ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The oversized helmet wasn’t nearly as big a deal to Wes Welker as it was to everyone else.
It was just the next size up, he explained. He wasn’t the first player in the NFL to wear one.
“It was the helmet they recommended to me and it felt the same to me,” Welker said.
Welker didn’t necessarily want to call it a concussion helmet. But after suffering two concussions this season — the first back in November, then another a little less than a month later — taking the extra precaution just made sense for the 32-year-old receiver.
“Supposedly, it protects me more,” he said.
He donned the new helmet last Sunday when he played for the first time in five weeks. It was the longest he had been off the field in his 10-year career.
If that’s what he had to wear to be on the field, Welker said, so be it.
“I’m still playing, so that’s all I care about,” he said.
The concussions clouded Welker’s first season in Denver. He came in with every intention of being for Peyton Manning what he had been Tom Brady for so many years, but didn’t catch nearly as many passes, although he scored 10 touchdowns.
But with the Broncos a game away from the Super Bowl, Welker said he’s not thinking about the concussions.
“At this point, AFC Championship game, all that stuff, I’m not worried about it at all,” he said. “I’m just going out there and trying to get first downs.”
Welker’s first concussion came against the Chiefs on Nov. 17, the week before his first trip back to Foxborough to face his former team. There was never any doubt — not from the coaching staff or Manning, and not from Brady — that Welker would do whatever it took to play.
And he did. He went through all the protocol, suited up that Sunday, and caught four passes for 31 yards.
But when Welker took a hit to the head from Bernard Pollard while going across the middle in a win over the Titans Dec. 8, the team monitored him even more closely.
Welker sat out the final three games of the regular season, and the Broncos’ first-round bye gave him an additional week, before he returned last Sunday against the Chargers and caught six passes for 38 yards and a touchdown.
“I feel a lot better,” Welker said. “Taking five weeks off is a little bit different, but it’s still good to get that game under your belt, and moving on to the next one is good and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity.”
While Welker was out, the Broncos were missing not only a machine-like slot receiver, but also a player who came into their locker room and made an immediate impact. Welker’s numbers, lower than they’ve been since his first season in New England, don’t show the trickle-down effect he’s had on some of his younger teammates.
“He’s been exactly what we thought we were getting,” said Broncos coach John Fox. “Even people in the New England organization said that we would enjoy coaching him, and we have. He came in, made a pretty big impact. The fact that he was voted captain and just got here is a pretty good indicator of what his peers and teammates think of him. He’s fit in in exactly what we thought he would be, and that’s important.”
One message Welker constantly tries to get across is even though he’s played in two Super Bowls, that kind of success isn’t guaranteed. He still remembers seeing a perfect season unravel six years ago with a loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl.
“I think me being a young player, I remember,” he said. “I try to tell them about when I went in 2007, we were undefeated and we lost in the end and I was thinking, we’ll be back next year, and we’ll be back the next year and the next year and we are going to win one.
“You don’t realize how hard it is to get there. You’ve got to appreciate it.”
Welker made it back with the Patriots four years later, only to be done in by the Giants again. Since then, Welker has parted ways with the team molded him into one of the top receivers in the league, he’s dealt with injuries, and he’s learned how fragile it all is.
“Injuries happen, free agency happens, all different things happen,” Welker said. “The opportunities of getting to this situation are so rare that you’ve got to seize that moment and take advantage of it.”
The Patriots don’t expect Welker to show any signs of the concussions.
“Obviously, Wes is a great football player,” said safety Steve Gregory. “He’s fast and he’s quick. He catches the ball well. He creates challenges for guys in the slot. Really, anywhere you put him, he creates challenges. So, he’s a guy that can make plays for them and he’s a go-to guy, as well.”
If anything, getting his first trip to Foxborough out of the way will mean Welker has one less thing to worry about this week. The hoopla became overwhelming.
“There was just a lot of stuff going on during that week,” Welker said. “I’m glad to have all that stuff over with and really just focus on the game and get ready for it.”
This time, the story line won’t be Welker playing the Patriots, it will be the Broncos trying to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season.
“It’s still another game,” Welker said. “You understand it is the AFC Championship and everything like that. You want to go out there and prepare as much as possible. At the same time, it is still an opponent and it’s a team and you’re going out there and playing to the best of your ability and go out there and try to win the game.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.