Verron, Fast Willie on the beach

LATROBE – At the end of every practice, running backs Willie Parker and Verron Haynes strip to their shorts and wave to friends, talk to family, sign autographs, and in general strut around like the one-two running punch of the Pittsburgh Steelers that they've become.

"Like he's Thunder and I'm Lightening?" asked Parker. "Nah, I don't know about that."

Willie Parker, 25, and Verron Haynes, 27, are finely tuned athletes in the prime of their lives, and they're determined to show it off. Not that anyone at St. Vincent College can blame them.

"We're so happy when practice gets over, we take our shirts off and kind of joke with it," said Fast Willie. "I guess it's a running back thing."

If they're not Thunder and Lightening, they might be the Sunshine Boys .

"The Sunshine Boys?" Parker asked with disdain. "How about the Beach Boys? Yeah, the Beach Boys. We're at the beach out here after practice."

Haynes, the older and more mature of the one-two punch, approached. He didn't care for the moniker.

"Shake and Bake, baby, we're Shake and Bake," Haynes said. "Didn't you see Talladega Nights? Shake and Bake. That's us."

The two are distinctly different, yet inseparable. They've lockered next to each other since Parker signed with the Steelers as an undrafted rookie in 2004. Haynes was drafted in the fifth round in 2002. Both grew up under the tutelage of one Jerome Bettis, and now they're trying to put all that they learned to good use.

"Jerome, he left a hole in the running back meeting room and I think we need to pick it up," said Parker. "He used to always joke with us, play with us, but at the same time we felt the love and the chemistry because it was Jerome. I think we need that same chemistry to be successful."

So to that end Parker and Haynes run together both on and off the field. They're so tight they can tell each other the truth.

"The brutal truth," said Haynes. "That's what we stick with. Sometimes it's difficult, being that we are friends, but I think in the midst of everything he's able to take constructive criticism and so am I."

Why just the other day, Haynes told Parker he needs to work harder in practice.

"Getting six reps in a game ain't gonna cut it," Haynes said. "Come September he's going to be in there, so practice has to be his game. That's how he has to view it and really push himself because six reps in a game really won't do it."

And Parker responded in kind. Haynes attempted to pick up a blitz in practice Monday but he got outside his man. Parker told him he had to square up and Haynes thanked him for saying so.

"A lot comes from being friends off the field, which leads to respect on the field," Haynes said. "I respect what Willie did. He's come a long way from a rookie being on ‘Jacked Up.' He's come a long way from there; he's excelled and we're glad to actually complement each other, and also critique each other. We take pride in doing that."

Parker, a.k.a. FWP, is, well, Fast Willie Parker. He's a natural outside runner with the strength to surprise inside. Haynes is the exact opposite. With Duce Staley struggling, the two have become the one-two punch the Steelers are counting on.

They're young and at St. Vincent College they've shone like the sun. But can they pull it off? Can they keep the Pittsburgh Steelers' running game viable in spite of the loss of their leader?

"I've kind of stood in the shadows and watched Jerome all this time," said Haynes. "Trying to assume that leadership role just came second nature to me after watching him these last few years. So you want to step up and be accountable, and be held accountable. This is my fifth year now and I think I'm ready."

Haynes has replaced Bettis on the practice field with his fire. He stands up for the offense when defenders such as Joey Porter and James Harrison are in a bullying mood. The goal-line and backs-on-backers drills remain a show of not only might and skill, but of lip service, just as it was under Bettis's rule.

"You have to stand up," Haynes said. "I think that in itself makes us better because then you have a bullseye on your chest as a target, which is basically what you're faced with out there on Sundays. If you can make practice as physical and as demanding as the games, I think the games will be that much easier."

After one hotly contested drill, after Porter and Haynes hollered at each other in defense of their units, Porter admonished himself for breaking his own golden rule: He had spoken to a backup!

"That didn't bother me because I hit him right back," Haynes said. "At the time he wasn't practicing and I said, ‘It's easy to talk from the air conditioning.' But it's all in fun. Joey even came up to me Saturday night after that blitzer got past me and he said, ‘You're better than that.' He said, ‘You get that nine times out of 10. Don't even worry about that.' So that just shows the kind of guy he is. On the field it's all competitive and off the field we're family."

And the two key running backs – Parker and Haynes – are like brothers.

"And it's not just about this camp," Parker said. "When I first came in, V led me. He didn't lead me astray; he led me in the right direction. This camp I made up my mind to get real close to the running backs. We were close last year but this year we've got to have the type of bond on and off the field, but on the field more because it's going to be us carrying the load."

And they hope they can carry it all the way to the beach, only a real beach. Miami Beach.

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