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Spotlight shines on unsung Parker

DETROIT -- Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis was the sentimental story of Super Bowl week, the beloved local boy returning home for his final NFL game. Shaun Alexander was the glamour player, the league's leading rusher and reigning MVP, the one player who had to come up big for Seattle to walk away with the Lombardi Trophy.

Willie Parker was the forgotten running back, the overlooked 1,200-yard rusher in the biggest spectacle in sports. Parker had struggled throughout the postseason. As the game approached, there were mutterings among Steelers fans that Bill Cowher ought to bench Parker early and use Bettis if the running game continued to sputter.

Well, now Seattle fans know how the Buffalo faithful felt a year ago, when Parker came out of nowhere to break their hearts on the final day of the regular season. In case you've forgotten -- or decided to expunge the memory -- Parker was the fourth-string rookie who rushed for 102 yards, including a game-changing 58-yarder, in the game that knocked the Bills out of the 2004 playoffs.

Parker, who has been clocked at 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash, struck again Sunday at Ford Field. He had suffered through a dreadful first half, like the entire Pittsburgh offense. But on the second play of the third quarter, with the Steelers nursing a 7-3 lead, Parker broke a counter play for a 75-yard touchdown -- the longest run in Super Bowl history -- giving the Steelers the cushion they needed in a 21-10 triumph.

"Jerome was telling me to hang in there and something big would
happen, and it did," said Parker, who finished with 93 yards on 10 carries. "I just knew it was going to be a great play. It was a great call. They called it at the right time, and [guard Alan] Faneca paved the way."

Football can be a chess match. It can also be the simplest of games. Sometimes, you give the ball to the fastest guy and watch him run to the end zone. Big minds spend hours game planning, and big plays often make the difference. The experts predicted that this game would come down to which offense made the most big plays.

Seattle, which led the NFL in scoring this season, had every chance. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck got good protection from his offensive line, and he completed 26 of 49 for 273 yards. But he didn't make enough big plays. Neither did Alexander, who didn't play like an MVP. The Seattle defense set the offense up in great position in the first half, but the Seahawks couldn't capitalize. The only big plays they made were neutralized by penalties.

Much of the credit goes to Dick LeBeau, the Steelers' crafty defensive coordinator who finally won a Super Bowl ring in his 47th season in the NFL. LeBeau, famous for his exotic blitzes, won the chess match with Seattle coach Mike Holmgren. He called a more conservative game than usual, conceding the underneath throws to Hasselbeck and trusting that the Seahawks wouldn't put together long scoring drives. It worked.

The Steelers had some forgettable moments on offense. Ben Roethlisberger was supposed to have his coming-out party, but at times he seemed to be coming apart instead. Still, he made two big plays -- a scrambling, 37-yard bomb to Hines Ward late in the first half and a controversial, 1-yard touchdown dive three plays later.

Pittsburgh also scored on a big trick play when receiver Antwaan Randle El took the ball on a reverse and heaved a 43-yard TD pass to Ward. But the biggest play was by Parker, who followed Faneca through a gaping hole on the right side and dashed for his game-changing TD.

"This game comes down to which team makes big plays and avoids mistakes," said Seahawks defensive end Bryce Fisher. "Obviously, we didn't do those things and the Steelers did both."

"What do I remember about that play?" said Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. "That it was long."

So on a night when the NFL said "so long" to Bettis, it was Parker who ran off into the night. And to think, he wasn't even good enough to start in college.
Parker started only five games in four years at North Carolina. On Senior Day in 2003, with his parents on hand, he didn't even get in the game against Duke. He cried as he walked through the tunnel after that game, telling his mother his career had gone down the drain.

Parker didn't get drafted in 2004. But by chance, he had an admirer in the Steelers' organization. Dan Rooney Jr., son of the owner and a team scout, lived in North Carolina with his wife, Allison, a family physician in Parker's hometown of Clinton.

Rooney was aware that Parker had led Clinton High to the state championship as a junior. So during a scouting trip to North Carolina, Rooney worked out Parker with some of the other Tar Heels prospects. He was impressed by Parker's running ability. Pittsburgh signed him as a free agent after the draft.

Parker made the Steelers' roster as the No. 4 running back and dressed for nine games in 2004. He began this season as the third-stringer. He became the starter because of injuries to Duce Staley and Bettis. Parker gained 161 yards against Tennessee in the opener and the job was his. He finished with 1,202 yards -- 30 more than he had in four years at North Carolina.

Bettis stepped aside graciously, accepting his backup role, just as he had a year earlier when Staley joined the Steelers. Bettis encouraged Parker when he struggled. He allowed him to remain in the background during the lead-up to the Bowl.

"He took all the pressure off me," Parker said. "Everyone concentrated on Jerome this week. I'm glad he took all the attention off me because all that stuff starts to boggle my mind after awhile. I never thought in a million years I'd be here right now, but I never gave up. Whatever you say, just say I never gave up."


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