Wes Welker heard the warning about the level of need he would see inside Jefferson Middle School.
This is like ground zero.
Not even that prepared the Patriots wide receiver for what he witnessed. Grungy tile floors in the gymnasiums. Crumbling showers in the locker room. A complete lack of lockers and weights and so many other things that he took for granted growing up.
“It's humbling to see,” Welker said, “and it's good to see.”
“It makes the Super Bowl drop a lot easier, I'll tell you that.”
Ah, yes, the Super Bowl.
Less than a month after the biggest game of his career — and the cruelest disappointment of his life — the New England Patriots wide receiver spent Tuesday morning back in his hometown with members of his foundation board. They toured several of the projects funded by their grant program, including glittering weight rooms at the Boys and Girls Club and at Douglass High School. They saw what their efforts have done to help level the playing field for at-risk kids in Oklahoma City through athletics, the mission of the Wes Welker Foundation.
They also saw the work that remains.
Nowhere was that more evident than Jefferson, the largest middle school in the Oklahoma City Public Schools. It's a place needing more renovation than MAPS for Kids will provide.
“You kind of don't know where to start,” Welker said. “But we've got to start somewhere.”
Welker is in the middle of some of the most high-profile contract negotiations of the NFL's offseason. He could become a free agent if the Patriots don't sign him, and while there's been talk that the team will place the franchise tag on him, other teams have made it known that they want him badly.
Lead the NFL in receptions three out of the past five seasons, and you're bound to be a hot commodity.
Of course, all of this good will follows a heart-wrenching final chapter to this past season. The sure-handed Welker dropped a fourth-quarter pass in the Super Bowl. The Patriots lost to the Giants. The critics came out of the woodwork.
The past few weeks, Welker has tried to get away from all of it. He turned off the cellphone for a week. He stayed off the Internet.
But none of it was any more therapeutic than Tuesday's tour.
“I think it really just puts things in perspective,” Welker said. “Through a season, you go through highs, you go through lows, you go through all this stuff. But that's life.
“You come here and you see this, and you know what? Life's not all that bad. There's ... a lot of service that you can do for other people.”
That's what his foundation has tried to do for the past four years. Since it started awarding the first grants, it has given out more than $230,000.
That's nearly a quarter of a million bucks.
And the impact is evident at a place like Douglass, which has become an unofficial flagship for the Welker Foundation. Douglass received one of the foundation's first grants, money that went to weight room improvements. Since then, additional grants have paid for video equipment and additional weights.
An athletic program that has won six state titles and four state runners-up in the past four years.
“This right here is the main reason why,” athletic director Willis Alexander told the group gathered inside the pristine weight room on Tuesday morning. “What it did for our kids was just enormous and phenomenal. Our kids wanted to be in here.”
It's meant not only state titles but also college scholarships. More than 40 kids have received athletic scholarships in the past four years, and while most aren't at big-time schools, all of them are getting a paid-for education.
Welker beamed at that.
“Any more needs here?” he asked, a question he would repeat at every stop on the tour.
Alexander thought a moment.
“Need a couple halfbacks,” he joked.
Welker knows that success stories like the one at Douglass won't happen overnight. He realizes that there are many more schools like Jefferson where the need is great and the road is long.
“But maybe you start with pads, then you work on the fields and the gym and the bleachers,” he said. “You just take it a step at a time and try to have patience with it.
“Eventually, we're going to get to it all.”
No doubt what happened in the Super Bowl was a shot to Wes Welker's heart. But when it comes to kids in Oklahoma City, it is clear that heart is as big as ever.