The second Saturday in October was another picturesque day at the Cotton Bowl with that perfect blend of blue skies above, crimson and burnt orange surrounding that sacred 120-yards of green turf in the middle.
It would have been easy for Oklahoma cornerback Jordan Parker to pause for a couple of minutes and reflect on everything that he went through over the previous three months when the 2016 OU-Texas game arrived.
But it was midway through the first quarter of the Red River Rivalry. Starting cornerback Michiah Quick suffered a knee injury on a cheap-shot cut block by Texas receiver Jake Oliver.
Parker was the next man up. To him, it wasn’t the time or the place to think about himself.
“It was amazing to be playing in the Cotton Bowl,” he recalled. “Watching those games the previous years, I knew how big it was and I knew how important it was. I knew I couldn’t slack up or miss a step.”
The surreal experience from one of college football’s greatest rivalries didn’t occupy his mind.
But the then true freshman cornerback was the least likely person to be on the field that day. If Parker didn’t know the odds, those around him did.
Parker’s world turned upside down in late July of 2016. The Pittsburg, Calif., native and four-star recruit came to OU with big dreams. Doesn’t make him any different than every other freshman.
Before the start of each preseason camp, players undergo annual medical physicals. It’s the final clearance before practice begins. The overwhelming majority go off without a hitch. After all, players have just wrapped up summer workouts. Just about all are in the best physical shape of their lives by the middle of July.
But the Electrocardiogram machine revealed something abnormal in Parker’s heartbeat. The diagnosis was Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare birth defect where Parker’s heart had an extra electrical pathway. It caused the rapid heartbeat detected in the EKG test.
The initial consultation with OU’s physicians was the nightmare scenario for Parker.
“That was one on of the toughest day of my life. Just hearing that I had a heart problem and probably couldn’t play again,” Parker said.
His spirit rose when told there was corrective surgery for the condition.
“I just wanted to play football,” Parker said. “I knew it could give me a chance.”
It took two procedures before the cornerback’s heart was fixed. He was medically cleared to return to the field as the Sooners’ season began in September. But no one expected Parker to figure into the 2016 plans. He’d missed all of preseason camp. Sure, OU had a revolving door at the cornerback spot opposite Jordan Thomas. Dakota Austin, Parrish Cobb and Quick all took turns with only marginal success.
Still, that day at the Cotton Bowl, it was Parker who defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks sent in following Quick’s injury. Looking back, it still surprises the coach.
“You hear heart surgery and you’re thinking for sure that the kid is gonna have to redshirt,” Cooks said. “It’s incredible to look back on all the things that he went through with the procedure and being out of shape and coming back and actually playing and starting 10 games for me. That’s amazing; I don’t know if I’ll experience that again in my career.”
Parker started the final eight games of the 2016 season, finishing with 31 tackles, three pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Currently, he’s trying to hold onto to that starting spot. Austin, Quick and Cobb are gone. But sophomore Parnell Motley is coming on this spring.
The daily competition is what Parker figured he’d have to win to make his way at OU. He’s wired to excel in that setting.
“I think he was built that way when he came in. He had the mentality of working through and fighting through things,” Cooks said. “He has a goal. He was young man throughout the recruiting process that he had an end result that he wants when this is all done. He wants to get there as quickly as he can and I think that helped motivate him throughout all the things he went through last year.”
The heart problems are behind him. The surgery was a success. In the grand scheme, he was lucky doctors caught it early in his life.
But the other facet of Parker’s ordeal is he got another rare opportunity. In a matter of a few short months he proved to coaches and teammates he’s a guy that won’t back down when adversity arises.
“That just shows how much resilience he has,” Thomas said. “He’s never going to quit no matter what it is."