As with most things in life, success on the playing field is a combination of talent, dedication and hard work. Willie Parker has shown those three things in all facets of his career in sports.
From his days as a star running back at Clinton High School in Clinton, North Carolina, to his years honing his skills at the University of North Carolina through his NFL championship run with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Parker has always strived to be his best. His playing days are behind him, but as a high school coach he continues to push himself and share what he has learned with a new generation of athletes.
Although best known for his success on the gridiron, it was a different sport that drew him into athletics.
“My parents were big UNC fans, and we used to watch Michael Jordan and James Worthy when I was three and four years old,” Parker recalls. “That really drew me into sports—watching the UNC basketball team.”
Watching his basketball heroes inspired Parker to get out in the game, but his talents drew him primarily to football. Playing high school football at Clinton gave him a taste of what would become his life’s passion. He was able to develop his game and contribute to some very successful teams. But that kind of success doesn’t come easily.
“I was fortunate enough to play on some championship teams in high school,” Parker says. “It was very challenging, but as a team we worked very hard at overcoming every obstacle and task year in and year out. I always felt that if we were all doing our jobs, we would put the team in a position to succeed.”
Fighting for a Shot
Parker followed up his high school success by playing college football at UNC, the school where his boyhood heroes played. He proudly wore the colors of the legends he wanted to emulate. But here he found all new challenges and, in the end, opportunities to grow.
“Something I had to overcome in college was not really playing as much. When you’re a young athlete, you feel like you should be on the field all the time. When you’re not getting the same look as another athlete, you have to really dig deep within yourself to make your coaches see what you bring to the table,” Parker says. “That was a big challenge for me in college.”
Everyone faces adversity, but success is defined by a person’s innate ability to handle it and move on to the next challenge. Parker found the persistence and faith to break through.
“I worked hard in the classroom and even harder on the practice field,” Parker recalls. “I was mentally exhausted, but I had to show these coaches how valuable I am. Every day it bothered me, but I worked through it, kept working through it and kept pressing. And then I got a shot. Even though I didn’t play in college, I got a shot to play at the next level and I think I took advantage of my opportunity.”
Facing down those tough years was an important part of Parker’s own personal journey.
“I think that it not only made me a better player, it made me a better person,” he says. “This was my biggest challenge. I was on successful high school teams and you think when you get to college it will be the same. But you have to work for everything. My college coaches put that out there. Nothing is given to you. You have to earn everything you get.”
The Next Level
In 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed Parker as an undrafted free agent. He joined an impressive backfield that included Duce Staley and NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis. Late in the season, Parker had a breakthrough game against the Buffalo Bills, where he ran for 102 yards in three quarters. In 2005, he worked his way onto the starting roster for the Steelers.
He played with the Steelers through 2009, and in those years won two Super Bowl rings and was twice selected to play in the Pro Bowl. Parker retired from football in 2012. For all his successes and accolades, the scrappy running back that had to fight for his shot considers his team’s underdog moment to be his favorite NFL memory.
“My favorite moment with the Steelers was when we couldn’t lose any more regular season games,” Parker recalls. “Our playoff started mid-season. We had to win eight straight games, including playoffs, to reach the Super Bowl.”