From undrafted to stardom: Wes Welker and his horse
Most of the time, when your name doesn't come up on draft day, that's the end for your dream of professional sports stardom. But some athletes have the perfect combination of skill and persistence to work through draft-day disappointment and find their way to stardom anyway.
Wes Welker had overcome a similar roadblock coming out of high school. Even though he was the state of Oklahoma's Player of the Year, he was not offered a college scholarship on signing day. Texas Tech finally offered when another player backed out. It never regretted it.
Welker shined as both a punt returner and wide receiver. He was second-team All-Big 12 as a junior in 2002, first-team in 2003. He won the Mosi Tatupu Award for top college special teams player in 2003, and set a still-standing NCAA record for punt return yards.
But he wasn't invited to the 2004 NFL Scouting Combine and went ignored on draft day. He signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent, but they released him one game into the season. The Dolphins picked him up, and he began to prove his mettle, as both a returner and wide receiver.
He was traded to the Patriots in 2007, where he found stardom. He caught at least one pass in every game he played for the Patriots, from 2007 through 2012. He set franchise records for total receptions for the team, receptions in a year, and receiving yards in a year.
He finished his career with stints with the Broncos (2013-2014) and Rams (2015). Though Welker never won a Super Bowl, he made five Pro Bowls (2008-2012) and had two first-team All-Pro seasons (2009, 2011).
Welker made a tongue-in-cheek nod to the beginning of his professional football career when he named his racehorse Undrafted. A $50,000 yearling purchase in 2011, he was from the first crop of Purim, from a female family that produced a lot of winners but didn't have stakes success since three generations back.
Yet, Undrafted showed talent from the start. Off at 6-1, almost unbelievable odds for a Wesley Ward-trained first-time starter, he romped by three lengths in a two-year-old race at Keeneland.
Through his two- and three-year-old seasons, he won twice more, both in allowance company, though he showed stakes-level promise, with third-place finishes in sprints on both dirt and synthetic.
Though the interest came more quickly in Undrafted than it did in Welker, they both took some time to make it to the top. Welker was always good, but it took until his years with the Patriots for him to become a true star. Undrafted tried a little bit of everything until the spring of his four-year-old year.
Until the 2014 Kentucky Derby (G1) undercard, Undrafted had never tried a turf sprint. He finally got the chance in the Twin Spires Turf Sprint (G3).
Against a gate full of tough turf sprinters, Undrafted proved his mettle. He couldn't quite get to Marchman for all the money, but rallied gamely for second, over Positive Side. Between that and the California Chrome-Commanding Curve exacta, no wonder Wes Welker was passing out $100 bills by the end of the day!
From there, Undrafted built a career as a top-class turf sprinter. He returned in the Jaipur (G3), to mow down Marchman for his first graded stakes victory. He finished fourth in his first international foray, behind the excellent Slade Power, in the July Cup (G1), one of the best sprints in the world.
Though Undrafted went a year after the Jaipur without a win, he built a reputation as a horse who always showed up. After his July Cup tilt, he hit the board in four straight American turf sprint stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1).
Ward still had enough confidence in Undrafted to ship him abroad again in June of 2015, this time to Royal Ascot. Sent off at 14-1 — against the likes of Brazen Beau, Mustajeeb, and Due Diligence — Undrafted ran the race of his life. He bore down on Brazen Beau into the final furlong, and fought past to win by half a length.
Undrafted won four more times in a career that lasted through age nine. But no win would define his career like his triumph at Royal Ascot.