LATROBE – His 75-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter broke open the Super Bowl and catapulted Willie Parker to the verge of NFL stardom.
But it is the job of the Pittsburgh Steelers' short-yardage back that Parker really covets this season.
After giving way to Jerome Bettis in short-yardage situations last season despite rushing for 1,202 yards, Parker is out to prove he's not just a speed back who can't get the tough yards.
"People say I'm a small back," Parker said. "But that's just because I'm smaller than what they're used to seeing a Steelers' running back be. I spent the offseason training for this season harder than ever before. I'm ready to carry whatever load they give me."
Parker took his first shot at doing that Saturday when the Steelers ran their second goal-line drill of training camp at Saint Vincent College.
After not getting any carries during Wednesday night's goal-line session, Parker started and got the first two of this one. He was stopped for a minimal gain on first down, but picked up three yards on second down before giving way to Verron Haynes. "We're looking at everybody there and Willie wants that chance," said coach Bill Cowher.
That's all Parker wants, a chance. Two years ago, it was a chance just to make the roster, which he did as an undrafted rookie. Last season, it was a chance to start, which he did when Bettis and Duce Staley were injured in training camp.
This season it's a chance to become a complete three-down running back, something that would make him an NFL star. "People recognize me now, but that doesn't bother me," Parker said. "That's nice. But then I had to get away for a while. I went down to Florida and worked out down there at the same place I worked out last year. People don't recognize me down in Florida."
Another 1,200-yard season and that won't happen anymore but Parker wouldn't mind. In fact, it would help him prove wrong the people who don't think he can have another season like he did last year.
"They're are going to be people criticizing," said Parker. "But as long as they are talking, it keeps on motivating me to be the best I can be. I don't want anybody ever to be satisfied with me because I'm never satisfied with me. I know I have to keep on working hard and practicing hard to be the best."
One thing Parker won't have this season that he had last year was Bettis. Parker could often be seen talking to Bettis on the sidelines, learning the nuances of the game and picking up the little things that helped him throughout his first season as a starter.
"It's time to grow up," said Parker. "It's like when my parents dropped me off at college. I remember I used to stay at home with them on Friday nights after games in high school. My dad would go off to bed, but my mom would stay up with me, like my friend, watching TV with me and talking. But my first day of college, they dropped me off and there were tears in our eyes because they were used to me being with them all the time. But they just said, ‘It's time to grow up.'
"There's a lot of room for improvement. Last year, a lot of the accolades I received, I can say were because of Jerome's help. This year, it's on me. I'm on the island. I have to take what he taught me and take it and put it in my game."
The 255 carries Parker got last season were nearly more than he had during his career at North Carolina, where he was never able win a full-time starting job and finished his career with 285 rushing attempts.
To help prepare to handle that kind of load, Parker spent his offseason training harder than before. And though he claims to have added no weight to his muscular 5-10, 209-pound frame, Parker says he's now stronger.
"You think about where he was a year ago, he was probably the fourth back," said Cowher. "Now you can just see that extra confidence in the way the kid's running, the way the kid's blocking, the way he's catching the ball."
Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.