They were Cheverus High classmates 36 years ago and unlikely friends. Dwayne Thomas Welch was the three-sport athlete from Westbrook with a streak of shyness. Matthew Devoe was the Portland kid, outspoken and boisterous and permanently exiled to the sidelines with a hip injury.

Devoe toasted Welch and his bride at their wedding. He lent a hand when diapers needed changing. The friends turned to each other in good times and bad, even after Welch left Maine for Tennessee five years ago.

Last weekend, Devoe was called to Brentwood, a suburb of Nashville. Thomas Welch, the youngest of Dwayne Welch’s three children, had a chance to be selected in the NFL draft.

Bill Belichick had visited young Welch on the Vanderbilt campus, and liked what he heard and saw in the offensive lineman who had once been a quarterback.

Saturday, the Patriots selected Welch in the seventh round. He was the 208th pick overall. You might have heard the cheers from hundreds of miles away.

“I felt blessed to have been there to see the look on Thomas’ face when Belichick called,” said Devoe. “To see the look on Dwayne’s face made everything worth it. He’s a wonderful man and the leaf doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Thomas Welch did not attend school in Maine. Jennifer Wallens divorced Dwayne Welch and took the children. Thomas grew up in Tennessee. He and his older brother and sister visited their father in Maine until dad moved south.

Coincidentally, while at Vanderbilt, Thomas lived a few doors down from Mainers Ryan Flaherty and his roommate, Andrew Giobbi.

“I expect there will be a few more people back in Maine watching Thomas now,” said Dwayne Welch, an investment counselor who graduated from Rollins College in Florida. “I’m still on Cloud 9. For four days I don’t think any of us slept.

“I remember when my son went to Vanderbilt. He told me his first goal was to be drafted into the NFL. His second goal was to get his education.”

Thomas has succeeded on both counts. He earned his degree in economics last May.

“It’s all up to Thomas now,” said Devoe. “He’s been given his opportunity. He’ll make the most of it.”

His son leaves Tennessee on Thursday for the flight to Boston and Gillette Stadium, and a mini-camp for draft picks and free agents. Dad isn’t following.

“I don’t know much about what a father is supposed to do. I’ll be learning.”

Devoe has never married, although he says he was engaged twice. He has no children unless you count the 150 or so who show up at the Cumberland County Civic Center to skate.

“I do the ice rentals. I talk to the kids a lot.” He also works as an usher. Pirates fans know the guy who doesn’t need to text or jump on Facebook to communicate.

He didn’t want his voice in this column. “This is about Dwayne and his son, not some guy who went down to Tennessee to celebrate with them. I mean, sometimes I feel like I just walked out of the Twilight Zone. What a thing to happen.”

Devoe is wrong. The world needs more enduring 36-year-old friendships.

“I was the brother Dwayne’s mother never wanted him to have,” laughs Devoe.

Welch remembers the road trip they took with another friend from Florida to Louisiana. They were going to find work on an oil rig in the gulf.

They never found those jobs, but that’s beside the point.

“My birthday was around the time Thomas was playing in the Senior Bowl and I got a card from him,” said Devoe. “He calls me Uncle Matt. He thanked me for all the support I’ve given him. I tell you, the leaf doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Devoe saw several Vanderbilt games last season, including a loss to Florida. For parts of the game, one of the battles in the trenches was between Welch and Brandon Spikes, a linebacker who was also drafted by the Patriots, but in the second round.

Devoe seems to recall that Spikes wasn’t very effective that day.

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]