Healthy Parker Has Steelers on Run Again in NFL Playoffs

Willie Parker, shown in November, was limited by injuries during the regular season but ran for 146 yards and two scores in Sunday's playoff win.
Willie Parker, shown in November, was limited by injuries during the regular season but ran for 146 yards and two scores in Sunday's playoff win. (By Gregory Shamus -- Getty Images)
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By Mark Viera
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 15 -- On the top shelf of his locker, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker keeps a placard that reads, "Perseverance." He had it made earlier this season, he said, when he was stressed and battling injuries. He looks at the sign every day.

In college, he learned perseverance after spending time on the bench. Last weekend, he showed perseverance against the San Diego Chargers. And this weekend, he will surely need perseverance against the Baltimore Ravens.

By rushing for 146 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-24 win last Sunday against the Chargers, Parker outran the injuries and inconsistencies that have nagged him this season. But the afterglow of his performance against the Chargers has not lasted as the Steelers prepare to face the Ravens in the AFC championship on Sunday.

Finally healthy, Parker could play a pivotal role against the Ravens' engulfing defense. The Steelers defeated the Ravens twice this season, by a total of seven points, and the third act should similarly feature dominating defense and plodding, grind-it-out offenses.

"It's going to be a war out there," Parker said. "We just got to go out and fight."

Parker had little or no role in the two previous games. On Sept. 29, he did not play because of a knee injury. On Dec. 14, Parker was limited to 47 yards on 14 carries. Now, with Parker healthy, the Steelers are hoping his performance will be different.

"Willie has that type of personality that when he feels good he has a bounce in his step and it permeates throughout a football team," Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters on Tuesday. "Him feeling good physically and mentally may be rubbing off on a lot of people. Hopefully it is."

Before Parker was in the spotlight in Pittsburgh, he was on the bench at the University of North Carolina. Parker clashed with the coaching staff when John Bunting took over for Carl Torbush after Parker's freshman year. He only played a limited amount for the Tar Heels.

"Obviously there was more we could have gotten out of him," André Powell, the former North Carolina running backs coach, said Thursday in a telephone interview. "That goes both ways. That was some of us, that was some of Willie. For whatever reason, we were not able to connect."

Powell, who currently coaches Clemson's running backs, added: "He learned to hold on to his dreams. That obviously shows. Based on what's happened, a lesser man would have given up."

Parker came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie in 2004, but he quickly became a revered figure among Steelers fans. In his second season, he took over the starting role from Jerome Bettis, who was in his 10th season with Pittsburgh. (Bettis retired after the 2005 season.)

In that season, Parker helped jolt Pittsburgh to a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. His 75-yard touchdown run, the longest in Super Bowl history, has become his signature moment in a Steelers uniform. The scintillating play, along with his reported time of 4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash, helped cement the prefix "Fast" to his name.

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