Back in Oklahoma, story of Welker's rise to glory is often told Print
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Saturday, 02 February 2008 00:06
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 OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - It was an August day in the mid 1990s, and Heritage Hall High School varsity football coaches were discussing preseason practice when the school's seventh grade coach interjected.
Craig Brown had important news. He said he'd just seen a player who would rewrite the record books and someday become the face of the athletic program at the small private school in northwest Oklahoma City.
That player? Wes Welker, now a star receiver for the New England Patriots, who will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday against the New York Giants.
``That was after the first day of practice, in seventh grade. There you go,'' said Heritage Hall athletic director Rod Warner, who then was the school's head coach. ``I have to give the eyeball credit to Craig. He picked it up first.''
As Welker's star rose this season - he tied for the NFL lead in receptions with 112 to go along with 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns - his family and friends have fielded dozens of inquiries, all wanting to know the same thing: How did the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker become such a good football player?
But his story of overcoming skeptics and the odds on the way to stardom has become familiar in his home state.
He put up stellar numbers during his four seasons at Heritage Hall, which competes in Class 2A, the next-to-lowest class of 11-man football in Oklahoma. He rushed for 3,235 yards and 53 touchdowns, caught 174 passes for 2,551 yards and 27 touchdowns and returned seven kicks and three interceptions for touchdowns.
Welker also had 22 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries, made 581 tackles, kicked 35 field goals (including a 57-yarder) and 165 extra points and scored 818 points - an average of 16.7 per game.
While a game remained in doubt, he left the field only when Heritage Hall punted.
``You always want that kid who never wants to come off the field,'' said current Heritage Hall coach Andy Bogert, who was the school's offensive coordinator during Welker's prep career.
Welker teamed with lifelong friend Graham Colton, then Heritage Hall's quarterback, to lead the Chargers to an undefeated season in 1998 and a 12-1 mark the next season as seniors.
In a playoff game in 1998, Heritage Hall scored 10 points in the final 13 seconds to beat Davis 41-38. Welker scored on a 1-yard plunge with 13 seconds left, kicked the tying extra point, then delivered an onside kick that the Chargers' Derek Peek recovered. After one pass play, Welker made a 39-yard field goal - into a stiff breeze - to give Heritage Hall the win.
In a 35-34 win in the state title game over fellow unbeaten Tishomingo, Welker had 150 yards rushing and receiving, scored three touchdowns, intercepted a pass, kicked a 47-yard field goal and had 75 return yards.
``He is the definition of a sportsman,'' said Colton, now a musician who has opened for acts including the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer and Kelly Clarkson. ``It doesn't matter what you're playing, he wants to win. ... I've always said that Wes would play football with nobody in the stands and I'd play music with nobody in the audience. It's our passion.''
But a debate raged within Oklahoma - just how good was Welker, considering the level at which his team played? Skeptics abounded. One of the state's two major newspapers picked him as the Oklahoma player of the year in 1999; the other didn't.
Warner sent letters and film to dozens of NCAA Division I programs, but kept hearing that Welker was too small and too slow. To the latter, Warner would always reply, ``I don't know how fast he is. All I know is that nobody catches him, so he must be fast enough.''
Tulsa brought Welker in for a recruiting visit, but then-coach Keith Burns, in one of his first actions at the school, told Welker and his parents that no scholarship was available. That set off Welker's mother, Shelley, who told Burns that he would not regret it if he gave her son a scholarship.
Burns replied that his mother thought he should be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but that wasn't going to happen. Welker's father, Leland, now laughs at the memory, although he said the days after Tulsa's rejection was one of the hardest periods he has faced during his son's career.
``There were a lot of doors that closed, but we felt like there was one that would open for him,'' Leland Welker said.
Signing day came and went before Texas Tech threw Wes Welker a lifeline. Mike Leach, then in his first months as the Red Raiders' coach, was vaguely familiar with Welker from his one season as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator.
Like others, Leach initially was skeptical, but after seeing Welker make play after play on film, Leach decided he might be worth a flier. Texas Tech had a scholarship available because a player who had orally committed to the Red Raiders instead signed with Boston College. Welker and his family visited Lubbock, and when Leach offered, Welker immediately accepted.
Welker said this week that if no scholarship offer had come, ``I probably would have walked on somewhere in (Oklahoma) ... but I'm glad it didn't come to that.''
Welker became an instant star in Texas Tech's pass-happy system. During his college career, he had 259 catches for 3,069 yards and 21 touchdowns and set a Division I record with eight punt returns for touchdowns.
``There's no doubt in my mind that everything turned out for the best,'' Bogert said. ``Texas Tech was probably the best place for him and I think that made a difference.''
Leach has said he always thought Welker could make it in the NFL, but Welker went undrafted in 2004. The San Diego Chargers signed him as a free agent and he made the opening day roster, but after one game - in which Welker returned four kickoffs for 102 yards - they cut him.
The Miami Dolphins quickly snapped him up, and he made a bit of NFL history later that season against the Patriots. Serving as an emergency fill-in for injured kicker Olindo Mare, Welker became the first player in the NFL to kick off, kick an extra point, kick a field goal, return a kickoff and return a punt in one game.
The Dolphins began using him as a receiver in 2005, entering this season he had only one career touchdown catch. Still, the Patriots traded a second-round and a seventh-round draft choice to the Dolphins for Welker and signed him to a five-year, $18.1 million contract.
``I really felt that he could do well in college, and if he did well there, that who knew what level he could get to,'' Warner said. ``Once he got in with the Dolphins, I saw some potential there, but he just had to get into the right system. ... He just happened to get into the right system and it's all taken care of itself.''
 

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