With his record-setting 75-yard run, Steelers Parker has come long way

February 06, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

Detroit ---Lets face it, by the time the Rolling Stones took the stage last night, the Super Bowl was starting to look like a cocker spaniel, or some other canine variety, and there was reason to suspect that this dog was never going to hunt.

Ben Roethlisberger had a 29.2 passerrating for the half. Jerome Bettis, whose Motor City homecoming was the dominant human interest theme of the pre-game buildup, had 4 yards on three carries in the half and had failed to get into the end zone on a pair of short-yardage blasts.

Not much was happening on the other side of the ball, either, which was the only way to explain how the Steelers went into halftime sitting a half point from the 4-point spread.

Maybe the Steelers were waiting for Mick Jagger to rock Ford Field with his supergroups standard opener Start Me Up. Or maybe Willie Parker just hadnt decided that it was time yet.

That would be consistent with his entire football career, which has been a study in unusual patience, punctuated by a series of unexpected breakthroughs not the least of which was the 75-yard touchdown run he broke off in the third quarter to give the Steelers a double-digit lead and Parker the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.

Parker is one of those feel-good stories that allows every college football player to dream of Super Bowl glory, even when the opportunity to play professional football has all but slipped away.

He watched other running backs get most of the carries at North Carolina, starting only five games in four years. He butted heads with the coaching staff and rode the bench and watched the entire game on Senior Day, then was not chosen in the NFL draft. The only reason the Steelers signed him was because scout Dan Rooney Jr. liked him in high school. Hows that for a winding road to Super Bowl immortality?

I didnt give up, he said earlier in the week. I kept striving. I would like to think that made me a stronger person, both on and off the field.

So the 30 minutes or so of clock time that it took for him to emerge from the Super Bowl shadow of Roethlisberger and Bettis probably didnt seem like much in the greater scheme of things, because Parker has waited before. Waited at UNC. Waited for a chance with the Steelers. Waited and then grabbed hold of his destiny, first when some training camp injuries forced him into the starting backfield and allowed him to establish himself with 1,202 yards this year.

Coming into this year, Willie was our third running back, coach M-5Bill M-5Cowher said last week. He maybe had seven or eight touches last year, then he played in the final [regular-season] game when we were resting our regulars and ran for more than 100 yards. We had some injuries, he got in there and he never looked back.

Parker didnt complain when all the pre-game Super Bowl hype focused on Bettis. It isnt a competition. Bettis has been a happy mentor, preparing Parker to replace him as he prepares to retire literally teaching the ins and outs of the running-back business to a student who clearly wants to learn.

The big run in the third quarter was a product of that tutelage. Bettis counseled Parker to resist the temptation to rely entirely on his outside speed. The big runs, Bettis told him, come when you bust the line, which is exactly what Parker did over the right tackle on the second play from scrimmage after halftime.

It was the watershed moment in the Steelers title run, though a huge mistake by Roethlisberger later in the third quarter created a quantum momentum shift that ushered the Seahawks back into the game. Kelly Herndon picked off an under-thrown pass at the Seattle 4-yard line and ran it back to the Pittsburgh 20 for the longest interception return in Super Bowl history.

Matt Hasselbeck hit Jerramy Stevens with a 16-yard touchdown pass to make it a one-possession game, but Hasselbeck also would throw a disastrous interception deep in Steelers territory to squander the Seahawks most promising opportunity to take control of the game.

It wasnt pretty. Parker averaged only 2 yards for the rest of his carries, but he finished with 93 yards, and the Steelers probably would not be ordering those glitzy rings without him, which isnt bad for a guy who couldnt find steady work in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Not bad at all.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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