He's scrappy, and his attitude I bet is a big part of this team's great locker room atmosphere. The Rooney's and FO have a knack of finding the guys nobody else has heard of - Tomlin, Parker. Two thumbs up!
From NYT online 9-19-08 [url="http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/19/sports/football/19parker.html?_r=1&ref=sports&oref=slogin"]http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/19/sport ... ref=slogin[/url]
PITTSBURGH — On Sundays, Willie Parker sat in front of the television with his father, their home in tiny Clinton, N.C., turned over to a love of the Dallas Cowboys. One day, when the boy was about 5, he turned to his dad, Willie Sr., and said, “Me going to play that one day.”
Since 2006, Willie Parker is second in the N.F.L. in rushing yards.
This was before little Willie Parker became Fast Willie, so his father told him to sit down.
But just a few years later, Willie Sr. did not even recognize the blur on the field during a recreation league game because his son was running so fast. A few years after that, Willie Sr. watched in front of his house on Royal Lane and saw Willie, by then in high school, lining up against Tyson, a pit bull that belonged to a family member. At the sound of a whistle, the dog took off at full gallop. So did Willie, in his latest scheme to hone his speed. Willie did not beat the dog, perhaps the last race he lost.
“I knew there was something special since he was 5 years old; it always lingered in my mind,” Willie Sr. said. “He prophesized it from the time he was 5. It’s amazing. As long as I live, I’ll never forget it.”
Willie Sr. spends Sundays at Heinz Field now, where Fast Willie Parker is reshaping the image of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ running game. Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis were perfect, hulking stars for Pittsburgh, a city built on a muscular, industrial image. But they have been replaced by Parker, a compact symbol for a high-speed age.
Since 2006, Parker is second in the N.F.L. with 3,053 rushing yards, behind only San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson (3,412). And Parker led the league in rushing through 15 games last season, until he broke his leg in the regular-season finale. He opened this season with two consecutive 100-yard games.
Still, he is not among the N.F.L.’s most heralded runners. Even his coming-out moment — an electrifying 75-yard touchdown sprint in Super Bowl XL — was overwhelmed by the prospect of Bettis’s winning the championship in his hometown of Detroit in his final game.
“He’s made a name for himself,” receiver Hines Ward said. “If people are not taking notice of that, I don’t know what film they are watching.”
Perhaps they are stuck in the endless loop of Parker’s screech-to-a-halt college career. Parker led Clinton High to the state championship in his junior year. He gave his father the ring. By then, his 11.8 yards a carry and 20 touchdowns had drawn the attention of a regional scout named Dan Rooney and of the University of North Carolina, which gave him a scholarship.
In his freshman year, he had 84 carries for 355 yards. Then the coaching staff changed, and so did Parker’s fortunes.
John Bunting, a former linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles — the Steelers’ opponent on Sunday — preferred a power running game for his Tar Heels. So his staff asked Parker, who has long carried 209 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame, to bulk up. Parker, already burdened by the killing of his best friend back home during his sophomore year, balked and spent the bulk of the remaining three years on the bench.
“I take the blame — 50-50 — for letting it go the way it went,” Parker said. “I should have showed how I love the game. But when they made me mad, I was like, whatever, I know I’m the best you’ve got anyway. To be honest, I just couldn’t stand those coaches.”
Parker was right about one thing: he was the best they had. That is what his father, struggling to keep Willie from quitting, kept reminding him. Parker would tell his parents they did not have to attend the games, because he was not going to play.
“When I wanted to go in there and blow up the building, I would breathe really deep and said a little prayer and held back,” Parker said. “My dad was always thinking positive. He’d say: ‘You’re going to play this game. I feel it.’ He had me thinking, I probably will play. He’d play mind games with me the whole season.”
Parker has not spoken to the coaches since; Bunting was fired from North Carolina in 2006. At the Tar Heels’ Pro Day, Parker ran the 40 in a mediocre 4.51 seconds, according to Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys personnel chief. He has since run it in 4.28.
But Rooney, the son of the chairman of the Steelers, had kept tabs on Parker all those years. And after Parker was not one of the 16 running backs drafted in 2004, the Steelers signed him as an undrafted free agent.
As a low-rung rookie, he was practice fodder for the starting defense, whose players started complaining about how tiring it was to chase him around. When the Steelers’ former coach Bill Cowher first saw Parker in camp, he wondered aloud why he had not played in college.
“The more we saw his ability to get to the corner, you were waiting to see what the kid’s weakness was,” said Cowher, who told Parker that all those hits he had saved in college were a blessing in disguise. “From that time on, I didn’t look at the North Carolina stars. I looked at the backups.”
Parker, 27, has lost none of the ebullience of an undrafted player who suddenly finds himself at the center of one of the N.F.L.’s most successful teams. Like the 5-year-old, he still makes bold proclamations, looking at himself in the mirror on game day to announce what he wants to accomplish: run hard, score a touchdown. He thrives on people doubting if he can run between the tackles the way Bettis did. He can, Cowher said, after learning to be patient by watching Bettis play. And he keeps all the slights in a mental bag that he delves into when he needs to get mad and motivated.
This off-season, people wondered if he would lose speed after his first major injury.
“If you game-plan the Pittsburgh Steelers, it would be smart to seal off the edges,” Parker said. “At the same time, you have to seal off some gaps, too. I love being Fast Willie. I’m not fat like Jerome was. I’m not a 240-pound running back.”
Parker laughs when he needles Bettis, but as he walks the hallways of the Steelers’ offices, replete with oversized photographs of the team’s great players, Parker jokingly wonders where the pictures of him are. In at least one way, Parker is very much like them. Harris, a Hall of Fame runner, was prized more for his blocking at Penn State.
“I never would have painted this picture,” Parker said. “When I won that Super Bowl, I still didn’t believe it was true and real until a month later.”
A few months after that, Parker went home to Clinton to give his father a Cadillac. He told him to look in the trunk. There was his Super Bowl ring, glittering in the hot sun.
“Wow — I never suspected he would really give it to me,” Willie Sr. said. “I couldn’t take what was happening, it was too much. Me and my friend, I said, ‘Let’s take a ride.’ I always say we rode off into the sunset.”
More Articles in Sports » A version of this article appeared in print on September 19, 2008, on page D1 of the New York edition.