Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Giants' Victor Cruz, Patriots' Wes Welker both overachieving wide receivers worth rooting for

INDIANAPOLIS

The route to success is a tricky one in the NFL. For a wide receiver, there are always obstacles.

You get bumped as you leave the line, for one thing. You zig when you come to the critics, and you zag when you see the doubters, and you fight to find a small opening. Somewhere along the way, you try to get noticed.

Then you make the catch, and it no longer matters that you started from nowhere.

If there was ever a football game to suggest that the scouts of the NFL are just guessing when it comes to wide receivers, this is the one. For all of the stop-watches and all of the tape measures, for all of the film and all of the scouting reports, no one has quite figured out the position.

Otherwise, how does one explain the success of Victor Cruz?

Or the stardom of Wes Welker?

The league never saw them coming. Both were undrafted, unheralded and largely unloved. They were afterthoughts, end-of-the-roster guys who came in with the smallest of expectations.

"I wouldn't say I was a million-to-one shot," Welker said. "I think it was better than that. But the odds would have been up there."

"I was 10 million to one," Cruz said. "Definitely. No one expected this out of me. Not even me."

Don't you love an underdog? Don't you love a receiver who was promised nothing on his way to the end zone? Don't you love a player who has worked and scrapped and overachieved?

There were 31 receivers drafted the year Welker left Texas Tech, included seven in the first round. Welker signed a free-agent contract with the Chargers and was cut after one game.

And yet, here he is, still looking like the placekicker. The difference is that now Welker has had four Pro Bowl seasons and four seasons with more than 100 catches and four with more than 1,000 yards.

Then there is Cruz. Thirty receivers were drafted the year he finished at UMass, but he wasn't one of them. He signed with the Giants, the only team to offer him a contract.

And here he is, joking that his arm is sore from him pinching it. This year, he made the first catch of his NFL career, not to mention 81 others. He set a Giants record with 1,536 yards.

Yeah. Take a look at these guys now. They are proof that a receiver doesn't have to be big, or run blazing times. He just has to be good.

"I don't think anyone ever thought I would have this kind of production," Welker said. "I don't know if I did. I just wanted to come in and work hard and maybe make a roster.

"I think wide receiver is a position where you have to be one of the hardest-working men on the field. You have to be in shape, you have to have the attitude that you're going to win because you're one of the toughest guys out there."

No one doubts that anymore about Welker, who has the right quickness and the right feel to find the open space. No, having Tom Brady throwing to him doesn't hurt. But remember, Chad Ochocinco was on this team, too, and he barely got onto the field. Chad Nadamucho, perhaps.

These days, Brady and Welker have turned into partners. Welker is the funny one.

"I like to make fun of his life, basically," Welker said. "For instance, he has this toilet that sprays water on you. It's heated and everything. I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?' Sometimes, I like to go to Tom's house to use the restroom."

Welker can afford to laugh these days. Not so much when he was with the Dolphins. Back then, he was in a bar one night talking to a woman. When she asked what he did for a living, he told her that he played for the Dolphins. She rolled her eyes in disbelief, got up and walked away.

For Cruz, the arrival was quick and unexpected. Early in the season, the Giants were struggling to find a receiver who could play in the slot. Given the opportunity, Cruz took off. He hasn't slowed down since.

"It's a very, very fine line between success and failure," Cruz said. "It takes a little luck, a lot of skill, a lot of determination. It took being in the right place at the right time, choosing the right team, being in the right moment, having all the right moves.

"I'm glad the way I came up. It taught me to savor the moment and not take anything for granted. I could be gone tomorrow."

If nothing else, life has taught that to Cruz. He was still in college when a phone call let him know his father, Mike Walker, had died by what authorities would later label a suicide. Walker had been a firefighter for most of his life, but his health had been spiraling after an auto accident led to his dismissal.

Before every game, Cruz runs to the opposite end zone, kneels and has a conversation with his father, the man he calls his hero.

"He taught me to play the game," Cruz said. "Hopefully, I can play it with respect and honor, the way he taught me."

In some ways, Cruz will tell you, he still has odds to fight before he is as accomplished as Welker. Welker will tell you he still has work to do before he is as good as he can be.

This is what they have in common. They are both driven, both determined, both dependable. The other receivers, the ones with the fat contracts who find complacency so quickly, could learn a lesson or two. Playing isn't about the path you take; it's about the catch you make.

Come Sunday, perhaps you should appreciate the guys who arrived the hard way. Perhaps you should enjoy how hard they have worked to change the minds of their coaches and their teammates. Here's one for the overachievers. Here's one for the underdogs.

These days, it isn't hard to find either player.

Just look for them in the end zone.

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