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Yes Welker

Patriot's refusal to take no for answer got him where he is today

Email|Print| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / December 3, 2007

Perhaps on the wind that famously comes sweeping down the plain, voices carry in from a slice of America's heartland where scorching heat may annually yield to chilling cold but a citizenry's genuine warm-heartedness never wavers.

They are voices that tell a story of perseverance and relentlessness, and deliver snapshots of a young man's passion and the small-town legend he authored. And if for years people on the outside refused to listen to their voices and look at their picture, well, that was fine. They had lived the story as it had played out upon football fields throughout Oklahoma, and they knew that sooner or later everyone would know what they believed in their hearts.

Wes Welker is a football player.

You believe it now that he has secured 81 of Tom Brady's passes for 878 yards and seven touchdowns through the Patriots' undefeated stretch of 11 games? You believe it now that he has returned punts and thrown blocks with textbook efficiency? You believe it now that his skill and heart have made you take notice of something other than the fact that he stands 5 feet 9 inches and weighs 185 pounds?

So now you know what they have known for all these many years and why they cherish the man and consider themselves fortunate to have been part of his story.

"Without sounding too corny," said Graham Colton, "his story gives people hope."

Welker's story includes chapters in Lubbock, Texas, where he starred for Texas Tech, a one-game chance in San Diego with the Chargers, then a three-year run in Miami with the Dolphins, before he landed in Foxborough. But the most flavorful part of the story is at the beginning, in his hometown of Oklahoma City, more specifically at Heritage Hall, a private school of 850 students where he walked through the doors as a preschooler and strolled out a legend.

Listen, and they will explain how it happened that way.

* * *

Snapshot:
"He was a machine. I would find myself just watching him in practice," said Rod Warner, Welker's head coach at Heritage Hall. He had known Welker for years. Heck, his wife, Roxanne, had taught him as a third-grader at Heritage Hall, but until he saw him in pads, at practice, in a game situation, well, even in Oklahoma, where natural gas and oil may put food on the table but football puts the beat in the heart, Warner never had seen anything like Welker.

"He would go at it so hard, all the time. He would not only kick off, he would be the first one downfield to make the tackle. He would make a 60- or 70-yard play, handle the extra-point try, tilt his facemask back to throw up, then go out and kick off. He just never quit. I mean, never."

* * *

Leland Welker, like most Oklahoma boys, played football, but when he settled down with Shelley and had two sons, he let them choose their sports. No surprise, they picked football. But so, too, did Lee, the oldest, and Wes, four years younger, like soccer.

"We played a lot of club soccer," said Lee Welker. "I remember an indoor game once, against a good team, too, a championship game. Wes scored 17 goals. He just had a knack for putting the ball in the goal."

Blessed with an uncanny awareness of where everyone was on the field, Wes Welker would dart between and around defenders, moving laterally with a skill that cannot be coached. It also transferred to the football field.

"It's fashionable for football coaches to dump on soccer, but [soccer] teaches great skills," said Mike Leach, Welker's coach at Texas Tech who believes running with a football is similar to dribbling a soccer ball upfield. "You have to have that same vision of the field."

What Wes Welker didn't have by seventh grade was the same passion for soccer he had for football. Of course, by then he was also too small. Or so they said. And too slow. Or so they said.

Warner heard the skeptics, but he always had a good answer: "I don't know how fast he is. All I know is, they can't tackle him or catch him, so I guess he's fast enough."

Welker heard them, too, but always had a better answer: "I just enjoyed playing."

To do so meant competing against boys who were bigger and stronger and faster, but Welker had a doggedness about him that manifested itself in a manner that has stood the test of time: He tried to keep up with an older brother.

In the Welkers' case, it was a simple game of football toss in the driveway, though they turned things up a few notches.

"Actually, we would fire it as hard as we could," said Lee Welker. "The idea was to hold on to the football. But we would fire it so hard that we'd get blisters and our hands were about to bleed. I never let up on him, either, but he never, ever backed down."

* * *

Snapshot:
Numbers, silly-good numbers. That is what Welker had on a high school résumé in the winter of 2000. In his four years at Heritage Hall, Welker had scored 90 touchdowns in an assortment of ways - 53 on the ground, 27 on passes, 7 on punt returns, and 3 on interceptions. For good measure he had added 35 field goals, 165 extra-point kicks, and four 2-point conversions. Use your fingers, toes, and calculator, and you'll get 818 points in 49 games, an average of 16.7 per. Oh, and by the way, as a defensive back he made 190 tackles, had 22 interceptions, and 9 fumble recoveries.

When all the games had been played, Welker had accumulated 8,231 all-purpose yards, or 168 per contest.

Yet, there were no Division 1 offers, at least until Tulsa called.

"I was brand new on the job, but I loved him. I really did," said Keith Burns. Hired as Tulsa's head coach one day, he greeted the Welker family the very next. They had been led to believe the visit was to accept a scholarship offer, but Burns sadly reported things had changed. New on the job, he didn't want to make waves. Another coach wasn't sold on Welker, so Burns, one day into his new job, delivered the jolt.

"They got the player of the year from Tennessee," said Leland Welker. "Funny thing is, he was only 5-7 and 160." Yes, but Carl Scott ran a blistering 40, and that was what appealed to a member of Burns's staff, so a hollow silence fell over the room.

"Really, we were disheartened, all of us. Especially Wes and you hurt for your kids," said Leland Welker, a blue-collar man with a strong Christian demeanor. He didn't get angry. That's not his style. Nor is it his sons'. But Shelley? Bless her heart, she is a mother and mothers never lose that natural instinct to stand up and protect their children. She didn't raise her voice, but she addressed Burns.

"She pretty much told him, 'I promise you, if you give him a scholarship, you will not regret it.' " said Wes Welker. "And he [said], 'Well that's just great to hear you say [that]. My mom thinks I should be head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. But that isn't going to happen.' "

From San Jose State, where he is now an assistant, Burns confirmed the story and offered a laugh.

"What a great lady," he said of Shelley Welker.

And what a great tale, because while Welker never got a chance to help turn around the Tulsa program, Burns has remained a huge fan. "There isn't a day we watch him play that my family and I don't get a laugh out of that [memory]," he said.

* * *

Shelley Welker was great friends with Cindy Colton, so it was only natural their sons, Wes and Graham, would play together as young boys. It wasn't planned that they'd be football teammates and stars of a state championship team at Heritage Hall, nor that they'd go on to rising careers in the NFL and the music worlds, either.

It just happened.

"Yeah, but my success in music is nothing compared to Wes'," said Graham Colton, whose Midwest upbringing comes through vividly with music that makes him one of the rising stars in the entertainment world. A recently released solo album, "Here Right Now," has won critical acclaim and Graham has opened for acts ranging from the Dave Matthews Band to John Mayer to Kelly Clarkson.

"It's hard to believe, isn't it?" said Welker, standing in the solitude of Gillette Stadium before a recent Patriots practice. "Funny thing is, I thought [Colton] would be a better football player than he was a singer. But obviously I'm not a talent scout."

There are reportedly 25 native languages spoken within the state of Oklahoma, but when it comes to sports there is one unified passion, football, its pull a phenomenon that goes back generations. Colton was swept up in it and embraces it all, most especially the sixth-grade memory when the coach of his team had doubts about his best friend joining the team.

"I said, 'Come on, just let him run sprints, at least.' The next game, Wes was starting," said Graham.

What a team they made, too. Colton the big, strong-armed quarterback; Welker the guy who would take handoffs or catch passes or return kicks or boom punts or play defensive back. They went on to play for Warner at Heritage Hall where "we made incredible memories," said Colton, who even then was a student of the written word and heartfelt emotions, an aspiring songwriter with a grasp of the landscape that engulfed his best friend.

Heritage Hall was Division 2A, so with 6A the biggest and most publicized and three others above, it was easy for some to look down on what Warner's teams were accomplishing and be skeptical.

"I was the quarterback of those teams, but he was very much the leader," said Colton. "But no matter what he did, there was always a [sentiment] about Wes that, 'Well, he could never play for us,' and I think he used that to try and prove everyone wrong."

As juniors, Welker and Colton led Heritage Hall to a 15-0 record and a stunning 35-34 state title win over Toshomingo. It capped a season in which Welker ran for 1,228 yards, caught 62 passes, scored 37 touchdowns, converted 8 of 10 field goal tries, and intercepted 10 passes. He had done none of it with blazing speed or mouth-watering size or a showboating style, either.

"You can put height and weight down on paper and you can measure speed," said Colton. "But Wes can go side to side, and you can't clock that. You can't take into account what he has."

It's popular to term them "intangibles," but that is a cop-out. Students of the game and those who have a passion for watching it at the highest level cringe at the word. Scott Pioli, for instance. New England's vice president of player personnel, thinks one can quantify what Welker delivers. He even has a word for it.

"Skills. He's a skilled football player. He's got tremendous quickness, elusiveness, and the great ability to see the field," said Pioli, who was in harmony with coach Bill Belichick when a deal was made with the Dolphins earlier this year. Seeing Welker as a great fit with the Brady-led offense, the Patriots traded second- and seventh-round draft picks to Miami for a player who had established NFL history at their expense in 2004.

In a game long-forgotten by most fans, but not Belichick or Pioli, Welker became the first player in league history to return a punt, return a kickoff, kick a field goal, kick an extra point, and kick off.

Cute and trivial stuff to some, it was pure football joy to those who are able to strip the game of its corporate surroundings and mega-crowds and massive TV appeal and reduce it to its simplest terms. It showed how much Welker wanted to be part of the game. The only thing is, people in Oklahoma didn't need the glare of the NFL spotlight to see that. They saw it years earlier, dirt fields and dim lights notwithstanding.

"We lived the ultimate 'Friday Night Lights' experience," said Colton. "We were very much in our own little small town and Wes was the mayor."

* * *

Snapshot:

The Heritage Hall dream season was coming to an end. The Chargers trailed Davis, 38-31, with 2:03 to play in a 1998 state semifinal game. A fumble recovery gave Heritage Hall hope, but when the ensuing drive arrived at fourth and 5 at the Davis 21, it appeared over, again. Only Welker burst through on a sweep and pushed it to the 1. Davis called timeout to regroup, and Heritage Hall players huddled on the sideline. Thirteen seconds remained.

"We talked about what play to run, knowing it would be difficult to run another play if we didn't get in," said Warner. "Wes steps into the coaches' huddle and says, 'Give me the ball and I will get it into the end zone.' "

Colton handed off to Welker, who scored, then he converted the extra point to tie the game. Next, Welker pulled off a perfect, deep, onside kick that Derek Peek recovered and Davis players were in shock.

"They couldn't stop us," said Zach Womack, the Davis quarterback who established a state playoff record with 438 yards rushing. "But we couldn't stop them - and most of it was Wes."

Taking possession after the onside kick, Colton completed a 10-yard pass, then Welker kicked a 37-yard field goal. "Into a 20-mile-per-hour wind," said Womack, now an assistant strength coach at the University of Illinois. "He's a football player."

Ten points in 13 seconds.

* * *

Disappointed, but undaunted by the Tulsa scholarship incident, Welker took stock of his situation.

"Wes wanted to play Division 1. He wanted to play against the best," said Leland Welker, who didn't deny that he started to wonder if all those critics were right. With so many college rejections, maybe his son's size was a drawback. But if playing 2A was at the root of the problem, well, the retired engineer for Southwestern Bell wasn't going to second-guess that choice.

"It was a huge sacrifice, a huge one," said Leland Welker of the decision to send Lee, then Wes, to Heritage Hall, a private school that they favored because of its spiritual and family values. "We wanted both boys to be safe."

To this day, both boys are thankful, for they say they loved their Heritage Hall days, the friends they met, and the character that was instilled in them. The 2A thing? Well, OK, there were times when Welker wishes that were different, "only because I would have liked for my 2A team to play a 6A team, just to show them that we could compete." But, no, he harbors no regrets, even if he was without any scholarship offers one week into February of 2000, two months after he had concluded his senior season.

Which is where Leach entered the picture, albeit by happenstance. A couple of his assistants had recommended he look at film of Welker, so he did.

"I'm watching film and I find myself saying, 'Gee, what a great play. If only he were bigger.' Or, 'Gee, what a great player. If only he were faster,' " said Leach, who can't remember which game film jumped out at him. It might have been that one against Davis, or maybe it was the one against St. Mary's, when Welker carried seven times for 154 yards, and scored five touchdowns, or even the state-title win in Stillwater against Toshomingo when he had 225 all-purpose yards and 23 of his team's 35 points, including the winning touchdown run with 55 seconds to play.

No matter, because "they were all impressive and at the end you'd say to yourself, 'This kid adjusts real quickly,' " said Leach.

Still, "Of all the skill players we would have, he would have been the smallest and slowest," Leach told himself.

But on the other hand, Leach's coaches told him that one last scholarship had become available, because a promising recruit had decided to head to Boston College, where his brother already played basketball. Thus does Welker owe a bit of gratitude to former Eagle Lenny Walls. Of course, so, too, does Leach, because from the day Welker stepped on campus, he was a star in Lubbock.

"I remember seeing him stand in the midst of our other recruits. They all towered over him. They all had the credentials, the all-state this, the all-state that, the fast times and all that. But when I looked at Wes, I could see he was filled with self-confidence," said Leach. "His eyes looked straight ahead, and he had a look that said, 'I can whip everyone in this room.' He did, too."

At Texas Tech, all Welker did was catch 259 passes for 3,069 yards and 21 touchdowns and return 8 punts for scores to establish an NCAA record that since has been tied.

Good stuff, but it was deja vu all over again when that four-year period came to an end. Just as no Division 1 teams wanted him, neither did anyone in the NFL spend a draft pick on him. Leach, like Warner four years earlier, was baffled. But he wasn't worried for Welker.

"It sounds strange, but I was sure he would make it in the NFL," said Leach. "He keeps defenses honest. I felt he would excel in the right system."

* * *

Snapshot:

Days go by quickly when they're filled with so much energy and you're so free with your dreams.

"We would always tell people, someday Wes is going to play in the Super Bowl and I'm going to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl," said Colton, with a laugh.

"But the thing is, I've always said, Wes would play football even if nobody was in the stands and I'd play music with nobody in the audience."

* * *

San Diego offered a contract to Welker in 2004, but for some reason provided him just one game to show his stuff. He returned four kicks for 102 yards and was dismissed three days later. Hooking on with Miami, he played in 14 more games, then played in all 16 in 2005 and again in 2006 when he caught 67 passes for 687 yards and scored his second NFL touchdown.

Mild success by any standards, at least if you go by numbers. Fortunately for Welker, the Patriots are not an organization that measures everything in numbers.

"Even those times when we had doubts, Wes never once did," said Lee Welker. "But New England believing in him means everything to him. They have empowered him and I promise you he'll be loyal to them. He's humble. He remembers how our parents used to always tell us about 'a haughty spirit goes before the fall.' "

Leland Welker laughed.

"It's in the Bible and I'm glad the boys remember that," said the father. "We're strong Christians and we believe that God is going to get your attention."

Wes Welker subscribes to that philosophy, which is why he quietly blends into a Patriots team that is rewriting the NFL history books. There was a game in Dallas, an easy jaunt for the folks with Heritage Hall allegiances, so Welker attracted quite a crowd after snaring 11 passes for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns. But afterward, Welker shifted the spotlight to his great friend who was doing wonderful things in the music world and to another high school pal who made the trip, Ted Perry, who recently had been wounded during military service in Iraq.

Leland Welker stood amid the crowd that day and said he never has seen his son happier. All the while he kept thinking how many people thought that this story "wasn't supposed to happen" this way.

Warner watched the scene, too, and was filled with pride. His daughter, Sarah, married Lee Welker in 2005, so while he always felt a family tie to the Welkers through Wes, it is now official. The story has unfolded in a way the folks at Heritage Hall figured it might, and Warner understands why.

"Wes never would take no for an answer," said Warner. "And he's proven people wrong all the way down the line."

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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