EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When Wes Welker made his Denver Broncos debut last Sept. 5, he caught nine passes from Peyton Manning and scored two touchdowns.
When long-time Denver tackle Ryan Clady suffered a season-ending injury on Sept. 15, the Broncos needed a new offensive captain. It voted for Welker, who had played all of two games with the franchise.
When former President Bill Clinton was interviewed Friday night in Brooklyn at the Thunder-Nets NBA game and asked for a Super Bowl pick, he mentioned two players. Peyton Manning and Wes Welker.
As Super Bowl XLVIII arrives Sunday night, with the Broncos playing the Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium for world supremacy, Welker is 32 years old and bigger in status than ever before. Not stature; he's still the same 5-foot-9 Everyman who leaves you wondering how he's carved an all-star career in a behemoth sport.
But the little guy who long ago became an Oklahoma City folk hero still is going strong. Still an NFL lightning rod, be it his beard or his Old Spice commercials or his oversized helmet or his one-sided feud (not Welker's side) with Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“Very fortunate, very blessed to have this opportunity again,” Welker said of his third Super Bowl, “and that's all you really ask for.”
Well, a victory would be nice, too. A Super Bowl championship and maybe the Pro Football Hall of Fame, that's all that's missing from Welker's career. He's got 841 NFL receptions, 24th-best in league history. But two Super Bowl disappointments with the Patriots have kept Welker from the ultimate prize. You never know the future. This could be Welker's final chance.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Welker said. “You can't sit there and think in your mind, this or that or whatever. Whatever happens, happens and you just go out there and try to play the best you can. It's a lot of hard work, and you have to have some luck along the way to get to this point ... You don't take these moments for granted that's for sure.”
Welker suffered two concussions this season and has missed three games. That led to the new helmet that caused him much grief but has kept his head relatively secure.
Welker caused a stir at Super Bowl Media Day after he was asked if he would play in the Super Bowl with a concussion: “What do you think? I mean, you want to be out there. The Super Bowl, this is what you dream about. You're going to be there, I don't care what it takes, you're going to be out there in this game.”
That's the same kind of ornery spirit Oklahomans have seen since Welker was a high school star at Heritage Hall in the 1990s. Despite his size, Welker was a do-everything player.
In 2000, historian Ray Soldan, a half-century follower of high school football for the Oklahoman declared Welker the best Oklahoma prep player ever. At the time, Welker had yet to catch a pass even for Texas Tech.
Welker's story has been oft-told. He got the last scholarship at Tech and became a star. He went undrafted by the NFL, then was cut by the San Diego Chargers. He hooked on with the Miami Dolphins, played three seasons, then was traded to the Patriots when Miami worried about paying Welker too much.
“A lot of times, just coming into the league, especially on draft day, you just want a job,” Welker said. “Then as you get a job, you want to accomplish things, you want to go to the playoffs, you want to go to the Super Bowl and then you want to win a Super Bowl. So, coming from humble beginnings to get to this point is definitely a blessing.”
All along, Welker has maintained his Oklahoma City roots. His family still lives in OKC. Last summer, Wes Welker Sports Bar & Grill opened in the Quail Springs area of north OKC. Welker's foundation for several years as provided grants to schools and youth programs in financial need. Welker can (and did, during Super Bowl) talk Thunder basketball; he's shown up at a variety of NBA arenas with Thunder apparel. He gave a shout-out to LifeChurch during Super Bowl Media Day. His favorite band is Oklahoma's Kings of Leon.
“That's home for me,” Welker said. “That's where I grew up. I definitely have a big respect for my hometown and being from there. I just love it there.”
But he doesn't plan on returning anytime soon. Too much football still to be played.
Some players like to cap their careers on top. Welker was asked if a Super Bowl title might make him consider retirement.
“Of course, it would be a good way to end it, but I am still having fun,” Welker said. “I am still enjoying the game. I feel good, and as long as I am out there having fun, I will continue to play.”
And it's not like the Broncos don't want him. That captaincy thing was no small deal.
“I don't care who you are, coming to a new team, new teammates, that doesn't happen very easily,” Denver coach John Fox said. “It says a lot to the kind of guy he is, both on and off the field. I think he is an unbelievable competitor and very gritty, and that became obvious to his teammates very early on — how he goes about his business on and off the field and preparation. He has been a tremendous addition, and we are sure glad to have him.”
Oklahoma City feels the same way.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.