Wednesday, September 21, 2005

From Heel to Steel

After week 2 of the NFL season, Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker is the surprise rushing leader in the AFC.  Parker played at UNC, so as a proud Carolina alumnus I’d like to share my favorite memories of him as a Tar Heel.  Uhhh….. Give me a minute….. I swear, I saw him on the field a few times….. Hold on…..


Parker has rushed for a total of 272 yards in the Steelers’ blowout victories over Tennessee and Houston.  That’s 91 yards more than he gained in his entire senior season at UNC.  Today he’s a vital part of a Super Bowl contender.  Two years ago, he wasn’t considered useful to a team that went 2–10 with a loss to Duke.  Yes, Duke does have a football program – I double-checked to make sure.


Parker did have some moments as a Tar Heel, primarily in his first two years.  He rushed for a career-high 158 yards as a freshman in a victory over Maryland.  His sophomore season was highlighted by a 131–yard effort in a Peach Bowl win over Auburn.  Coach John Bunting rewarded him by giving him the next two years off.  As his former teammate Julius Peppers went on to stardom in the NFL, Parker was stuck in the NCAA witness protection program.


Initially, Parker had wanted to attend East Carolina.  He later changed his mind in favor of UNC, even though his high school coach advised against it.  Parker has made this quote about that decision: “The only time I didn’t listen to him was the biggest mistake of my life.”  I’m pretty sure that’s the only time in history a pro football star has said, “I should have gone to East Carolina.”


19 running backs were selected in the 2004 NFL draft, but Parker was not one of them.  The 19 selections included standouts such as Steven Jackson and Julius Jones, but I’m sure a couple of the others are selling insurance right now.  Meanwhile, the Steelers decided to take a look at the undrafted Tar Heel.  And that may have been by accident.  Rumor has it, head coach Bill Cowher demanded to the front office, “Make sure Parker gets invited to training camp!”  Apparently a huge fan of “Sex and the City,” Cowher was crushed when Sarah Jessica was a no-show.


Parker (Willie, that is) made the team last year and rushed for 102 yards in the regular season finale at Buffalo.  After Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis went down with injuries in the pre-season, he stepped in as the starting running back.  Now he’s the darling of fantasy league owners everywhere.  Meanwhile, his old team in Chapel Hill has struggled mightily on the ground, rushing for a total of 118 yards in losses to Georgia Tech and Wisconsin.  Facing a tough task against arch-rival NC State’s stifling defense this Saturday, the Carolina coaching staff reportedly contacted Parker, telling him, “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE come back and play for us!”


But Parker will be busy trying to take down the New England Patriots this weekend.  Sure, starting against the Super Bowl champs may not compare to those glorious memories of sitting on the bench against Wake Forest.  But it will just have to do.