FOXBOROUGH - The next Wes Welker is out there. The Patriots' playmaking, 5-foot-9-inch wide receiver hears that all the time. He receives mail from fans claiming to know the next undersized player who will make it big in the National Football League. Usually, those fans are short athletes writing for help. They look at Welker, who must stretch to reach his shoulder pads on the top shelf of his locker at Gillette Stadium, and wonder, "Why not me?"
"A lot of kids want me to call coaches for them," said Welker, who has become a go-to-guy for high school players entering the college recruiting process.
After all, everybody loves the little guy. Think of Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL player Doug Flutie or NBA slam-dunk champion Spud Webb. Every local little guy playing high school or college sports looks up to the success of current professionals such as Welker, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia (5-9), and recently re tired Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown (5-9). Little guy success stories provide both inspiration and instruction about succeeding against long odds.
An examination of the rosters of all 32 NFL teams revealed 65 players listed as 5-9 or shorter, including four with the Patriots (Kevin Faulk, Ellis Hobbs, Terrence Wheatley, and Welker). In Major League Baseball, there are 42 players 5-9 or under, in the NHL there are 14, and there is one in the NBA. In each sport, an even smaller percentage of small athletes reach the level where they rank among the best.
"It's not about how big you are or how fast you run," said three-time Super Bowl champion Brown, who finished his 15-year career as the Patriots' all-time leader in receptions. "It's about your passion for the game. If you believe in yourself, then you play like you're the best. You play like you're the biggest.
"That's probably what's wrong with me. I thought I was the biggest. I was standing tall for all the little guys out there."
With undersized players, it all starts with the self-confidence and fearlessness typically associated with much bigger athletes. They must learn to ignore doubters from an early age. Undersized professionals who serve as their role models shoulder a special responsibility and, as a result, expect more of themselves. Every undersized athlete who performs well in the NFL potentially opens a door for more smaller players in college or high school.
"There is no room for error, because when a [general manager] brings in a little guy, a GM is putting himself at risk," said Flutie, who mentors undersized college quarterbacks who have a chance to play professionally. "It'd be a lot safer for them to get a big guy. That's why it's so tough to get those opportunities.
"Every year for me was a fight. It's not like a Brett Favre, where teams are lining up to bring this guy in. That doesn't happen for the little guy. But all you need is one person to believe at the NFL level or the college level to give you that opportunity."
More to prove
At 5-4, Dorchester High School senior running back DeJon Berment is one of those little guys who think of Welker and Brown when he dreams of playing top-level college football and reaching the NFL. Berment never let the bullying from bigger kids in street football or the dismissive attitudes of Pop Warner coaches discourage him. Now, nothing can diminish his passion for football or his conviction that he will someday reach the NFL - not even jarring collisions with 300-pound opponents on the way to another touchdown.
"I like watching Wes Welker and Troy Brown because they're short and they remind me of myself," said Berment. "Their tenacity level is higher than everyone else's. They have more to prove.
"I feel the same way. I have to prove more by going out there and playing as hard as I can. We have to work two times more than everyone else because everyone looks down on us."
Added J.W. Forte, a 5-7 running back from Everett, "Wes Welker relies on his speed and he's not afraid of contact, and I like that. I understand how much heart and courage it takes to go against a big kid and not be afraid to do it. I like to be thought of as the tough little kid on the field who doesn't give up."
But it is about more than heart for little guys who succeed. Welker, Brown, and Pedroia quickly pointed out that, above all, they reached the professional level because they have considerable skill.
"I'm obviously talented," said Pedroia. "If I was 2 inches taller, then this wouldn't be a topic."
For all three, the challenge was working around their size limitations and honing their natural skills in ways that would gain notice and prove valuable to teams. In Welker's case, he uses his quickness to run shorter routes effectively, leaving long passes to teammates who can outjump defenders.
"If you're good at something," said Welker, "be really good at it."
Said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, "If you want to talk about all the successful players that are undersized, then I'd say the reason they're successful is because they have something that offsets that size disadvantage. It might be Curtis Martin, who was small for a back overall, but pound for pound one of the strongest players I've ever coached."
Belichick noted, however, that the special quality small players most often share is quickness. Without the ability to elude defenders and burst through tiny openings, an undersized athlete will not last long at any level.
"In football, quickness is important because it enables those players to avoid some bigger collisions," said Belichick. "For them to be able to last and have durability, not taking a lot of big shots is important, whether it's Curtis or Wes Welker or Troy Brown or [5-6 San Diego Chargers running back] Darren Sproles. Those players have excellent quickness, which keeps players who are trying to hit them from being able to really get a good solid lick on them too many times."
What is true in the NFL is true at every level. Undersized Milton High running back Paul Connor is the reigning 400-meter state champion in outdoor track. Chris McConnell, a 5-8 running back-turned-wide receiver for Andover High, is the indoor track state champion at 55 meters. While both would like to play college football, they are realists, recognizing that their short stature makes track scholarships more likely.
"Being really quick helps to get you noticed," said McConnell. "But you have to work hard to show what you have."
Or to earn the interest of college coaches. Connor has found most big programs won't look at players under 5-9.
"It's a little frustrating," he said. "If I was 2 inches taller, they'd be like, 'Let's get this kid.' "
But proving he deserves to play with the big boys is nothing new. As a sophomore on the Milton football scout team, he needed to outplay members of the varsity before coaches would consider him for the top squad.
"I never listened to anybody who told me what I couldn't do," said former Patriots wide receiver Randy Vataha (5-9), a 17th-round draft pick in 1971. "It's a great testimony to Welker and Pedroia that they just kept their heads down and made things happen. The biggest challenge you have being a small guy is to get people to evaluate you for what you actually accomplish and not for what they think you can or can't do."
Added Flutie, "The second I get a pass knocked down, it's, 'Oh, he's too short.' It's a little-guy syndrome. You've got to win all the sprints. You've got to be in the best shape of anyone on the team. You've got to work harder.
"Security doesn't come easy. You walk around with a chip on your shoulder all the time. You don't want to give anybody any opportunity to criticize you. But they're still going to do it unjustly because of the bias."
When undersized athletes change teams or move to the next level, the critics almost always follow. In those situations, there is little difference between Welker and Pedroia or someone such as Boston College running back Jeff Smith. When Smith made the move from Plympton to BC, the 5-8 running back had the speed but still wasn't sure he belonged in a big-time college football program. Doubters thought he wouldn't earn any playing time. It wasn't until he found a role on the kick-return team as a freshman that Smith thought he could play Division 1 football. Now, Smith is fitting his game to his height.
"I watched Troy Brown, people who were smaller, because I didn't know how they adapted to playing against bigger guys all the time," said Smith. "You watch to see what they do differently against a defender. You're going to have to find something that you can work on that you can do better than someone else if you're a lot smaller."
'Never doubt yourself'
BC men's hockey coach Jerry York has established a proud pipeline of small, quick skaters, from 5-7 New Jersey Devils right wing Brian Gionta to 5-5 forward Nathan Gerbe. When evaluating undersized athletes, York looks for players who "put you on the edge of your seat." He found that most recently with Gerbe, who left school after his junior year to pursue a pro career with the Buffalo Sabres.
After recently being sent down to the Sabres' minor league affiliate in Portland, Maine, Gerbe said the success stories of Welker and Pedroia gave him "a little more drive," even though they play different sports.
"I'm sure they had struggles in their careers when they were on the brink of making a team or not," said Gerbe. "A lot of small guys in baseball, football, hockey will always come to a point where they're told they can't do it. If you think negative, you probably won't. Never doubt yourself."
Welker agrees. While he won't start recruiting campaigns for local little guys - because nobody did that for him - the receiver eagerly passes along advice to all the aspiring Wes Welkers.
"You're going to get told 'no' a lot," said Welker. "You can't listen to the noise of that. You have to believe in your own perception of yourself and not what people perceive you to be."
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.