From zero to sixty for Fast Willie Parker

PITTSBURGH – It's been a full year for Willie Parker. He won a ring, put his name in the Super Bowl record book, broke a 36-year-old team rushing record, made the Pro Bowl, and Thursday was named Steelers MVP by a unanimous vote of his teammates.

For Parker, who languished on the bench at the University of North Carolina, it's a year he never could have imagined.

"Never," he said. "That's why I'm speechless right now. I'm just speechless and I want to thank the man up above for just giving me this opportunity."

Parker also thanked the Pittsburgh Steelers for giving him a chance, but while scout Dan Rooney, Jr. recruited and signed Parker to a free-agent contract with the team, the man most responsible for keeping him in the game, when all appeared bleak, was Parker's father.

"My dad, he's a great man, and he just kept me in the right frame of mind," Parker said. "He made me go lift weights, go run, and told me it was going to be alright. He took me to church and made me go in front. I'm embarrassed going up in front of the church getting prayed for, but he told me ..."

Parker's voice tailed off. His dad may not have told Parker he'd ever enjoy such a year, but he said enough to get his son through a miserable college experience.

As a senior, Parker carried the ball only 43 times for 181 yards. It killed his draft prospects, except for the fact that Rooney lived near Parker's hometown of Clinton, North Carolina, and was intrigued by Parker, his 40 time and the state championship football program he watched when he had a free Friday night.

"I can't remember specifically seeing him play," Rooney once said, "but I used to go see the Dark Horses play and all those backs used to run up and down the field."

So during draft season 2004, Rooney kept a close eye on his newest favorite Dark Horse, and when Parker wasn't drafted Rooney called first and brought him on board. Bill Cowher was surprised at what he saw from Parker at that first camp.

"You get guys like that and the first question is, okay, what's the hole? Why didn't this guy play? There has to be a reason," Cowher said. "Here I am three years later asking the same question."

The one hole in Parker's game, according to the sports-talk set, is that he's not Jerome Bettis and he does not move the ball three and four yards at a time, nor does he move the team 10 yards at a time. Parker is not a ball-control back, but instead a home-run hitter.

It's worked well enough for Parker to pile up a 1,360-yard season with one game to play, yet it's not enough for some people.

"I almost am surprised at the people who continue to question Willie Parker," Cowher said. "What he's accomplished and what he's done for really two consecutive years speaks volumes about him, and I think the vote that took place today, that was clearly unanimous, speaks to how his teammates feel about him.

"I think he's a guy who's got an unbelievable future. He'll continue to get better and will get better. He's a very grounded young man. I can't say enough about him. He's a special back and a special person."

Cowher was asked for specifics on Parker's future.

"He'll get better holding onto the football, catching the football," Cowher said. "The good thing about him coming out of North Carolina is the fact he hasn't been hit a lot. I think he's got a very young body. And you don't see a lot of big hits on him. He does a nice job of, number one, running away from people, and he knows how to stay low to the ground. You don't see a lot of big hits. He's got a good feel for where defenders are."

Parker is also getting a good feel for accepting awards. He once again spoke to a group of reporters Thursday after practice.

"For those guys to say I'm the Most Valuable Player on the team, that's just phenomenal," he said. "I come to work every day and lift weights with these guys and joke with them, but they look at me the way I look at them. I look at them as the greatest players in this league. If I had to vote, I'd vote for this whole team for Most Valuable Player but I could only vote for one person. No, I didn't vote for myself. I voted for somebody who I thought led this team very well."

In an indirect way, that "somebody" could've been his father, who saved what's becoming a brilliant career.

"Yeah, I came close to quitting," Parker said. "I'm glad I didn't. I'm glad I was surrounded by a great cast of people like my parents, who just made me do the things I didn't want to do. I thought there was no light behind the tunnel."

NOTE – Linebacker Clark Haggans has been ruled out of Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.


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