THE ROOM waspacked with football players, young ones with a million questions and veteranswith no doubts. It was Texas Tech's first team meeting of 2000, and coach MikeLeach was doing a sociological study. From behind the podium Leach watched hisnewcomers size one another up—the walk-ons, the high school track stars and thebig-name recruits who once owned the spotlight on Friday nights. Standing inthe middle of them all, a head shorter than most, was a freshman receiver fromOklahoma City named Wesley Welker. Leach met his gaze and couldn't help buthold it. "If you've seen that Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, Wes was like thechicken hawk," Leach recalls. "He was shorter than everybody, one ofthose barrel-chested guys with thick ankles. I was thinking, This fella ispretty sure of himself. He had this steely-eyed stare, this look that said, Ican whip all their asses."
This is an article from the Feb. 4, 2008 issue
This season, oneNFL defensive back after another has recognized that look at the line ofscrimmage, along with its aftermath: the 5'9", 185-pound Welker dartingacross the field, finding the soft spot in a zone and turning a shortcompletion into a back-breaking gain, often as the hot read when quarterbackTom Brady was feeling pressure. On a Patriots offense flush with talent, Welkeris its most unlikely playmaker, an undrafted, undersized player who developedinto someone coach Bill Belichick just had to have.
While there weresigns in training camp that Welker might thrive playing alongside wideoutsRandy Moss and Donte' Stallworth, no one could have forecast his 112 catchesand countless key blocks—except Belichick. Welker had tormented the coach as areceiver, a returner, a special teams tackler and even an emergency kicker forthe Dolphins from 2004 through '06, when Miami went 3--3 against New England."We couldn't defend him, we couldn't cover him," Belichick says."And a lot of other teams had the same problem." Last March, when thePats acquired Welker for a second- and a seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft,New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs quietly celebrated that he didn't have tocover him on Sundays anymore. "I [still] face him at practice," Hobbssays, "but nobody sees that."
Welker's coachesat Heritage Hall High couldn't slow him either, no matter how hard they blewtheir whistles. He treated every drill as a mission statement. During sprintsWelker would sometimes dive across the finish line, just to ensure that he wasfirst. "We were always worried he was going to break a rib," says RodWarner, who coached Welker at Heritage Hall and is now the school's athleticdirector. "He was like, 'Coach, I wanted to win.'"
On Friday nightsWelker stayed on the field for almost every snap. He lined up at tailback,receiver and free safety, returned kicks, kicked off and booted field goals andextra points. A familiar sight was Welker sprinting into the end zone, thentrying to catch his breath before attempting the point after. "Right beforethe snap, he'd tip up his face mask and throw up," Warner says. "It waslike it was no big deal."
Says Welker,"You're nervous before games, especially at that age. You're excited toplay, you hadn't eaten anything, it's hot out, and next thing you know, you'rethrowing up. But whenever I threw up, I knew I was going to have a goodgame."
Though Welkerdominated in high school, scoring 90 touchdowns and kicking a 57-yard fieldgoal—he also played soccer at Heritage Hall—most Division I scouts saw shortarms, a small frame and an average 40 time. Tulsa almost gave him ascholarship, but the coaching staff chose to sign a faster receiver instead."I told him, 'You might want to consider a smaller college,' but he wasn'thaving any of it," says Welker's father, Leland. "He said, 'If I can'tplay Division I football, I don't want to play.' He always wanted to play withthe best, against the best."
Welker's prospectschanged after several Texas Tech assistants persuaded Leach to watch a gametape. Leach saw the same physical shortcomings that scared away other programs,but there were signs that he couldn't ignore. "The film was verydramatic," Leach says. "I'm watching it, and I'm like, 'If only he wasbigger.' Then he'd make a play. 'If only he was faster.' He'd make anotherplay. 'If only he had longer arms.' He'd make another play. He was one of themost competitive people I've met, could focus longer than anyone I've met, andhe took advantage of every moment he had."
In Leach's spreadoffense, Welker had little trouble finding holes. His anticipation, quick feetand peripheral vision made him a tough cover, even when everybody in thestadium knew the ball was coming his way. "As much as it is a sacrilege tosay, I think a lot of that came from soccer," Leach says. "He wascoordinated, and he had great vision out of the corner of his eyes because [insoccer] you're always looking for an opening or a lane to pass it to yourbuddy. If you're carrying a ball, it's even easier to see the holes and runthrough them."
Welkeracknowledges the crossover between the sports. "When you're playing soccer,you need good eye-to-foot coordination," he says. "You're in no oneposition, no stop in play, and you get a feeling of where everybody is inspace. It's the same in football. You feel that spacing, where the defendersare, and you set yourself between them and sit in that little zone."
Welker left Techwith school records in catches (259) and receiving yards (3,069). After makingthe San Diego Chargers' roster at the end of training camp in 2004, he soonalternated between elation and impatience. "Every practice was just thesame, trying to get reps whenever I could," he says. "There were days Iwouldn't get one. Maybe they'd throw me in on a blocking play, so I'm out therebusting my butt on blocking, making sure that somehow I show up in thecamera." The Chargers cut him three days after the season opener, and Miamisigned him six days later.
Playing with arevolving door of quarterbacks in Miami, Welker couldn't help but wonder howthings might be better in, say, New England, where the Patriots developedcohesion and welcomed versatility. (Not to mention they had won three SuperBowls.) Since arriving, the 26-year-old Welker has elevated the Pats as areceiver and return man. When Brady senses the Giants' pass rush this Sunday,he will no doubt look for Welker, who in the teams' Dec. 29 meeting had 122yards on 11 receptions, seven of those for first downs. "I guess it's easy[for defenders] to miss him," Brady says. "He can hide in thegrass."
Welker has easilyembraced the Patriots' all-for-one ethos. As the wins and the catches piled upduring the season, his older brother, Lee, knowing the pressure of trying toremain unbeaten, started sending text messages from Oklahoma City. "Biggame this Sunday," Lee wrote one time.
"Just anothergame," Wes texted back.
Lee looked up fromthe cellphone and told the family, "He's starting to sound just likeBelichick."
Says Welker,"On the outside looking in, it was the type of team I always wanted to playfor. When I came here, they didn't care what I ran in the 40 or what my sizewas. They looked at the film, and they saw what they saw. It's finally the daywhere I wasn't passed over."