Yet, between the painted lines, the ones that signify the transformation between a lawn and a football playground, it’s all the same for Welker. His work ethic has always been incredibly intense, and it’s wowed his teammates and coaches through every step of his journey, from the powerhouse program at Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma City all the way to the NFL’s model franchise in New England.
It’s been for the better, as his teammates at each level have raised their games to follow his lead, and his counterparts in the NFL have compared Welker’s passion at practice to some of the best players in the league at nearly every position. And, if possible, it’s been for the worse, as Welker was actually called out for going too hard at Pro Bowl practice, which is comical criticism.
It would, however, be a mistake to think Welker’s success — an NFL-record four 110-catch seasons, a league-high 122 receptions in 2011, four Pro Bowls selections, to name a few — derives solely from the practice field. Yet, that’s where his work begins. Welker has been counted out so many times that he doesn’t understand the purpose of downshifting gears. The next second he lets up would be the first.
There was a classic scene during Welker’s rookie season in 2004 when he was at training camp with the Chargers, and it’s a sight that no one had ever seen happen anywhere else. Welker got fed up about not getting any reps at practice, so he took it upon himself to learn the plays in his own way. He’d hover behind the huddle, listen to the play call, walk 20 yards in the opposite direction and run the route by himself behind the play.
Everyone took notice — how could you not? — and eventually, the coaching staff gave Welker a chance to run those plays with some actual teammates. Welker was impressive and made the team out of training camp. For a week. He was released after the regular-season opener when the Chargers claimed safety Clinton Hart off waivers.
“I liked Wes a lot,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Obviously, we hoped that he was going to be here a long time. It didn’t happen.”
It still stings Welker. But every time he’s counted out, he proves another person wrong.
‘We Like Him, But…’
Rod Warner awoke on signing day in 1999, which signified the conclusion of one of the most frustrating stretches in his 39 years as a football coach. Warner went to his office at Heritage Hall High School for a last-ditch effort to lock down a scholarship for his prized player, and sent out 105 faxes to Division I programs to let them know Welker was still very much available.
It was a maddening process for the head coach who had seen Welker accomplish just about everything imaginable during a high school football career. In four seasons, Welker had 3,235 rushing yards, 2,551 receiving yards, 90 total touchdowns, 22 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries and set the school’s tackling record. He also set a record with a 57-yard field goal and kicked a 42-yard, game-winning field goal in a playoff game.
There were a number of times when Welker would make a series of plays, which would be capped off by a touchdown — a rushing score, an interception return, a punt return, you name it — and he’d have to stay on the field to kick the extra point. As everyone lined up, Welker would take a step back, lift up his helmet and puke before driving the ball through the uprights.
“He never came off the field, and he never wanted to come off the field,” Warner said.
Welker’s talent actually created some hilarious exchanges, Warner noted. Heritage Hall was on the right side of a lot of blowouts, many of which were in hand in the second quarter, and Warner wanted to make sure they could still run some offensive plays, just to get the work in. So Warner would tell Welker to fair catch a punt out of fear that he’d just return another one for a touchdown. Welker hated the idea every time, so Warner would have to threaten to bench him for a series, and Warner recalled times when the two would be arguing with each other about the fair catch while the punt was still in the air.
Warner knew exactly what he had in Welker, but it was maddening to no end that college coaches refused to see the same thing. Welker’s strong reputation made it so everyone needed to scout him, but the Division I coaches couldn’t get past his size. They saw him make play after play, but they just couldn’t get excited about a 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame with about 4.5-speed.
And then there were the camps, which were key in the recruiting process. The problem with those, though, was they played into the talents of the track stars. The helmets and the hitting took a backseat to the 40-yard dashes and games of two-hand touch. Welker’s greatest talents as a ball carrier were his vision, anticipation and explosion through the hole, and the latter was the result of lateral quickness and awareness in space to break tackles. That stuff can’t happen in two-hand touch.
That was the mistake — they ignored his football ability because they weren’t thrilled about him when his pads were off.
“It always frustrated me,” Warner said. “It always frustrated me when coaches would come in and look at him, and they would watch film and say, ‘Yeah, but I just wish he was 6-foot, or I wish he was a little taller.’ They’d say, ‘Well, if he’s going to run that [speed], he needs to be 6-foot-2,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ Look at the film. He catches the pass or he returns the punt, and nobody catches him. How fast does he have to be?
“It was just frustrating for guys to come in here, and they would just ‘Ooh and ah,’ and ‘Oh, my gosh, look at that play, and look at that play. Well, we’re not going to offer him [a scholarship].’ It was frustrating. At that point, it was like, what would it take?
“[Coaches] would kick the tires, and then they’d say maybe they could find somebody a little taller or a little bit faster, and then they wouldn’t offer him [a scholarship]. And that’s what really frustrated him, and his parents, and myself and our staff. They just wouldn’t commit to him and believe in him, and he’s had that problem his whole life. People just look at him and say, ‘Really, you’re an NFL player? Are you kidding me?'”
Welker never got a scholarship on signing day, but of Warner’s 105 faxes, he got one lead from an old friend who was at Texas Tech, which believed it was about to lose one of its commitments.
But in case things didn’t work out with Texas Tech, Warner broached the idea to Welker of signing with a Division II school, which could lead to something more promising down the road. Welker hated the logic and was convinced he could walk on somewhere — Oklahoma State was an option — and eventually make the team. But D-II? Might as well have been a four-letter word.
It never got to that, though. Texas Tech lost its player and invited Welker to work out the week after signing day. After the session, former Red Raiders head coach Mike Leach was finally convinced enough to offer him a scholarship. Leach, currently the Washington State head coach, had plenty of experience while scouting Welker, so that final workout was basically a formality.
“It was kind of tough to pull the trigger,” Leach said. “When you watch his film, [Welker made] one play after the next. He’s not real tall. He’s not real fast. But he’d make play after play after play, and you’d say, ‘Boy, that’s a great play. If only he was bigger. Wow, what a great play. If only he was faster. Wow, he’s a great high school football player. Oh, there’s another one [somewhere else]. Well, he’s real productive. If only he was bigger and faster. Well, look at this, but I don’t know if he can make the transition.'”
It took one team meeting for Leach to recognize something was different about Welker. Every year, Texas Tech would introduce its freshmen by standing them in front of the upperclassmen and having them each say their name, hometown and position, among other things. Welker stood out in more ways than one.
“The biggest foreshadowing of [Welker’s success] would be the first meeting when we had the freshmen in there,” Leach said. “We’ve got these guys who are all-state, all-conference, they look like Greek gods. Some of them have really good track times. Then you have Wes Welker sitting there who is shorter than all of them. Some of those other guys are looking down, there’s a certain amount of doubt in their eye. They’re not sure. They’re a little overwhelmed by college. This guy has his head high, this glare and look in his eye, total confidence. And just reading his face, you could tell there was no doubt in his mind that he was better than all of these guys. He was literally fearless and confident.”
Welker was the starting punt returner and a backup receiver in his first game as a freshman, but he was the Red Raiders’ featured slot receiver by the third game of his career. And the success never trailed off, as he set school records with 259 career receptions, 3,069 yards and 21 touchdowns, and he set NCAA records with 1,761 punt return yards and eight touchdowns. Welker also rushed for 559 yards and one score.
He was so good at everything he did, both on and off the field, that everyone in the program called him “The Natural,” a nickname Welker still redeems. There were the stories about him on the basketball court and in a one-arm pull-up contest that rivaled his highlights on game days.
But after four years, the questions from the next level reemerged. Texas Tech’s air-raid offense was conducive to some big-time stats, but Welker really started to emerge as a quality receiver during his time in Lubbock. What he lacked in straight-line speed, he made up for with his first three steps, which were as quick and explosive as anyone’s.
Welker also began learning how to set up his routes. He can run one route four, five, six different ways, but he’s always in position to catch the pass at the exact second when the quarterback wants to deliver the ball. Aside from that level of athleticism, it makes him more difficult to defend because of his unpredictability in the eyes of an opponent.
Still, he wasn’t very highly regarded through the draft process. It was all of the typical stuff about his size and speed, but in 2004, spread offenses that relied on slot receivers weren’t as prevalent as they’ve become in 2011, which also reduced the market for Welker’s services. Leach’s coaching staff was split over Welker’s potential in the 2004 draft.
“I didn’t think he’d get drafted,” Leach said. “I thought if he got the right situation, he would make it, and he would excel. Then, once he made it, I thought he would excel, and he’s done all of those things. I’m not prepared to say I was sure he’d be All-Pro.”
Remember Warner’s notion about playing Division II football? Yeah, well, Welker had the same type of response when Warner went over his potential avenues if things didn’t work out in the NFL.
“He just looked at me,” Warner recalled, “and said, ‘Coach, it will work out. I will make it work out. I am going to play in the NFL, and that’s it.’ So there was never, for him, a Plan B. He never envisioned himself playing anywhere but the NFL, and he was going to make it happen no matter what it took.”
Leach recognized the same attitude.
“It’s almost like [Welker] expected it. I don’t think he was really that surprised he didn’t get drafted,” Leach said. “He expected to make it and be a professional football player, but I don’t think he was even that shocked that he didn’t get drafted because he’s always had a pretty realistic view. There was no doubt in his mind he could whip all of those guys, realistic or otherwise. Now, evidently, it’s pretty realistic. I think he’s come to expect it. Keep in mind, starting with high school and college and the rest, he’s kind of used to that routine.”
‘Biggest Mistake Ever Made’
Marty Schottenheimer, the first NFL head coach to give Welker a chance, had an opportunity to catch up with the wide receiver in November prior to the Patriots’ Week 10 victory against the Jets. As Welker’s story has unfolded, Schottenheimer has also become known as the only NFL head coach to cut the slot receiver.
Don’t think it doesn’t still haunt him.
“I walked over,” Schottenheimer said, “and said to him, and this is the truth, I said, ‘Of all the players I’ve been involved in releasing, the decision to release you was the biggest mistake ever made that at least involved myself.’ He kind of chuckled about it. Obviously, he’s been a tremendous, tremendous performer. He’s a classic example of great things coming in small packages.
“Every time I think of Wes, the first thought that comes to my mind is, ‘I’m not very smart.'”
Welker watched the 2004 draft at home with his family and Warner, and when it concluded, he received a number of calls from teams that were interested in signing him as a free agent. Welker ultimately chose the Chargers and, by all accounts, had a great training camp, especially once he was called to run plays with the offense.
But Schottenheimer said the Chargers had a series of injuries and needed to shuffle the bottom of the roster to field enough players in Week 2, which led to the transaction he’ll never live down. The Chargers claimed Hart off waivers from the Eagles and released Welker, who was flat-out ticked about getting cut after such a strong summer.
Schottenheimer wanted to add Welker to the practice squad, but Welker had no interest in returning to the team that he felt spurned by. Plus, the Dolphins offered him more money and a bigger opportunity to work his way up the depth chart.
“If we could look into the future as it were, we would have hoped that he would have been a part of Chargers history,” Schottenheimer said. “But that’s 20-20 hindsight. If you’d ask me if I could do it all over again, would we have [cut Welker]? Absolutely not.
“Of all the people I was involved in letting go — and I can’t really remember many others — but I can guarantee you one guy I will never forget is Wes Welker. He has a unique ability.”
The Dolphins, too, gave up on Welker in 2007, but the circumstances were different. He was a restricted free agent who drew serious interest from the Patriots, who would have had to surrender a second-round draft pick to sign him. But the Patriots knew the Dolphins had the rights to match the contract and retain him, while the Dolphins were equally fearful the Patriots would bowl him over with a contract they weren’t financially prepared to match.
It was a gamble for both sides, so they compromised with a trade. New England forked over a second- and seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft to land Welker, whose career was set to skyrocket. The Dolphins, meanwhile, used the picks to draft center Samson Satele, who had two very good seasons before getting traded to the Raiders, and defensive end Abraham Wright, who never panned out.
History of Regret
Welker has a lifetime of experience in proving people wrong. Just look at the 104 faxes that weren’t returned to Warner, or the 255 draft picks in 2004 that were used on other players, including 32 wide receivers (aside from Larry Fitzgerald, there isn’t another wideout from the class who is anywhere near Welker’s echelon).
The next step in Welker’s career will unfold in the coming months, as the 30-year-old is in position to earn the most significant payday of his life when his contract expires after this season. The Patriots could use the franchise tag to pay Welker about $9 million in 2012, or they could work out a long-term extension that could pay him an estimated $10 million per season, which would be a reward for grossly outplaying his $2.15 million base salary this season.
Welker, a Pro Bowler for the fourth consecutive season, just led the NFL in receptions for the third time in the last five years, and he was on fire all season. After tearing his ACL in the 2009 regular-season finale, Welker clearly wasn’t back to full strength in 2010, but those close to him said he worked out harder than ever last offseason with his contract year in mind. He was undoubtedly motivated by it.
Welker wanted to prove two things — that the knee injury wasn’t going to derail his career, and that he deserved this upcoming contract. With career highs of 1,569 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, Welker accomplished both goals.
Yet the contract has never been a distraction this season. Numerous teammates say Welker hasn’t ever brought it up, and he doesn’t discuss it with the media much, either, simply noting he wants to remain in New England and will let his agent handle the business dealings.
That type of professionalism is admirable in this era, especially with Welker, who has proven to be indispensable to the Patriots’ offense. Then again, Welker has been forced to learn one hard football lesson after another, so he’s become numb to the doubters. At this point, Welker has grown to know things will work out in his favor, both on the field and in the negotiating room.
He’s too small? Too slow? The knee? He’s 30? Those aren’t Welker’s problems. They belong to everyone else.
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