FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Years ago and more than 1,000 miles away, Wes Welker's midweek posture used to look like a man who had just been beaten with a two-by-four. After another game of returning punts and kickoffs for the Miami Dolphins, Welker walked around the locker room looking stiff and beat half to hell.
The notion that Welker would one day lead the NFL in receptions, let alone last to the end of the decade, would have been laughable back then. Heck, there were times Welker didn't look like he was going to make it to the next game.
Instead, Welker is putting up the best numbers of his career. He has improved to the point that he's no longer the de facto running game of the pass-happy New England Patriots, the guy catching a bunch of short passes to the outside when the defense crowds the box.
Pretty impressive for a 5-foot-9 guy who once looked like he could barely walk after some games.
The story of Welker, who led the Patriots with 122 catches for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns this season, becoming a great receiver with New England is well known. His combination of great cutting and deep understanding of how quarterback Tom Brady thinks has turned him into one of the top receivers in the league. In four of his five seasons with the Patriots, he has at least 110 catches.
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The lone exception was 2010, when he returned from a torn ACL that occurred at the end of the 2009 season. Welker still caught 86 passes that season.
But this offseason, as Welker hit age 30 and entered the last year of his contract, he spent time in South Florida fine-tuning his skills, working out for up to four and five hours a day while getting a deeper understanding of his body.
"He's a scientist about how he attacks his training, seeking to be perfect on everything," said trainer Pete Bommarito, who runs Bommarito Performance Systems in North Miami Beach. "It doesn't matter if it's a speed drill or the weight room, he hits it like it's the last play of the Super Bowl every time. He's so meticulous about what he does."
Bommarito's remarks echo the sentiment of the Patriots' Bill Belichick, a coach who doesn't easily dole out praise.
"He practices 100 miles an hour. … He's very strong for his size and stature but he actually has good playing strength," Belichick said. "Nutrition, all those things, he's really borderline fanatical about them. He gets the most out of everything he's got. I think it's been hard training, hard work. We all saw how he came back from the injury a couple years ago."
Stories about Welker's practice habits have made the rounds.
"I heard about it before I got here, but you don't really appreciate it until you see it for yourself," fellow wide receiver Chad Ochocinco said. "Wes is good, man. Really good, and now I see why."
For defensive back Kyle Arrington, there was a prime example from practice during his rookie season in 2009. At one point, Arrington stepped in front of a pass from Brady intended for Welker, then ran it for a touchdown as part of the practice regimen. Welker chased Arrington all the way to the end zone trying to strip the ball as if it were a live game.
"Wes is intense," Arrington said with a look that was light-hearted and serious. "Whatever that battery is, Duracell or Eveready, that last so long, he's that times two."
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The transition to receiver has helped Welker in some regards. Rather than take the punishment that goes with the gang-tackling of kickoff and punt returns, Welker faces more one-on-one situations these days. While he returns punts on occasion, it's mostly as a sure-hands returner designated to catch the ball in precarious situations. That's a help, but it's not a solution.
"When you catch over 100 balls in this league, you're going to take your fair share of hits and different things like that," Welker said. "Each year, you have to train harder, faster and longer and do the things necessary to keep your body right. You make sure you come out the next year as dominant as you were the year before. It takes a lot of time and effort and it's the only way to do it. It's the only way I know how and it seems like every year I pick up new things for myself to try and be better. That's what you have to do especially as you get older."
Bommarito said that all of the neuromuscular training, kinesiology and other related science are things Welker studies to an extreme as part of his training.
"I definitely do," said Welker, who also tries to maintain a gluten-free diet, no easy task for an athlete. "I try to understand why I need to do this or need to do that. Activating muscles and how to do it, different things like that to make sure I'm ready to play the game and do those different things. The more knowledge you have about it, the more you can almost do it yourself when someone is not there to guide you or teach you."
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On Friday, Patriots owner Robert Kraft made it clear that Welker is a priority.
"I think Wes wants to be here and we want him here," Kraft said. "Hopefully when the season ends, both sides will be wise enough to consummate something. He's pretty special. Any time there is a player on this team I can look eye-to-eye and be at the same level, he's an important guy."
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