was a last-minute signee for Texas Tech.
Within a few months, Welker was in the starting lineup as a true freshman. In four years, he caught 259 passes for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns. His eight career punt-return touchdowns still tie an NCAA record. He played most of his senior year with turf toe, an injury so painful Welker hobbled around campus in a protective boot on the off days.

Nobody, it seemed, could get a hard shot on him. Part of it had to do with his size and a low center of gravity. Much of it had to do with his shiftiness. Although Leach considers hailing the merits of soccer as sacrilege, he figures Welker got his coordination, horizontal movement and vision from the round version of football.

Welker figured heavily into every opponents' scouting report, and when he graduated from Texas Tech in 3½ years with a business degree, he was certain he was headed to the NFL.

The NFL combine came, and Welker wasn't invited. In hindsight, his supporters say, maybe that was better. They couldn't put a tape and a stopwatch to him. Forty freaking yard dashes? In football, who runs in a straight line, anyway?

But the Welkers held two days of draft parties in 2004, and the house grew silent when the final pick was named.

If this doesn't work out, Warner told him, there are other …

"Don't even go there, Coach," Welker told Warner. "I'm going to make it in the NFL. There's no other option."


The Chargers kept him through training camp, and Welker thought that meant he was safe. They cut him after the first game. One friend says Welker is "massively pissed off" at San Diego to this day, although Welker has never publicly suggested that.

[+] Enlargewes welker
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins gave Welker a chance after the Chargers cut him.
He quickly moved on to Miami, and a month later, Welker became just the second player in NFL history to return a kickoff and a punt, kick a field goal and an extra point, and make a tackle in one game. He did it against the Patriots and a coach who just happens to love that kind of throwback versatility. The Patriots churned on; the Dolphins continued their stumble.

Few people noticed that Welker was evolving into a go-to receiver. He led the Dolphins with 67 catches in 2006. The Super Bowl was held in Miami a few months later, and Warner went to South Beach that week to hang with Welker.

They sat at breakfast, the Monday after the Colts beat Chicago, and Welker asked whether his coach ever wanted to go to another Super Bowl.

"Wes, the next Super Bowl I'll go to is the one you're playing in," Warner said.

That might be a while in Miami, Welker said.

Two months later, Warner's cell phone rang at 1 a.m. Welker had just been traded to the Patriots.

"You know that conversation we had at the Super Bowl?" Welker asked Warner.

"Did you ever think it might be this year?"


He is so perfect here, in the land of no-nonsense. Men with stern faces walk around with purpose, as if they're headed to the bank to open an IRA … minutes after they've won a playoff game. Welker quickly dresses after New England beats San Diego, the team that never gave him a chance, and heads for the door without talking to the media.

By Week 6, when the Patriots prepared for a superhyped game against Dallas, it was obvious that Welker, 26, was immersed in his surroundings. He'd gotten a text message from his brother, Lee. Big game coming up, huh? Wes texted back: They're all big.

Wes, the family joked, was turning into Bill Belichick.

A sampling of some recent Welker "sound bites":

When you did you feel you belonged in the NFL, Wes?

"I guess once I made the team."

What do you say about the Giants calling you guys a dirty team?

[+] Enlargewes welker
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWelker is one of the smallest players on the roster, but his size is no limitation.
"It's their opinion about it, and we can only control what we can control."

But it's not so odd that an undersized frat boy from Oklahoma and a man who is viewed as one of the stuffiest coaches in the NFL could be kindred spirits. Belichick wants a team full of role players. Welker fought half his life just for a role.

And while defenses keyed on stopping Randy Moss, the 6-foot-4 superstar receiver whose offseason signing overshadowed all other arrivals, Welker had a franchise-record 112 catches.

"Perfect place, the perfect situation for him," says veteran running back Kevin Faulk. "I told him when he first got here that he couldn't have come to an offense that was better for him, that fits his ability and what he does as a receiver."


A whiff of hamburger grease fills the aisles at the Nichols Hills pharmacy just before closing time, and Jay Black is about to cut the lights. His dad started the business in 1963, and it seems time, in this patch of a strip mall, has frozen there. Past the miniature metal stools and the retro napkin holders is a soda fountain and a rack of Groucho Marx DVDs for $2.99.

Welker used to ride his bike here as a kid, load up on hamburgers and chili, and charge the food to his parents. All the little kids did it. When big Wes comes back now, he'll order his $3.50 hamburger and have the same ladies behind the same counter bill it to his dad. The Welkers get a kick out of that.

"It wasn't really a big deal when he was coming in here," Black says. "We knew he was a good ballplayer. But he didn't necessarily stick out over the rest of the kids."

In this suddenly perfect world, he doesn't need to. They pray for him a few blocks up the road, in the Welker home, that he'll be safe among 300-pounders and 6-foot-3 burners who belong in the league.

Here, they always believed Wes belonged, too.

"It was all part of God's plan, and we know that," Shelley says. "It worked out just like it was supposed to."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.