Chapel Hill: Sports

‘Believe, believe, believe’ – and the Wildcats do

Former Tar Heel and Pittsburgh Steeler Willie Parker, right, speaks to the assembled East Chapel Hill football players before their practice Thursday.
Former Tar Heel and Pittsburgh Steeler Willie Parker, right, speaks to the assembled East Chapel Hill football players before their practice Thursday. FABIAN RADULESCU

Digging yourself out of an 0-11 season isn’t easy.

Neither is making it from the town of Clinton to the NFL.

Former North Carolina and Pittsburgh Steeler star Willie Parker told some of his personal story to members of East Chapel Hill’s football varsity Thursday, relating how he rose from obscurity to being a local hero for Clinton High School’s Dark Horses. And from there all the way to the Super Bowl.

It’s simple, really.

“Believe, believe, believe,” Parker told the players as they sat in East Chapel Hill’s darkened auditorium.

Of course there’s more to success than that, he told them. But belief in yourself and your teammates is an essential place to start.

“It requires a belief in yourself that you’re never going to give up, no matter the circumstances, no matter what,” Parker said. “Once you have the mindset that you will always do you best, that can take you anywhere.”

Blazing speed helps, too.

Much like North Carolina basketball star Michael Jordan, who almost didn’t make his Laney High School varsity team for a lack of effort, Parker struggled to get a starting role at Clinton High School. Flummoxed by his lack of playing time despite his quickness and agility, he did some soul-searching.

“He did his research,” East Chapel Hill’s first-year head coach Ryan Johnson said “He talked to the guys ahead of him and found out how they became successful. It wasn’t like he just turned on a light and became a superstar; he worked hard.

“He was resilient. He was going to ‘make it’ – period.”

Getting his chance, Parker he rushed for 1,329 yards and 20 touchdowns and helped lead his team to the state 2A title in his junior year. As a senior, he rushed for 1,801 yards and 18 touchdowns.

But, even after Parker succeeded at Clinton, he had to prove himself all over again at the University of North Carolina.

The murder of Parker’s best friend back home in Clinton during his sophomore year almost derailed his career, and he had some trouble adapting to the offense installed by then-head coach John Bunting, who wanted the slender and lightning fast Parker to be more of a power runner.

Even with limited playing time at UNC, Parker’s 4.23 speed in the 40-yard dash couldn't be ignored, and he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004. He thought his $4,000 signing bonus was big money, he told the Wildcats.

That humble attitude helped him survive his rookie season at Pittsburgh and help him retain his patience while he played behind Steeler starter Jerome Bettis, much like Franco Harris had once been a backup to Lydell Mitchell.

Parker’s shining moment came in the third quarter of Super Bowl XL, when his speed was brilliantly displayed in a 75-yard touchdown run – the longest rushing play for a touchdown in Super Bowl history. His touchdown put the Steelers up 14-3, and they went on to win the Super Bowl, Parker finishing with 93 yards on just 10 carries.

In 2006 Parker’s adjusted contract with the Steelers came out as a four-year, $13.6 million dollar deal.

That's a long way from Clinton, N.C.

Parker retired as a pro player in 2012, and now resides in Durham, where he struck up a friendship with North Carolina Central assistant coach Carl Funderburk and his wife, Eileen Tully, who just happens to be the principal at East Chapel Hill High School. And that's how Parker ended up coming by to visit the Wildcats, who are rebuilding after a winless finish in 2014.

“We all thought it was good to hear him,” East Chapel Hill quarterback Brater Gerber said. “We’re all excited to have him here.”

Parker had plenty to tell East Chapel Hill’s Wildcats before their first game of the season, and they soaked it in as he talked from the school auditorium stage. Even so, he had more to say by the time he walked out with them to the practice field.

He plans on coming back for regular visits, for what Johnson calls East’s “Breakfast Club.” Parker plans to meet with the players one morning a week and help them get into a training routine.

Helping high school players he barely knows is something that fits well with Parker’s personal feelings about football.

“Football is a brotherhood,” Parker said. “You have to count on the man next to you, and he has to be able to count on you. He’s your brother, and you don’t want to let him down.”

See photos from Parker’s visit to East Chapel Hill:

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