- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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Look out onto the field, at all those huge bodies moving at ridiculous speeds, launching into each other like projectiles. Take a closer look at the little one, the one with the ball, the one moving through those bodies like a wild trout.
There's something different about him. It's not just his size, or the way he slips through one side and materializes on the other, like an illusion. As he gets off the ground, you see through the mask and realize -- yes, that's what it is -- this guy is happy. Not contrived, endorsement-seeking, attention-seeking happy. No, this is the rarest form: pure happiness.
Let's be honest about the NFL: It sometimes looks like organized misery, all grimaces and shopping-cart-size knee braces and guys hoisting themselves off the ground one joint at a time. Then there's this guy, name of Willie Parker, smiling and laughing all the time. This guy whose odd comments in the huddle cause teammates to laugh and roll their eyes. What's this guy's story? What's the source of all that happiness?
You might know that Parker was an undrafted free agent who rarely played in college and ended up a Pro Bowl back for the Steelers. You also might know that Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Faneca dubbed him Fast Willie because he was timed at 4.23 in the 40 and caused such a buzz when he showed up at camp in 2004 that men not normally prone to amazement were thinking what guard Kendall Simmons said out loud: "Good god, he's fast."
And happy. One evening in late September, Parker was asked a simple question: "Good practice?"
"No," he corrected amiably. "Great practice." This is not the norm in an NFL locker room.
Most everybody else roams in a state of near torpor, like reptiles in the cold. They silently trudge from locker to training room to shower, half-lidded eyes avoiding contact.
They've learned to store their energy for when they need it. Not Parker. His incessant excitability causes teammates to wonder if he ought to conserve a little. "They look at me like I'm crazy," Parker says. "They think I'm a wild man."
This bemused tolerance is best exemplified by Faneca, a devout energy conservationist. He acknowledges Parker's boisterous end zone celebrations by jogging up to him and giving him a fatherly pat on the forehead before jogging away. "You know what I like about Willie?" Faneca says. "I like it when we block it up right and he runs through that mother real fast."
There are times when Ben Roethlisberger refuses to pass to Parker in practice, just to irritate him. "He always complains that I don't throw him the ball," the quarterback says. "But then he says we have to throw it over his right shoulder, the left shoulder is no good. What's with that? Oh, he also thinks he runs the halfback pass better than anybody."
The Steelers added that play for Parker last year, providing explicit instructions: If the primary receiver is not open, run. Parker enthusiastically asked, "What are my second and third reads?" Told there were none, he said, "Man, that's not fair‹everybody else has second and third reads."
We're forever trying to quantify what separates the average from the good and the good from the great. In Parker's case, it's got to be something more than speed, because he was fast long before he was productive.
And yet here he is, at 26, heading toward his third straight 1,000-yard season, leading his team to the top of the AFC North. To understand how this came about, you have to dig deep into the past, to the neighborhood girl named Shawna who used to outrun him, to the death of his best friend, to his nearly pathological desire to prove people wrong.
Wait, though. Everything's moving too fast. First, you have to hear the story about the shoes.
The summer between his junior and senior years of high school, in 1999, Willie persuaded his father, Willie Parker Sr., to buy him a pair of $100 strength shoes from a catalog. These shoes, sort of a reverse high heel, are intended to increase vertical leap and improve speed. They are not a fashion accessory.
The shoes arrived to much fanfare in the Parker household in tiny Clinton, N.C., and immediately Willie went to a corner of the backyard and began to jump -- up and down, off two feet, off one foot. It was the summer of jumping.
It became a family joke: Where's Willie? In the backyard, jumping. Before long, Willie added a weighted vest to the ensemble. Now he stood in the backyard wearing those goofy shoes and a heavy vest, jumping.
No one knew why or bothered to ask. It was a phenomenon similar to Willie's obsession with being the fastest kid in the neighborhood, which hit a snag when this girl Shawna beat him in a footrace.
Shawna was 18 and Willie 10 or so, but that didn¹t matter. She was the only one who could beat him, and he set out to change that. He raced everything he could: his dog, a Nissan 300Z owned by a girl named Tonya Sampson who played basketball at UNC, his older brothers, Jamaul and JayWayne ("Both slow as dirt," Willie says), but only after spotting them a 10-yard head start.
"Being the fastest was really important to me," he says. "After that girl beat me, it did something to my brain." He never did beat Shawna, and it left him to focus his bottomless determination on a more mysterious goal. He jumped through the summer and into the fall, wearing down the soles of those strength shoes on the concrete in the backyard.
Then, early in the school year, Jamaul came home for a visit from Johnson C. Smith University and was met by his little brother. "C'mere," Willie said. "I've got something to show you.: He grabbed a basketball and took Jamaul to a court across the street. He stood about six feet away from the hoop, took one step and jumped. By the time he returned to the asphalt, Willie had thrown down a two-handed dunk.
Now Jamaul understood. This obsessive pursuit -- the shoes, the vest, the jumping‹was intended to knock down the one barrier between Willie and his brothers. Before the shoes, they could dunk with ease and Parker couldn't.
Now, at 5-foot-10, Willie Parker was their equal. "This boy's crazy," Jamaul says. "He's a different kind of competitor."
Grab a football with your right hand and tuck it up against the inside of your forearm, the way you might if you were taking a handoff from Big Ben.
Feel the spot the ball hits, just above the underside of your wrist. Feel it? That's where Parker has a tattoo that says, "RIP Marty." Marty was the nickname of Jamar Smith, Parker's best friend from Clinton.
After high school, Willie went off to college, and Jamar went off with the wrong crowd. One day in 2001, at the start of Parker's sophomore year at North Carolina, his parents showed up at his dorm to tell him that Jamar had been shot and killed in a drive-by back home. Willie reacted the way most 20-year-olds would, with shock and anger. He quit school for a couple of days before his family convinced him that Jamar wouldn't have approved. In an attempt to come to terms with his friend's death, Willie got the tattoo.
It's become dangerous to ascribe too much meaning to tattoos. Their ubiquity has turned every grandma and girlfriend into an epidermal hero. But this one seems significant. "It's there for one reason," Parker says. "Every time I touch the ball, he's part of it. He's motivation."
The weeks after Smith's death were the toughest of a tough four years in Chapel Hill. How does a different kind of competitor respond when he can't compete? That's what Parker faced at UNC, where he barely played after coach John Bunting took over in December 2000 and decided Parker needed to put on weight to comply with the team's new power-running offense.
"We were tough and hard when we first came in," says former UNC running backs coach Andre Powell, now at Clemson. "We knew Willie was talented; we just wanted guys to do it the way we wanted it done. In retrospect, I wish we'd been more tactful."
Parker had 12 starts in four years, just three as a senior. His was a case study of how a player can be made or unmade by a system. Alex Smith becomes the No. 1 pick; Willie Parker goes undrafted. Many times Parker wanted to quit, but each time his parents or Jamaul or JayWayne or his sister, Kim, would talk him out of it. Eventually he came to terms with the situation.
One day back home, a little boy gave him a book called The Prayer of Jabez, and Willie figured, what could it hurt? Every day he said the prayer: Oh, that you'll bless me indeed and enlarge my territory. That your hand will be with me. And that you'll keep me from evil.
You can debate causality all you want, but Willie says he started to become a better man. The anger and bitterness began to fade. He came to terms with Jamar's death, stopped swearing, treated people a little better. He wasn't bad before, just unfocused. He started to see positives first and negatives second. Or not at all. His new attitude didn't change his playing time any, but it allowed him to look ahead, where he saw his speed as a prepunched ticket to an NFL training camp.
His signing with Pittsburgh wasn't a complete accident; Steelers scout Dan Rooney Jr., son of the owner, lives in North Carolina and saw Willie run as early as high school. Once Parker got to training camp, he was determined to get noticed. "There was a buzz around this guy," Simmons says.
Parker spent most of his rookie year on the inactive list. But the next season, Bill Cowher -- whose loyalty to veteran backs bordered on the obsessive -- was forced to play Parker following injuries to Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. When the two vets recovered, Parker stayed in the lineup, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
Two seasons, one Pro Bowl and a $14 million contract later, the work ethic and mentality haven't changed. "I'm still the undrafted free agent trying to make the team," Parker says.
Clearly his devotion to silencing his detractors is deep-seated and compulsive. When a Pittsburgh writer suggested that part of the problem for the Steelers' 8-8 season was Parker's one-dimensional style, Willie tailored his offseason workout to improve his inside running ability. (More than half of Parker's 507 yards during Pittsburgh's 4-1 start have been between the tackles.)
He had a good relationship with former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, now Arizona's head coach, but his brothers say Parker always noticed something about Whisenhunt: He would call players aside and tell them their strengths and weaknesses, but he would never call Willie. "The coach probably meant nothing by it," JayWayne says. "But Willie used that as motivation, too." For the record, Whisenhunt calls Parker "one of the best backs in the league." But in Willie's world, every slight, real or perceived, lingers.
The draft carries such bad connotations that he still refuses to watch it.
And when he works out with other NFL players in North Carolina in the off-season or with his teammates during the season, he does so with an agenda. He starts with a set workout, and if everybody makes it that far, he improvises. "Every guy is usually someone who was drafted," he says. "I want to make them puke and look over at me and see me still working. That's my goal." The combination doesn't make a whole lot of sense: the happiest guy in the league carrying around the biggest chip on his shoulder.
Then again, Parker's hypercompetitiveness runs counter to his fundamental nature. His odd comments in the huddle are legendary. Last year during a December practice, as Roethlisberger walked to the huddle, Parker asked his teammates, "Hey, what did you guys get your kids for Christmas?" Ten men turned to the smiling little guy and shook their heads.
Simmons says, "Sometimes we look at him and say, Where does this stuff come from?" Simple answer, really. It comes from the mind of a man who knows how to be
happy even though he's never satisfied.
His Steelers are looking tough, his doubters are choking on his dust and his teammates think he's a riot. Willie Parker has plenty of reasons to be happy and a few more that keep him from being satisfied.