FOXBOROUGH — As pranks go — and Wes Welker has pulled off plenty — this one was the perfect storm. Detailed planning, flawless execution, priceless reaction.
Welker and a Texas Tech teammate (Mike Smith, his former roommate, close friend, and now the Jets linebackers coach) told a few other Red Raiders about a lake at a nearby golf course where they could find dozens of golf balls. So the unsuspecting victims parked their truck in a neighborhood, stripped down to their underwear, and headed for the course.
Welker and Smith sprang into action — the fact that their teammates left the keys in the truck an unexpected bonus. They jumped in and drove to the course, pretending to be security and chasing the young men away.
Returning to where the truck had been — and still in their underwear — Welker’s targets found no vehicle, assumed it had been stolen, and began the shameful walk home.
But Welker and Smith weren’t done.
They drove past their near-naked teammates, taunting them from inside the “stolen” truck until some of the locals came outside.
By then, the ruse was up. But the fun has lingered, a decade later.
“I try and keep it fun, not take things too serious,’’ said Welker. “Life’s too short.”
Over time, Welker has developed a reputation as one of the Patriots’ hardest workers, an undersized receiver who has come up big, leading the NFL in receptions since 2007, and this season overtaking Troy Brown for the most catches in franchise history.
Welker is also known for having a playful side, keeping things light in the locker room, and targeting anyone — mostly teammates, but occasionally even Bill Belichick, as we saw after last Sunday’s win — with one of his patented zingers.
Favoring a dry sense of humor, Welker was captured, perhaps most famously, giving the needle to Rex Ryan, not long after video surfaced that appeared to show the Jets coach as having a foot fetish. Asked 17 questions while standing at an interview podium three days before the Patriots lost to the Jets in the 2011 playoffs, Welker, keeping a straight face, worked “foot,” “feet,” or “toes” into 11 of his answers.
While many cackled in Foxborough, not everyone got the joke. The stunt resulted in Welker being benched for the start of the game, which the Patriots lost, 28-21.
Tom Brady frequently finds himself in Welker’s range. Television cameras caught Brady cursing on the sideline a few weeks ago during the win at Buffalo — a reaction that was prompted, Welker said later, by a little jawing back and forth between the two. During Super Bowl week eight months ago in Indianapolis, Welker poked fun at Brady for having a bidet in his house.
“Tom’s such a good friend, but he’s also such a great target sometimes, because he provides a lot of good material,” Welker said.
“I’m on the receiving end of a lot of his jokes. He’s relentless,” Brady said. “He always has to have the last word, and he usually gets it because he stays on it until you’re worn out. Those are usually the guys you don’t want to go after.
“He has a great personality. He works so hard and he likes to keep the mood light. He’s a little bit of a jokester. I think his jokes don’t go over very well if he’s not playing well. So I’m glad he’s playing well.”
Welker is coming off his best game of the season, a 13-catch, 104-yard effort against the Broncos that included his first touchdown.
He’ll take a three-game streak of at least 100 receiving yards (he had 142 against the Ravens, then 129 against the Bills) into Sunday’s game at Seattle.
Welker made a statement against the Broncos on the field, but it’s what he said off it, after the game, that raised some eyebrows and displayed his funnier side.
Asked during a television appearance about his big numbers after the season’s first two weeks (when his playing time and pass-catching opportunities were reduced, prompting speculation about a reduced role), Welker took a good-natured poke at Belichick, smiling and saying, “Yeah, it’s kind of nice to stick it in Bill’s face once in a while.”
The fact that Welker tossed out a joke at his head coach’s expense didn’t surprise Mike Leach, who was the head coach at Texas Tech during Welker’s years and is now head coach at Washington State.
“Wes and I would get in debates where he would trade barbs back and forth,” said Leach. “If you were in authority, you were fair game, and honestly at Tech, we kind of wanted it that way, we wanted it to be a partnership.
“He’s as competitive as can be, but really had the ability to know what’s important, and if it wasn’t football or academics, he could zero in on getting after somebody or pulling a stunt. It was ‘Animal House’ type of stuff — hilarious but not damaging.”
According to teammates, Welker can pounce on an opportunity at any time: in the locker room, on the practice field, on the sideline (ask Brady), during a team meal, or a film session, or in a meeting room.
Ah, yes, the meeting room. Again, back to his college days in Lubbock, Texas.
“We had hairless rats me and Mike bought, put them in the running backs meeting room, then turned the lights out,” Welker said. “They were all freaking out and screaming like little girls.”
Teammates also say that Welker picks his spots smartly.
“He’s very timely with his humor,” said Matthew Slater, who admits to being on the receiving end occasionally. “He takes everything he does here very seriously, but he knows how to keep it light, have fun, and enjoy life.
“It’s nice to be able to laugh every now and then in our profession.”
Welker’s thoughts exactly. He has brought out strong emotion during his tenure with the Patriots: Cheering in the stands when he’s done well. Cringing from fans when he has been hurt or hit hard. Laughing from his teammates after one of his jokes or pranks.
It’s simply his personality.
“I guess kind of fun-loving,” Welker said, when asked to describe it. “I can be intense, but at the same time enjoy myself.” Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.