Despite divergent paths, Fitzgerald, Welker forever linked by 2004 draft
DENVER -- It’ll be 10 years ago next month, 10 years since the diminutive, undrafted nobody found himself walking just a few paces behind this colossus of a man, the definition of a somebody. On Nov. 7, 2004, at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, Wes Welker took in the phenomenon that was and still is Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who’d been picked third in the previous spring’s NFL draft while Welker had sat through all seven rounds without hearing his name. Fitzgerald, who’d go on to earn a Pro Bowl berth after his rookie season while Welker would see his pass without a single reception.
Fitzgerald, who was just so much bigger, so much stronger, who looked every inch, all 6-foot-3 of them, the part. “Look at me,” Welker says now, sizing up his frame, generously listed at 5-9 and 185 pounds. “I wouldn’t draft me, either. Walking behind Larry Fitzgerald [that day], I was thinking, ‘Holy crap. This guy’s a specimen.’ That dude is big. It’s kind of funny to see him and myself, completely different paths.”
Of the 31 receivers selected in the 2004 NFL draft -- which set a record for the most receivers picked in the first round, with seven -- only Fitzgerald and Jerricho Cotchery (the 108th pick) were on active rosters for games last weekend. Welker and Malcolm Floyd are the only undrafted receivers from that class who remain in the league, and of those four, of the dozens of receivers who debuted that season, two names stand out.
They’re the two who played in Miami that fall day, one awestruck, the other awesome. Welker and Fitzgerald -- they couldn’t be more different, in shape, in skill, in the wrinkles they bring to their respective offenses. And the fact that they’re both still here, on 3-1 teams, among the better receivers in the league -- well, it’s hard to know what that means, if anything. Perhaps their differing paths are a critique of how teams evaluate college players; Peyton Manning said Sunday that Welker going undrafted was a “ha-ha moment for scouting.” (The hundreds of highly drafted players who flame out each year might support that theory.) But it’s more complicated than that, really. It’s about talent, sure, and about being on the right team at the right time, but there’s something else. Their success has been about drive, about focus, about never quite believing the noise, not the criticism and certainly not the hype.
Sunday, in the Broncos’ 41-20 rout of Arizona, Fitzgerald finished the afternoon with three receptions for 57 yards, including a 33-yard catch that set up his team’s second field goal. On seven receptions, Welker had just one more yard than Fitzgerald, but his stat line contained the more impressive asterisk. With 18 seconds remaining in the first half, Manning aimed downfield and found Welker. The five-yard reception, his third of the day, pushed Welker to 850 catches all-time, setting the record for the most receptions by an undrafted player in the history of the NFL.
After Sunday, Welker has 854 receptions over the course of his career, Fitzgerald 859. Only 21 players in NFL history have more.
When Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio played for the Vikings from 1992-95, the team often saw the same ball boy on Sundays. The kid was the son of a local sports writer, physically impressive, and he’d go on to star at the Academy of the Holy Angels in the Twin Cities suburbs. His name was Larry Fitzgerald, and after pouring over his tape for a decade, Del Rio compares him to Cris Carter, a star of those 1990s Vikings teams. “He’s gifted athletically,” Del Rio said, “but he’s really tremendous mentally in how he approaches the game and how he conducts himself and takes care of his body. He’s got hands.”
But even with those skills, Fitzgerald once faltered. After his grades didn’t hold up in high school, when he was a prized recruit, he packed his bags for Valley Forge Military Academy. It was there that Fitzgerald met Mike Muscella, the coach who made him cut the long hair he’s now famous for, who recalls the imposing receiver looking “like a scared little boy.” That year in Pennsylvania, Fitzgerald learned that talent alone wouldn’t determine his success, and though Muscella won’t take credit for Fitzgerald the football player, he’ll cop to helping make the man his former student has become.
“People have asked me, ‘Hey, did you know [how good Fitzgerald would be]?’ Muscella recalled. “You knew Larry was different after he got dressed, watching him walk on the field. … Larry knew there were bigger and better things on the horizon for him. We put the finishing coat on, the polish.”
In 2001, while Fitzgerald toiled at military school, Welker was a sophomore at Texas Tech, where he played receiver and returned both punts and kicks. He was just a kid from Oklahoma, one with parents who pinched their pennies to send him to private school and certainly couldn’t hook him up with ball boy duties on Sundays. There wasn’t even an NFL team in Welker’s home state, and when his career as a Red Raider ended, he was snubbed and left without an invite to the NFL combine. Draft day passed, and San Diego called with a free-agent offer. That got him through Week 1 of the 2004 season, after which he was cut, but again, the phone rang. Miami wanted Welker on their 53-man roster, and it was there that he first faced Fitzgerald, who -- in the time that Welker had missed out on the combine, missed out on the draft, and played for two teams -- had simply moved to Arizona and assumed his role.
“I didn’t picture it being this way,” Welker said of his career. And how could he have? This way has meant beating the longest odds. But then he pauses. “But that’s why you play the game.”
“Obviously you have to have ability first and foremost,” Welker added. “But at the end of the day, it’s your mentality, how you approach each and every day, how you practice, what you do in your off time to get ready. All those things play a big part, and then when you get out there on the field, you have that attitude that you’re not going to be stopped.”
Line Welker up next to Fitzgerald, and it’s almost laughable that the two play the same position. Their roles on their respective offenses differ greatly, but it’s that attitude that unites them, that prompts Arizona coach Bruce Arians to say that having Fitzgerald as a Cardinal is “like having Peyton [Manning] come into your locker room.” Arians knows full well the scope of that compliment; he was Manning’s quarterbacks coach for the first three seasons of his career.
Football is funny, how it ages these men who are barely 10 years past their college careers. Fitzgerald turned 31 in August. Welker is 33. They are young men, relatively speaking, at least when compared to the thousands of mere mortals who filled the seats at Sports Authority Field on Sunday. But in the context of the sport that’s come to define them, they’re senior statesmen, bordering on old. Fitzgerald’s contract situation has been a sore subject in Arizona -- he has a $23.6 million salary cap hit in 2015 without the production to justify it -- and when Cardinals brass speak about what they can do to alleviate the issue, they talk about wanting the receiver to retire a Cardinal, whenever that might be. Welker, too, has heard the R-word, most recently after he suffered a concussion against Houston in August, his third such injury in less than a year. He’s back, of course, but with his deal in Denver expiring at the end of 2014, it’s hard to say what the future holds.
On Sunday, neither member of the 2004 rookie class could claim to be the best receiver in Denver. Welker got a game ball thanks to his record, but it was Demaryius Thomas who set tongues a-wagging with his 226 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Julius Thomas caught Manning’s 500th touchdown pass, and for Arizona, it was Andre Ellington who cracked triple-digits with 112 receiving yards. The next generation of great receivers has captivated the hearts of fans and fantasy owners alike, and yet Fitzgerald and Welker remain. They represent the first and the forsaken from a decade-ago draft known more for swapped quarterbacks than anything else, and yet one man has become the identity of the only team he’s known, the other an integral part of the NFL’s best offense.
They are the underdog and the superhero, and they’ve gotten to know each other over the years. They text occasionally and exchange words whenever they play. Sunday was no different. Another game, a couple dozen more yards, same as it’s been since 2004. Same as it’ll be next Sunday, and the one after -- except there are more Sundays behind than ahead, and the next time these two shake hands, it just may be in Canton.