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Thornton, Welker Enjoy Far Different 'Homecomings'


Wes Welker should have asked the Bruins to make a tribute video in his honor.

Shawn Thornton came back to Boston Tuesday night with the Florida Panthers. The Bruins offered platitudes to Thornton and his return, and the video above, was wildly received by the partisans at TD Garden.

"To get a standing ovation at a visiting arena is pretty special," Thornton said after the Bruins' 2-1 victory.

Who didn't love Thorty? He was that "Big Bad Bruin" who fans believe epitomizes the blue-collar spirit of this franchise. Thornton's presence on the ice and in the locker room brought a sense of security and stability. His contribution to 2011's Stanley Cup-winning team was significant, especially his play in the finals against Vancouver.

Thornton's final game with the Bruins ended in calamity, as Boston lost Game 7 to Montreal in the playoffs last spring. In Game 5 of that series, he notoriously squirted P.K. Subban with a water bottle. Some have theorized that it was Thornton's mini-Watergate that somehow inspired the Canadiens to victory in the series. Earlier last season, Thornton served a 15-game suspension for hitting a defenseless player. As the Bruins pushed to "evolve" with the rest of the NHL, a player of Thornton's salary, age and limited skill set became expendable.

Still, it was love at first sight again for Thornton Tuesday night at the Garden. Thornton's entire body of work in Boston was remembered with good cheer and warm feelings inside.

Contrast all of that with the hostile greeting delivered to Wes Welker Sunday in Foxborough. This was not Welker's first trip back to New England with Denver. And the Patriots' game on Sunday was, by a multiple of about 100,000, more important to the season's ultimate outcome than Tuesday's game was for the Bruins. But Welker's contribution to the Patriots was, arguably, far more impactful than Thornton's with the Bruins.

On the surface, Welker should endear the same good vibes as Thornton. They both played with unmitigated toughness during their time here. They both dove figuratively and literally head-first into the opposition. They were equally fearless. Each did his particular job - slot receiver and enforcer - as well as anyone else in Boston since Terry O'Reilly. Each was "scrappy" and so much more.

Thornton and Welker left New England not by choice, at least initially. The Patriots chose not to offer Welker a long-term deal. His dealings with the team got far too personal. He turned down New England's offer, considered low by many at the time, and wanted to test free-agency. The Broncos were ready to pounce and Welker was all too happy to accommodate them. Thornton's exit from Boston was "strictly business." Both sides knew what the other wanted. A deal was not realistic because of Boston's salary-cap concerns and Thornton's real market value.

Why is there little love for Welker in these parts? He was Tom Brady's binky of choice for about five seasons and has caught more passes than any Patriot ever. He had at least one reception in every game he played with the team. He played the way New England fans demand their athletes play. He helped the Patriots reach two Super Bowls and the AFC championship game three times.

Yet he is still held in scorn. In part, Welker is stuck in his "Yankee Johnny Damon" phase. As long as he plays with Denver, he won't generate the same "warm and fuzzies" as Thornton.

But it's more than that.

Far more.

Wes Welker - GIzele

Welker's "drop" late in Super Bowl XVLI remains for the moment the defining part of his Patriots legacy. This is not fair, nor accurate. But sports doesn't force us to use logic when ranking our "bests" and "worsts." Emotion and irrationality matter as much as facts and stats. All those catches. All those yards after the catch. All those blocks and hits. All those concussions. Wiped out for many of us by one ball that was both overthrown and catchable.

As Colin R. on Facebook noted, "Thornton dropped the gloves. Welker dropped the ball."

Welker was a very good player. But a greater one would have made that play, especially on a ball that wasn't perfectly thrown. Sadly, Brady cannot throw the ball and catch the ball. Conversely, Welker cannot catch the ball and throw the ball.

That play will be hotly debated until about 2050. Was it Brady's fault? Welker's fault? Or SpyGate's fault? It sits high on the list of all-time Boston gags, somewhere behind Bob Stanley and Bill Buckner's dual effort in Game 6 against the Mets.

Welker continues to have Brady in his corner. Many, including me, think it's time for Welker to retire before the NFL robs him of the ability to function long-term as a human being. Brady would not answer that question when asked during his weekly sponsored appearance on WEEI's "Dennis and Callahan" show on Monday. But the pause in his answer left the door wide open to what was in his mind. It was chilling to see him sitting on the Broncos' bench, looking aimlessly into something Sunday night. He was, both literally and figuratively, a broken man.

Nothing will wipe Welker's slate clean quicker than an elusive fourth Super Bowl trophy in New England. It quite literally slipped through his fingers in Indianapolis three years ago.

Buckner, and all the other members of the Red Sox who never won a World Series, found redemption in 2004, '07 and '13. Fenway Park gave Buckner a much-deserved and too-long-delayed rousing ovation on Opening Day 2008. All was forgiven, even if there was little reason for it.

Once Welker comes to his senses and retires to save his brain and body, he will get his day at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots should retire his number and place him in their Hall of Fame. When he is formally feted in Foxborough, there will be hugs from Bob Kraft, current and former teammates, and everyone else on the team's hierarchy. Yes, even from Bill Belichick. Brady will no doubt shepherd his former teammate and current friend through the ceremony.

There might even be a nice tribute video, too. One thing is certain, there will be ample and abundant applause. And Wes Welker will finally get his due in New England.


The OBF column is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Bill has written and reported for ESPN, CBSSports.Com and was a sports/deputy sports editor at several metro daily newspapers. Reach Bill on the OBF Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or at his
OBF email Address
. Thanks always for reading.

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