Parrish not pained picking up patchwork unit

Tony Parrish can rattle off the names and the injuries. "Zack Bronson, then Ronnie Heard, then Jason Webster," the 49ers' stud safety said. "The next year, it was Zack, Ronnie and Jason beat up again. The year after that, Mike's forearm and Ahmed's neck." Through it all, Parrish has remained the last man standing in the San Francisco secondary, the DB the Niners can count on through thick and thin. Now, with the secondary getting thinner every week, the 49ers are counting on him more than ever.

That's no big deal to Parrish. He's been through it all before. In fact, he's been through it every season since joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2002.

"I definitely try to stay the constant," Parrish said. "I just hate not being on the field. That's what it comes down to. It has to be something big for me not to be there. I've had my share of injuries, a couple of tough things I've had to deal with. But there's no let up. If I'm not out there, there's something really going wrong."

Just about everything has been going wrong so far this season in a secondary that has been a primary factor in San Francisco's defense allowing an NFL-worst 368 yards passing per game. But Parrish, a true warrior, has been there every step of the way to try and pick up the slack.

There has been a lot of that already this year, even though the season has only yet reached the quarter pole.

After just four games, the 49ers already have lost Rumph for the season with a foot injury and cornerback Ahmed Plummer until late this month after ankle surgery.

Plummer's replacement, rookie Derrick Johnson, will miss Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts with a thigh injury. Johnson's replacement, veteran Willie Middlebrooks – who was re-signed to the roster just last week after being dumped at the final roster cutdown in September – didn't practice again Thursday and also might miss Sunday's game.

Ho-hum. It's nothing new for Parrish, who has been watching DBs go down around him since the first season he stepped foot on San Francisco soil.

"I don't know what it is," Parrish said. "Ever since I arrived in San Francisco, it's kind of been like that. I guess it's become a little more of a motivation for me to shake off whatever nicks I might pick up, because I'm really just trying to be there for the guys."

Parrish has been shaking off those nicks his entire career, and there have been a lot of them during his three-plus seasons with the 49ers.

"I never had a (injury) problem until I first came here," Parrish said. "I came here and all of a sudden I started getting hit all kind of ways and falling apart."

Parrish can rattle off his own injuries just like the names of his injured secondary comrades over the years: Surgery to remove a testicle after a tumor was found in the gland before he even played his first down with the 49ers. Osteitis pubis in his groin. A dislocated elbow. Ligament damage in his forearm. A torn obturator internus muscle in his left hip. A sprained knee ligament.

Each of those injuries would be enough to sideline most athletes, but Parrish played on. The closest he came to missing a game was in December 2002 after his right arm had swollen to almost double its normal size the week before. Wearing a cumbersome brace on his arm, Parrish had two interceptions in that game, the 49ers beat Dallas to clinch their first NFC West title in five seasons, and Parrish was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance.

"That was the closest I've been to not going in," Parrish said. "But I have to admit, it hurt."

But pain can't stop Parrish. He has started every game since entering the NFL as a second-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 1998. That's a string of 119 consecutive games, including playoffs – the second-longest streak to begin a career by a defensive back in NFL history.

Parrish will make his 117th consecutive regular-season start against the Colts, and that ranks as the league's second-longest active streak at his position. The starters around him in San Francisco's secondary, meanwhile, are lacking experience. If Middlebrooks can't play, only second-year cornerback Shawntae Spencer enters Sunday's game with more than one previous NFL start.

"We're down to the bone," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It puts us a little bit on the spot right now, certainly in this game and who we're playing. That's why it's good to have (Parrish) back there. He's a pretty stable force in there. He is the top dog in the secondary, and it's an additional duty to have to educate the young guys at the same time."

Parrish will do his best to hold together a beleaguered unit that has been largely responsible for San Francisco's defense allowing an NFL-worst 368 yards passing per game. But it's not the first time he finds himself in that role.

Plummer and Rumph – the team's regular cornerbacks in 2004 – missed a combined 24 games last season. The year before, the three regular secondary starters around Parrish missed 16 games. In 2002, free safety Zack Bronson broke his foot in October and missed the final 11 games, leaving Parrish to make the secondary calls just five games into his first season with the 49ers.

He has been doing it ever since.

That's not all he's doing for the San Francisco defense. Parrish is one of the few things going right for a unit that ranks last in the NFL in yards, points and first downs allowed.

The eight-year veteran has two of San Francisco's three interceptions this season and is third on the team with 23 tackles. He returned his first interception this year 34 yards for a touchdown in Week 3 against Dallas – the second TD return of his career. That play pushed him over 500 yards in interception returns since he joined the 49ers.

Since the beginning of the 2001 season, Parrish leads the NFL with 25 interceptions. He has led the 49ers in that department each of his first three seasons with the team.

That's not the only way in which Parrish currently is leading a battered secondary.

"You couldn't even imagine how much he's helping us (other defensive backs)," said Mike Adams, who's now teaming with Parrish at free safety. "He's been working with a lot of different people, and you always know he's going to be in the right spot. Tony's the leader back there. As long as I have TP in my ear yelling at me all the time, I'll be good."

For the Niners, having Parrish around to do that again is as good as it gets for a secondary that can use all the help it can get.

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