Life and times of fast Willie Parker

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> In the second half of the Steelers' preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles last Thursday, Willie Parker carried 19 times for 106 yards, or 76 yards less than his output last year as a senior at North Carolina.<br><br> In 12 games there, a healthy Parker rushed for only 181 yards.

"Aw, now you've gone and wiped the smile off my face and turned it into a frown," Parker said after the numbers were run past him. "I don't want to talk about that anymore."

The past is gone. There's no more looking back for Parker, the smash hit of the Steelers' preseason.

He's the team's runaway rushing leader with 174 yards on 33 carries (5.3 average), and has an outside chance to win the NFL preseason rushing title Thursday night at Heinz Field against the Carolina Panthers.

Parker is currently fifth in preseason rushing with one game remaining. He trails Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams by 77 yards, but Parker said it hasn't crossed his mind.

"It would just be good to go out there and show my talents," he said.

Parker doesn't even care that his old coaches, fans and friends in North Carolina will be watching.

"It's like any other game," he said. "You go out and hope to play good, hope the team wins and you do all the positive things in the game."

It's a brave new world for Parker, who went to North Carolina as a prized recruit after gaining 1,801 rushing yards as a senior for the Clinton (N.C.) Dark Horses and leading them to a Class 3-A state title as a junior. But Parker never quite blossomed in Chapel Hill and came to regret his decision.

Parker initially had agreed to attend East Carolina to play alongside his cousin, Leonard Henry, who's now with the Miami Dolphins. But when North Carolina learned Parker would be academically eligible, they made a late pitch and Parker changed his mind, even though his high-school coach advised against it.

"The only time I didn't listen to him was the biggest mistake of my life," Parker said.

As a freshman at North Carolina, Parker made his first college start against Pitt at Three Rivers Stadium. He rushed for 61 yards, had 54 yards receiving, scored on an 8-yard "rooskie" play and was named ACC Rookie of the Week after North Carolina's 20-17 upset win.

The rooskie?

"It was a crazy little stupid trick play and it fooled their whole team," Parker said. He couldn't quite explain the play, so one of his teammates did.

"I was over there getting ready for the extra point because I knew if it worked we'd score," said Steelers kicker Jeff Reed. "They snapped it to the quarterback and he put it behind his back and Willie grabbed it. He sat there with it and the quarterback rolled one way and Willie took off the other. He walked right into the end zone."

But Reed, who played two seasons with Parker at North Carolina, was more impressed by another play.

"My last year there, on the first play at Maryland -- and they were ranked pretty high -- he took a pitch and went about 75 yards," Reed said. "We lost the game but that was the first play from scrimmage and the most impressive because he outran the whole defense.

"Really, the biggest thing I remember about him is the stuff people don't see, the off-season conditioning, all the running, all the lifting. He amazed a lot of people. Our strength coach couldn't believe some of the things he could do. You look at him, he's a big guy but he's not huge. He's just amazing."

After the Pitt game, Parker thought his career was off and running.

"Yeah, but it quickly turned around," he said.

Parker had 84 carries for 355 yards as a freshman, and his carries declined each succeeding season. He carried 83 times for 400 yards as a sophomore and capped the season with 131 yards in the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Parker's declining production in his junior (70-236) and senior (48-181) seasons led to the 5-10, 209-pounder with 4.3 speed not being drafted. The Steelers signed him as a free agent.

"What was their record? Two and 10? And he didn't even play?" said Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak. "I mean, after seeing him you wonder why not. A lot of times you get them here in camp and they don't pan out, but with the talent he has and the way he's played, you just wonder why he didn't get a chance."

Parker explained early in camp that "my running back coach made it hard for me all throughout college." Sammy Batten, an ACC beat reporter for the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, believes it had more to do with the head coach.

"John Bunting is an old-school guy who came through North Carolina at a time when the running backs did nothing but run between the tackles," Batten said. "Willie's a guy who likes to get outside and make big plays. It didn't mix with John's philosophy."

"Yeah, that's what he was saying," Parker said of Bunting. "But I used to run inside. I wasn't scared to run inside. I can do all that. You watched the game last week. You saw. They just had a lot of things going on, but I don't want to keep looking back. It's gone. I'm going forward. I'm going to move on with my life and keep going."

Will he move on with the Steelers?

"Well, I like his speed," said Hoak. "He's the fastest guy we have in the backfield. And from day one he's made very few mistakes. He's smart, he's always in the (play)book, he always wants to learn something, he pays attention, hard worker, makes very few mistakes for a first-year player. I like all that."

"I feel good but that's out of my control," Parker said of his chances with the Steelers. "It's out of my hands but I feel good about having fun out here. I've got all the guys believing in me and I feel good about that."

Inside Carolina Top Stories