Willie Parker healthy and eager

Staff WriterApril 30, 2010 

While growing up as an enthusiastic Dallas Cowboys fan, the last thing Willie Parker ever wanted to do was play football for the Washington Redskins.

"I gotta admit it still seems a little bit funny," the Redskins' new running back said this week.

"It's like, 'You sure you really want to be wearing this jersey?' But yeah, I do. There's nothing I've ever wanted more than be with this team at this time."

Approaching his 30th birthday after six eventful, highlight-worthy seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Parker probably is nearing the end of an against-all-odds NFL career.

"Fast Willie" didn't play much in 2003 for a 2-10 Tar Heels team, an experience that left him disillusioned. He went undrafted the following spring in the 2004 NFL draft and signed with Pittsburgh, a powerful franchise that already had established runners in Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley.

"But I've always liked to prove myself," Parker said. "Now I'm going to do it again but only bigger and better. No. 39's going to roll again, I promise."

A broken right leg in 2007, a bum knee in 2008 and a bout with turf toe last season helped end Parker's run in Pittsburgh.

It was a glorious run that included 5,378 rushing yards, 24 touchdowns and a game-breaking, 75-yard Super Bowl scoring sprint against Seattle in 2006, still the longest scoring run from the line of scrimmage in Super Bowl history.

Although the Steelers showed some interest in retaining Parker as a free agent at season's end, the Redskins were more willing to ante up a reported $3.1-million, one-year contract that threw him into competition against incumbent Clinton Portis and a second free agent, Larry Johnson, for the lead running role in new coach Mike Shanahan's offense.

It's the sort of challenge the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Parker has embraced since his days at Clinton High.

"I'm so jacked, I do feel like a kid again," Parker said of his spring minicamp workouts. "Being healthy makes all the difference in the world. This is the first time I've not had to work through some sort of pretty bad pain in four years. My speed is finally back to where it used to be. It's a great feeling."

Parker is equally excited about helping a battered, proud franchise find its way back.

Still the NFL team of choice for many North Carolinians, Washington hasn't won the NFC East since going 10-6 in 1999, and that title was sandwiched between a 3-13 record in 1998 and an 8-8 campaign in 2000.

Besides a new coach, a lot more has changed since the Redskins went 4-12 in 2009, averaging less than 17 points per game.

Former Philadelphia Eagles' fixture Donovan McNabb has been brought in at quarterback, and the offensive line should benefit from the arrival of first-round draft pick Trent Williams.

"It was a business decision all the way to sign with the Skins, but it's a perfect situation, the way I see it," Parker said. "This team is starting all over again. I'm starting all over again. Donovan McNabb is starting all over again. L.J. [Johnson], too. There are a lot of us out to prove ourselves. We're going to give these Washington fans something to get excited about again."

Back in Durham, where Parker resides in the offseason, members of Parker's family are excited. Parker said his sister, Durham resident Kim Parker, is exactly the kind of deep-rooted Redskins fan that once made the team so popular in North Carolina.

"She's like a lot of people back home and definitely a lot of people around Clinton. She loves the Skins. Me too, now," Parker said.

He's also solidly back in the UNC fold, too, he added.

"All wounds healed, all fences mended," Parker said. "I'll be a Tar Heel till the day I die.

"But I always loved the school and the people there and all the fans, and I've always been very close to [Carolina strength coach] Jeff Connors. I got upset about playing time, but you put old feelings behind as you go along. I want the Heels to win every game."

Parker said his rift with then-coach John Bunting actually was beneficial in the long run.

"That whole situation gave me the motivation to make it with the Steelers," Parker said. "I'm still motivated, too."

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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