From the latest Digest.....
The Road to Recovery
Parker determined to come back better than ever
The last time a Steelers running back led the NFL in rushing was in 1946 when Bill Dudley
did it for the second time in his short career with the team. Willie Parker was leading the league in rushing through 14 games in 2007, only to finish 158 yards behind LaDainian Tomlinson after being sidelined for the seasonís final seven quarters with a broken fibula.
Thatís how close Parker came to making Steelers history, and thatís how frustrating it
must have been for him to have his season end prematurely with an injury. And, by the way, after Parker broke his leg in the opening minutes of that game against the Rams on Dec. 20, the St. Louis defense coughed up 123 yards on 24 carries to Najeh Davenport.
But since the disappointment of riding off the Edward Jones Dome carpet on a cart, Willie
Parker has been working feverishly to get back on the field. He spent endless hours in the training room to make sure his body healed, and then he was in the weight room before the crack of dawn on a daily basis to build that body back to a level where he again hopes to contend for an NFL rushing title.
Parker took part in the offseason program and returned to practice during the teamís OTAs, but at that stage he still was working at getting himself back to 100 percent. But now he believes heís ready for the real thing, and it doesnít get much more real than training camp.
On the eve of training camp, Parker sat down with Teresa Varley and opened up about what it was like to suffer the injury, what he has been through since then and what fans can expect from him this year.
Did you know right away that the injury was season-ending?
Parker: I have a good sense of my body. I got a little message in my head that this couldnít be good. I was kind of sad. If you look back at the film from when it happened, look at my face, I wasnít crying, but I look like I am about to shed a tear. I just knew it was serious. I was just hoping that the doc would tell me otherwise. It was hanging, like it was hanging on the bone. I just definitely knew it was serious.
What went through your mind?
Parker: It made me wake up and look at things differently. It made me appreciate being
here, appreciate playing football and being in the NFL, being the starting tailback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I have seen a lot of guys get career-ending injuries, and suddenly itís over for them. I was just thanking God that wasnít the case for me right now.
Was it kind of surreal, like this isnít really happening to me?
Parker: I thought I was dreaming. I was waiting for that pinch, waiting for someone to
come and wake me up. My teammates started coming in and shedding their tears. Thatís when I realized it was real.
What was the tougher part of the challenge, the mental or physical?
Parker: A lot of people say the mental side plays a big role in coming back from an injury,
but I donít feel that way. I wanted to get back out there. I want to get on the field because I still have a lot of stuff I have to prove. I wanted to do these things, but my body wouldnít let me. Mentally, I had a strong mind-set from the start. From the physical aspect, I couldnít do it, so for me that was the biggest part.
You had to undergo surgery on the leg. What was it like afterwards, the support system
Parker: Everybody was there for me. People I didnít even know, hadnít ever met, people found out where I was and saw me and showed their appreciation for what I have done for the team and the city. My family was there from day one. When I got hurt they were here all the time. They were there from the time I woke up, they tried to baby me and do stuff for me around the house and all. It almost was too much. My friends were the
same. I thank all of them for being there during that time. They really brought me through it.
Being this was your first major injury, does it make you realize that you are not invincible?
Parker: It made me open up my eyes. I have to be a little careful out there on the field. I could have easily avoided the whole injury aspect, but on the field you got a million things in your head, and we were so close to the end zone, and I was trying to score.
What could you have done to avoid the injury?
Parker: I could have just run straight. I was about to put my foot into the ground, and I cut back to the left and cut across the field. I could have just run, hit the hole or gone to the sideline and not have gotten much. Thatís what I could have done.
What was it like to be a spectator?
Parker: It was tough. The week after the Rams, I didnít go to the game in Baltimore. Instead I just watched it on television, and they just kind of handed it to us. It was tough to watch even though we didnít need that game to get into the playoffs. It was still tough. For the Jacksonville playoff game I was in the press box with a couple of other injured players. The fans werenít watching the game at times, they just kept looking up at us in the box. It was tough. It was real tough.
When did you start on your rehabilitation?
Parker: It was about six or seven weeks. It was real quick. We started early. I started running early and sprinting.
Was it tough for you to be patient?
Parker: Oh yeah. I wanted to just go and do what I want to do. My body kept telling me, no, not today.
Were there milestones along the way where you realized you made progress, things you were able to do that had been second nature before the injury?
Parker: I was able to get on the stair-master fast. I was doing quick-feet early. I didnít think I would be able to do quick-feet as soon as I did. I could do quick-feet, but I just couldnít run. I could do the side-to-side real fast, and it wouldnít bother me but getting out and running was something I couldnít do. I didnít think those things would happen
so quick, so I knew we were moving in the right direction.
Was there a point where you felt like you turned the corner?
Parker: I donít think I have reached that point yet. Right now I donít feel like myself, but Iím headed in the right direction. Some days I took off because I went too hard in the morning and it didnít feel right heading into practice. But thatís what I had to do. I know my body. I just have to keep on grinding.
You spent a lot of time in the weight room during the offseason, often there before the
crack of dawn. Was that all about being motivated?
Parker: Every day I was there. Iím motivated more than ever. The injury really opened up my eyes. Stuff I used to do last year and the year before, Iím doing it this year. It made me realize how blessed I am. Iím not saying I took it for granted because I always thank the man up above for giving me this opportunity and the chance to play football. I just never faced this before. Itís kind of hard when you never faced something, and it just pops up in your face. I just wasnít prepared for it.
Was there ever a time when you thought you might never play again?
Parker: When it happened I was only thinking about what happened. It was when I was in
the hospital, and the nurses were doing everything they could to make me happy that my mind was wandering. It felt like I was locked up in a cage being in the hospital. Everybody was trying to make me happy. When they do that, and you know theyíre trying extra hard to make you happy I started to feel there must be a reason for that.
What was that reason? That was when I started thinking maybe itís more serious than what they were saying. It was tough.
Any fears you might have lost a step?
Parker: Iím coming back even faster and stronger than ever. Iím putting the work in. Even if my body doesnít want to do it, Iím going to make it do it.
Any fears about getting out there and being tentative?
Parker: Nope. Once I see that end zone Iím treating it like I have never been injured before. I already know what my mind-set is. That isnít going to be a problem.
Getting away from the injury talk a bit, how about the crowded backfield situation? Is it good for the running backs as a whole to have that kind of competition to push everyone to get better?
Parker: Itís definitely a good thing. When I took practices off during OTAs there were other backs to fill in. Then thereís the young one ó Rashard Mendenhall ó he came in as a firstround pick. Thatís good for all of us to push each other. If one isnít practicing, there is another kid who can fill in. Thatís a great thing for us, and weíre only going to get better.
As far as Rashard Mendenhall, have you taken him under your wing the way that Jerome Bettis did for you?
Parker: Whatever Jerome taught me is what Iím passing on to him. I saw Jerome down in Atlanta, and he congratulated me. I asked him why he congratulated me. He told me he read a lot of stuff about me trying to help the young running back. I told him I learned from the best.
What kind of advice are you giving Mendenhall?
Parker: What I told him is that he can actually help me out. Iím going to help teach him all of his plays and make sure he learns them so he can be at his best when itís time to suit up. He can help me out. and I can help him out. Itís like a tag team.
What can Steelers fans expect from you this year?
Parker: They can expect that I am going to go hard and give it my all no matter what. We have a tough schedule, so I trained in the offseason - hard and tough. Thatís what youíre going to get. Iím going hard every play.