With Speed, Parker Makes Rapid Progress

Saturday, February 4, 2006

DETROIT, Feb. 3 -- The big star of Super Bowl week has been Pittsburgh Steelers tailback Jerome Bettis, who will be playing what likely will be his final NFL game in his home town on Sunday. But Bettis isn't even the Steelers' starting tailback. That job belongs to Willie Parker, but the unheralded second-year pro isn't begrudging Bettis any of the attention that is coming his way.

"He's a Hall of Famer," Parker said. "Everybody in the city of Pittsburgh loves that guy. Everybody in the city of Detroit loves that guy. I love that guy. He helped me out. He didn't have to help me out, but he did."

Parker replaced veteran Duce Staley this season as the running back, sharing time and splitting carries with Bettis, and he gives the Steelers a dimension--speed--they didn't have last season, when they went 15-1 during the regular season but lost the AFC title game to the New England Patriots.

Parker is one of this week's most surprising success stories. He wasn't even a starter in college at North Carolina, and he nearly quit football as a junior in college because he wasn't playing.

"I thought about quitting a few times," he said. "But my mom and dad wouldn't let me. They said they didn't raise any quitters. I'm glad I didn't. I wouldn't be here today."

Steelers scout Dan Rooney, son of the team's owner of the same name, had been a high school coach in North Carolina and had seen Parker play in high school. He knew about Parker's speed and persuaded club officials to sign Parker as an undrafted rookie free agent.

"The only thing I knew about him was that he could run a fast 40[-yard dash] time," Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said. "He opened up some eyes with his speed at that first training camp. . . . [But] you always hear about guys with speed, and I want to see how they are as football players."

Parker made the roster. Although he barely played as a rookie, he ran for 102 yards in the regular season finale, with the Steelers having already clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

The team's coaches entered this season planning, Cowher said, to have Parker touch the ball seven or eight times a game. Staley's knee problems put Parker into the lineup more regularly, however, and he ran for 1,202 yards. He was the AFC's seventh-leading rusher.

"I don't think anybody else thought I could make it," Parker said. "That's what motivates me every day when I wake up."

Polamalu Cleared

An MRI exam of the injured ankle of Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu showed no serious damage, Cowher said Friday. Polamalu awakened Thursday with a sore ankle, according to Cowher, so the Steelers limited his participation in practice. Polamalu underwent an MRI on Thursday night, Cowher said, and is expected to play Sunday. Polamalu participated in a little more than half of the Steelers' practice Friday. . . . Wide receiver Hines Ward sat out the last half of the practice because of a sore shoulder but is scheduled to play Sunday.

Extra Points

The Seahawks transferred to federal court in Texas a lawsuit by Texas A&M charging the team with violating the school's trademark of the "12th-Man" slogan, which the club has used with increasing popularity during its Super Bowl run to honor the fan support it receives in Seattle. . . .

Media members who serve as voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are scheduled to meet here Saturday and elect four to six inductees.

Troy Aikman and Reggie White appear to be virtually certain choices. The two seniors committee nominees, John Madden and Rayfield Wright, also seem to have good chances of being elected.

Two former Washington Redskins players, Art Monk and Russ Grimm, are among the 15 finalists.

The other finalists are Harry Carson, L.C. Greenwood, Claude Humphrey, Michael Irvin, Bob Kuechenberg, Warren Moon, Derrick Thomas, Thurman Thomas and Gary Zimmerman.

-- Mark Maske

© 2006 The Washington Post Company