No Doubt About It|
Welker's 672 receptions (2007-12) are the most in NFL history during a six-year span
Sept. 12, 2013
by Nick Kosmider
The four men who form the nucleus of the NFL's next great offense are standing in a loosely constructed circle, atop the freshly manicured grass of the Denver Broncos' practice facility in Englewood, Colo.
The tallest man in the group, the one still gesturing directions even during a break in a scorching training camp session, like a mad scientist always on the edge of a seismic breakthrough, is a sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback named Peyton Manning.
To his left stands Demaryius Thomas, whose breathtaking catch-and-run touchdown two seasons ago gave the Broncos an improbable playoff victory over the Steelers, and whose stock as a superstar-in-the-making has only risen with Manning throwing him passes.
The three of these men, with their average build of about 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, would look like football players even to those who had never seen a football player.
What about the fourth guy, you ask? What about the one standing directly in front Manning and who is close to a foot shorter than the quarterback?
The aforementioned folks who have never actually seen the fourth guy play football may be surprised to hear that he might just be the most important figure of all in the Broncos' quest to win a world championship this season.
Football fans, though, are plenty aware of what Wes Welker brings to the table. They've seen him catch more passes over the last five years than any other player in the game, seen him conquer the seemingly insurmountable odds typically applied to an undrafted, underappreciated and under-the-radar player.
Yes, football fans - along with the men who play and coach the game - now know exactly what Wes Welker is: one of the best playing the sport today.
But those who played with Welker at Texas Tech, who saw his underdog story begin to take shape, have one question: What took everyone so long to figure it out?
`Never been around a football player that good'
For most undrafted players, the quest to play even one down in the NFL is an uphill battle. Actually, it's more like an up-Everest battle. Each season, the league begins with 1,696 players on active rosters. And every April, roughly 224 new players are drafted into the league to compete with all those returning players for the next round of roster spots.
Do the math. There isn't exactly a ton of room for proverbial walk-ons.
But if you take those microscopic odds and divide them twice over, you have Welker, one of a select few players who have turned draft-day disappointment into superstardom.
For his part, Welker never seemed to interest in the logic of it all, once telling a reporter from USA Today, "Just because I'm undersized and under-this and under-that, I've still been a good football player since I was little." Just how good?
"I had never been around a football player that good," says Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, a close friend and former teammate to the 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver.
"I told my agent at the time, told people in the NFL, `Hey, I don't know if you're going to draft this kid or not, but he's the best football player I've ever been around.'"
Kingsbury said Welker had already earned a nickname after his first day of practice as a freshman, dubbed "The Natural" by Art Briles, the team's wide receivers coach at the time.
In just his fourth college game, The Natural returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown against Louisiana-Lafayette. Five games later Welker did it again, taking a punt back 66 yards for a touchdown in a 45-39 win against Kansas.
Those two plays laid the foundation for what would be one of the best special-teams careers the college game has seen, even to this day. Welker finished his career with eight punt returns for touchdowns, still tied for the NCAA record.
"He was unbelievable on special teams," says Mickey Peters, who played wide receiver alongside Welker at Tech. "What helped him out was the way he was able to move his hips so easily. He was able to slip his way in and out of traffic."
He was also fearless.
One thing the Red Raiders could count on was never seeing The Natural waving his hand in the air as a booted ball dropped from the stratosphere.
"He never fair caught it," Kingsbury said. "Everybody in the stadium was chanting his name, and they knew he could make it happen at any moment."
Work hard, play hard
It didn't take long for Mike Smith to take a liking to the small-town kid from Oklahoma. Smith, Tech's co-defensive coordinator, arrived at Tech as a linebacker the same summer as Welker, and the two became fast friends.
"Both of our families didn't have a lot growing up," Smith says. "We were the same type of person, just working hard. ... Whatever you do, if you don't stop working and you outwork the person next to you, you're going to be successful."
It's no surprise, then, that Welker has built a reputation as one of the hardest-working men in the NFL. Smith noted Welker's return from an anterior cruciate ligament tear in five months in 2010 - an injury with which the recovery time is often closer to a year - as a testament to the work he puts in to remain on the field.
Welker simply doesn't share the same definition of offseason as other players, telling Sports Illustrated in a recent interview: "Guys will play basketball with their boys and think that's their workout for the day. That's not a workout. I wish they gave us more time off, to be honest. This is where I gain on other players."
But don't be fooled. Welker's gladiator work ethic doesn't prohibit him from having a good time with the game he loves. In the same magazine interview, Welker told a story of his attempts to prank Manning, convincing the quarterback that the cover shoot with the four men was going to be done shirtless. Manning panicked and the receivers shared a good laugh.
Smith laughs, too, when recalling pranks he and Welker orchestrated that would make the Manning jig look like small potatoes. Like the time the two went to a pet store and bought a pair of hairless rats that would strike fear into the team's running backs more than any hard-charging linebacker ever could.
"We threw them in the meeting room, locked the door and turned the lights out," Smith says. "Everyone is screaming."
"It was pretty classic," Kingsbury adds. "Seeing these big guys standing on tables." What Smith, Kingsbury and the rest of Welker's former teammates appreciate most about the superstar receiver is, well, that he doesn't act like a superstar.
"He's still the same person," Smith says. "That just shows you what kind of character and what kind of guy he is."
That Tech brotherhood that surrounded Welker is looking forward to another season of watching their friend turn even more doubters - amazingly, there are still some left - into believers. It's what they've been doing for almost 15 years now.
"It's just been fun," Kingsbury says, "to watch him prove everybody wrong."