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Parker's space odyssey

DETROIT – The posse of reporters, fans and family has gone everywhere behind Jerome Bettis this week, sometimes as many as a 20 deep. Occasionally, you'll see a short guy carrying a ladder just so he can take pictures of Bettis without getting blocked out by the ever-growing blob of microphones and television crews.

Willie Parker knows this blob well. It has mercilessly devoured his locker – which is situated next to Bettis' – almost every game this season.

You could see it on Jan. 8 after the Pittsburgh Steelers' first playoff win over Cincinnati, when Parker had to slip into his locker, throw on his pants and shirt and then stuff his belongings into a bag just to get out of the way. The postgame refugee routine was familiar. Sometimes, if he didn't make haste in the shower, he'd be helpless to get to his locker. Sort of gives new meaning to the nickname "Fast Willie."

Yet, ask Parker if he feels neglected and he'll cut you off before you can finish the suggestion.

"No, no – never," he said. "(Jerome) is a Hall of Fame guy. When I came here, I wasn't even expecting to play. He took me under his arm and saw something in me and helped me out along the way. It would be wrong of me to say I feel neglected or anything. I'm cheering for the guy."

In that regard, Willie Parker falls in line with about a million other people. Walk through the press conferences, and the modest gatherings around Parker have paled in comparison to Bettis, who has seemingly been trailed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. That's ironic.

While the overexposed, super-hyped story of Bettis' return to Detroit is good, Parker's tale might be the best one going. No vital player has been more overlooked this week. And maybe no player who steps onto the field for Super Bowl XL started his NFL career further away from the game's biggest stage.

Two years ago, Parker came out of North Carolina as a little-used backup running back who was known more for his speed and fanaticism in the weight room than his production on the field. Despite being a highly touted prep prospect out of Clinton, N.C., Parker was never able to carve a niche with the Tar Heels. His college days were spent behind other undistinguished players, and even now, he still tells the story of his Senior Day game against Duke, when he never got off the bench and felt the embarrassment of facing his mother and father afterward.

"That was a slap in my face," he said.

Those are details that still astound most NFL observers, who wonder how Parker could put up better rushing numbers his one year as an NFL starter (1,202 yards) than his entire four-year run at North Carolina (1,179).

"I really couldn't even get on the field," Parker said. "… I wouldn't blame it all on the coaches. I will take some of the blame. We just weren't seeing eye to eye. It was just one of those situations where the coaches are going to always be right and the player is never right. They decided not to play me, and I had to live with it."

"They" were Tar Heels coach John Bunting and his staff – whom Parker doesn't communicate with anymore. While he didn't go into great detail about his sputtering college career, at least part of the issue seems to be related to the unflattering nickname Parker earned behind closed doors in the program – "Clinton Bypass," for his penchant of bouncing running plays to the outside instead of staying between the tackles. It's a trait that he admittedly continues to refine.

Had it not been for Steelers scout Dan Rooney Jr., who had come across Parker when he was a star in high school, Parker's much-needed break may have come and gone.

Despite having amazing speed (around 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash), scouts knocked Parker's size (5-foot-10, 208 pounds) and overall lack of production heading into the 2004 draft. If anything, he was viewed as a project that would likely turn into little more than a special teams player or third-down back.

But while scouting North Carolina before the draft, Rooney Jr. decided to invite Parker to work out with Pittsburgh, largely on his memories of a high school player who had led his team to a state championship as a junior. Ultimately, Rooney's report had the Steelers offering a free agent contract after Parker went undrafted.

"He ran a fast 40 time, and when he got to camp, he opened eyes with his speed," head coach Bill Cowher said. "He made the team, but he didn't play a lot for us his first year. But he did some things in the preseason that opened our eyes. Then he played in Week 16 last (season) against Buffalo when we rested some of our players, and he got over 100 yards against the No. 2 rush defense in the NFL. At that point, we thought he had some special abilities."

But they weren't special enough to make Parker a factor right away. Heading into this season, he was still at the bottom of Pittsburgh's depth chart, behind what was expected to be a 1-2 punch of Bettis and Duce Staley. Had it not been for Staley's knee surgery on Aug. 3 and a subsequent calf injury sustained by Bettis, Parker may have been suiting up for spot duty. Instead, he parlayed a strong preseason – including a 51-yard run on a carry against Washington – into a starting job on opening day, rushing for an eye-popping 272 yards in his first two games.

Even with the fast start, stardom hasn't come easily. Parker averaged 4.7 yards per carry this season – fifth-best among 1,000-yard rushers – but he went over 100 yards only once against a playoff-caliber team (Cincinnati on Oct. 23). At the same time, he split carries with Bettis and only had over 20 carries five times this season while still improving as a between-the-tackles running back.

"Being behind Jerome Bettis, he's learned to run inside," Cowher said. "If you watch him run at the beginning against Tennessee and Houston and then watch him run near the end of the season, you're going to see a guy who has really grown as a back."

"From Week 1 until now, he's a totally different running back," Bettis said. "He has the patience now. He understands how to play off a block and how to set up blocks. … He's a lot better (as a receiver). When he first started running screens, the problem was he got out before his blockers got out. I told him, 'Willie, if you do that, you'll have a short career. They're going to beat you up.' I think the patience has developed in that area."

Patience is one of the things that teammates bring up most when they talk about Parker. The patience it must have taken to get through his situation at North Carolina, the patience it takes to share the spotlight with Bettis. But while he's spent much of Super Bowl week on the back burner, he hasn't been anonymous in the Seattle Seahawks' film sessions.

In a game that has turned plenty of hidden talents into Super Bowl MVPs, the Seahawks know Parker may be the most dangerous dark horse Pittsburgh has.

"He's fast, man," Seahawks defensive end Grant Wistrom said. "The guys on the backside (of a play) really have to keep the edge. He's not going to take it all the way around and go the other way."

As his college coaches might have put it, Parker is not afraid to run a Clinton Bypass. Only this time, it's meant in positive terms.

"You can get down in any tough situation like (at North Carolina)," Parker said. "That was like a rainstorm, and I didn't prepare for the rainstorm coming out of high school. Now I'm prepared for anything that comes my way. It helped me in a lot of ways. I want to thank them, because they made me a stronger person. They made me a stronger person on and off the field."

Not that he has to worry about being off of it too much anymore. Now Parker just copes with learning, improving and leaving the past behind. That – and making room for Jerome Bettis interviews.