Wes Welker: A look inside the inspiring career of a legend

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 23: Wide receiver Wes Welker
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 23: Wide receiver Wes Welker /

Former Texas Tech wide receiver and 2016 Texas Tech Hall of Famer Wes Welker had a storied career as a Red Raider. Thanks to NFL Network, the world caught a glimpse of his life on ‘A Football Life’, which highlighted the adversity he battled in his playing career.

Wes Welker has had an incredible, almost mythical career as an athlete. What started as a high risk offer in the face of desperation, resulted in a legendary career that’s helped shape an entire generation of players, and even playbooks.

Like many young athletes, Wes Welker started his athletic career playing soccer, but wanted to transition to football in the seventh grade. Despite hesitation from people around him, Welker tried out and ended up starting the following week. His team went undefeated that season.

Welker’s championship mentality and work ethic started early; it was organic, and he welcomed every opportunity to fit into a role to be productive. From playing slot receiver, to safety, to special teams player, and 57-yard field goal kicker, “I just loved playing.” Said Welker. “You never know how many games you’re going to get. You never know… so I didn’t want to get off the field.”

In the Fall of 1999, Welker had earned countless awards for his athletic abilities, but he didn’t receive any college offers. Recruiters were concerned about his size, and his height. Welker recalls the feeling many athletes looking for an opportunity have experienced, “Nobody wanted to give me an offer.”

“Wes has never been the biggest, he’s never even been the fastest. [But] I think he’s always been the strongest–both mentally and physically.” Welker’s high school quarterback Graham Colton said. It was his strength that propelled his high school coach to embark on a mission to get Welker to the next level.

His high school coach at Heritage Hall, Rod Warner sent a fax to 105 schools selling Welker’s natural abilities. On National Signing Day, Welker still had no offers. He finally received a call from Texas Tech’s former director of football (current football operations), Tommy McVay inquiring about the 5-foot-9 receiver.

“If only he were bigger–oh wow, that’s a great play. If only he were a little faster–how did he get out of that? How did he do that?” Expressed former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach. “I really don’t think that he ever saw any shortcomings. He sort of didn’t have any.”

“I begged him [Leach],” Said McVay. “I said ‘we have nothing to lose, go ahead and sign him’.”

Welker recalls the moment he was offered a scholarship from Mike Leach following a conversation Leach had in front of Welker with McVay in Leach’s office. Leach told Welker they would need an answer within “the next few days.” Welker responded, “I’ll take it. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I don’t have any other offers.”

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“I thought it was a reach at the time, because he came in, and I had never seen him play, I didn’t know anything about him, he just popped up, and he’s that big, and I’m like ‘What are we doing?!'” Said current Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury–Tech’s quarterback at the time.

“I was nervous about the whole deal, because my butt was on the line,” Said McVay. “And I said to Kliff, ‘Kliff, is this kid any good?’ and he said, ‘Coach, he doesn’t drop a ball. He’s caught everything I’ve thrown at him.’ And I said ‘Thank you very much!'”

Much like Welker’s transition into soccer, Mike Leach noted that “From the minute he got there, he started every game.” And as was the case in Welker’s high school career, Leach recalls, “He started out as a punt returner, but by the third game, he’s the starting wide receiver.”

McCoy’s gamble paid off.

In his four-year career at Texas Tech, Wes Welker had 259 catches for 3,019 yards, and 21 receiving touchdowns. He ran the ball 79 times for 456 yards, and two rushing touchdowns. Welker also recorded eight punt returns for touchdowns, which is a record he still shares to this day.

“We were a team that got the ball out quick, and got it to him [Welker] in space, and one-on-one, he was phenomenal.” Said Kingsbury. “He was just a perfect mix with Coach Leach’s offense, with what Wes could do based on leverage, understanding route concepts… it just all came together.”

Welker helped redefine an entire offense, and the chemistry was undeniable. The decision to attend Texas Tech wasn’t optional, but in reflection, Welker recalls,”You look back at that, if I had every school to choose from, I don’t think I could have chosen a better school to go to.”

The Air Raid, and playing slot receiver at Texas Tech was where Wes Welker thrived as a football player. For many, that type of offense can cement legacies, which is why it’s caught on at so many levels, even making its way into the NFL at some capacity, largely in part to Welker. Unfortunately for Welker, however, his transition to the NFL wasn’t based off proven history as an athlete, but once again, whether his size was worth taking a shot at.

As was the case at the collegiate level, Welker faced adversity when it came to transitioning to the NFL. Despite his statistics, his size was overlooked, and he was snubbed from the Scouting Combine in 2004. He went undrafted, and signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent. His mentality was, “Whatever will help me make the football team, I’ll do it.”

Welker’s work ethic was always his meal ticket, but his raw abilities were what kept him at the table.

Following a successful preseason, he made the Chargers’ team, but was abruptly cut shortly after. Fueled by a desire to earn a spot, he was signed to the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad, and quickly got promoted to the active roster specializing in punt returns, and even kicking field goals–the first combination of its kind in NFL history.

It was a similar situation to former Red Raider, and current 5-foot-7 Miami Dolphins’ WR Jakeem Grant, who’s infamous “Little people, big world” touchdown against Texas in 2015 drove his stock up. Scouts asked the same questions regarding size with Grant, but learned from Welker that fortune favors the bold–especially when a players’ work ethic matches, or exceeds their talent.

In 2005, Nick Saban promoted Welker from punt returner to full-time receiver, where he finished the 2006 season as Miami’s leading wide receiver. When Saban left Miami to become the head coach at Alabama following that season, Welker landed on the radar of New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick.

Having been torched by Welker’s ability in divisional match-ups, Tom Brady wanted Wes Welker as a member of the New England Patriots when his contract was up. “We saw his skills, we saw his talent, so we designed a lot of things for him.” Recounted Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “Without his skill set, without his toughness, without his ability to get open inside, I don’t know if those things would have come about.”

Welker’s impact as a member of the Patriots was immediate, and he became one of the most elusive members on the offense. The connection he had with Brady was organic, further proving how his football IQ, combined with his underdog mentality was the perfect recipe for a lethal combination.

"“He had the heart of a lion in a body that was 190 pounds. ” — Tom Brady"

One of the most interesting takeaways from the segment was how Belichick was able to use Wes Welker’s ability and conditioning in the Air Raid to the advantage of the Patriots’ game plan. Welker noted how defenses were having to change how they approached the Patriots’ offense because defenses would employ a base defense where a linebacker would be matched up with a slot receiver, giving the Patriots an advantage to burn defenses on any part of the field. For those familiar with the intricacies of the Air Raid, you fully understand why opposing defensive coordinators had few responses to the wide open combinations the Patriots suddenly had at its disposal.

In a preseason game, Welker was a no-go, so 2009 Draft pick and rookie Julian Edelman was thrown into the punt return job, where he had a return for a touchdown. During the game, Belichick planted an immediate, “keep working for your job” seed into Welker’s head, where Welker described the realization that he was at his best knowing his back was against the wall. “He had so much confidence in himself, and that’s why he got so many looks,” recalled Tom Brady.

Welker found himself with his back against an unfamiliar wall in 2009, when he led the league in dropped passes. His mind and his body just weren’t connecting with the symbiosis people grew accustomed to, and it began to raise some questions in New England.

They reached the Super Bowl again in 2011 to face the New York Giants in a rematch; a game they once again would lose. Welker never received a contract extension through that season, and was designated a franchise tag. Following the 2012 season, the Denver Broncos offered him a deal, leaving Welker hopeful the Patriots would come up to the negotiations table. That never happened, and Welker was on the move to Denver.

It was another situation where his abilities were questioned, despite working to exhaustive levels to prove otherwise.

Like Tom Brady, future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning knew Welker’s natural ability and wanted Welker on his team. Film study, practice, communication, and tenacity gave Manning and Welker the synergy Denver needed to become the highest scoring team in NFL history in 2013. In the AFC Championship that season, the Broncos defeated the Patriots to advance to the Super Bowl. It was Welker’s third trip to the Super Bowl, and his third loss.

After sustaining three concussions in 10 months, and despite his growing family, Welker expressed he still had an interest in playing. The Rams called in 2015, which would cap his 12 year career in the National Football League.

“Wes defined a new position in the NFL,” recalled Warner. The five-time Pro Bowler earned top NFL honors as the league’s leader in receptions for three seasons, and posted five seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards. It was the Air Raid in action on a national scale, which has earned him comparative recognition when analysts discuss other players’ tangibles. “If they can describe a receiver named after you, that means you’ve done something.” Said Peyton Manning. “It tells you just what a special player he was.”

"“‘Welker-type receiver’. Wes created that. — Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien"

Welker is currently the returners and receivers coach for the Houston Texans, where he specializes in developmental talent on the scout team. For a guy who defied all the odds from youth soccer, up to the NFL, working with underdogs is the perfect role for Welker.

“Wes was always trying to beat the odds, and trying to make the team.” Said former Denver Broncos’ quarterback Payton Manning. “Any young football player out there that some coach might tell them ‘Hey, you’re not gonna be able to play at that size,’ it’s a great lesson why you shouldn’t believe that person. I saw Wes Welker do it, and that’s a tribute to Wes.”

If his coaching style is anything like the tenacity, urgency, and willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team, not only does Welker have potential to become one of the greatest coaches in history, he has the ability to develop and impact countless players looking to become trailblazers, too.

What Wes Welker’s story proves once again, is that to be successful in any sector or discipline, it requires an intrinsic belief that hard work trumps talent, when talent is overshadowed by archaic beliefs. From high school recruiting to the NFL, Welker (and countless other players), presented a raw talent that was undervalued simply due to his size. Dissatisfied with the reception, he cultivated a work ethic and desire to be an asset wherever he was needed on the field. That simply can’t be coached, and Wes Welker’s selflessness serves as an inspiration far beyond football.

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In a world where front-runners grow complacent or lack the urgency to compete, schools like Texas Tech have become synonymous with producing the “Wes Welker-types,” or underdogs with a chip on their shoulders. Welker’s talent was developed by some of the most influential coaches in modern history, and he played alongside some of the most talented players in the history of the sport of American Football.

“He was kind of the perfect fit for us.” Said Josh McDaniels, “He made it ok for you to focus your offense on somebody like that.” In any environment, enterprising behavior, skill, and work ethic make opportunities available where others have failed. The story of Wes Welker will go down in history as an underdog who paved the way for future generations, and that is, perhaps, the most inspiring legacy an athlete can leave.

For more information on ‘Wes Welker: A Football Life’, click here.