Undrafted, unheralded Parker carries Steelers back to promised land

TAMPA — The beloved back finally getting to hoist the Lombardi Trophy — in front of his hometown folks, no less.

The trick play that looked like something a bunch of buddies drew up during an afternoon in the park.

The losing coach bemoaning the officiating.

Such are the lingering memories of Super Bowl XL, which was the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers played for the NFL title.

That was the day when Jerome Bettis won his championship, Pittsburgh’s Antwan Randle-El became the first wide receiver to throw a touchdown pass and Seattle coach Mike Holmgren was critical of the calls.

So you’re quick to forget Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker notched the longest touchdown run in Super Bowl history, right? A 75-yarder that beat Marcus Allen’s previous record by a yard.

That’s OK. People have seemed to look past Parker throughout his career, especially in 2004, when his name wasn’t called during the NFL Draft.

But during the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIII, where Pittsburgh will face the Arizona Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium, Parker didn’t appear bitter.

How could he?

He’s rushed for nearly 5,000 yards in his career, gone to two Pro Bowls and is about to play for his second Super Bowl ring.

“What if I did get drafted?” he said. “It probably wouldn’t be this way. I would have probably been with a different team and a different group of guys. But I’m glad I’m with this group of guys.”

The Steelers are lucky to have him. At 5-foot-10, 209 pounds, he may not be as punishing as Bettis or Franco Harris was, but he knows how to help Pittsburgh win — the Steelers are undefeated in the playoffs when Parker starts.

“A lot of people think of him as a little back, and he’s not,” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review earlier this season. “He’s a handful. He’s a violent runner. I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”

Parker is coming off a difficult season that began when the Steelers took a running back, Rashard Mendenhall, with their first pick of the draft. Knee and shoulder injuries kept him out of five games, and his decision to go public with how he was being used in Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t sit well with head coach Mike Tomlin.

But Parker rebounded in time for a divisional win over the San Diego Chargers, when he rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns — personal postseason highs.

“It was definitely tough,” he said of the ailments, which limited him to 791 yards during the regular season. “But at the same time, God blessed me to bounce back and overcome this adversity and now I’m back at full speed.”

Bouncing back from adversity has never been a problem for Parker thanks in part to his father, Willie Sr. When Willie Jr. helped his high school team, Clinton (N.C.) High, to a state title, he gave his dad the ring.

When the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, he gave his father a Cadillac. Inside the trunk?

Another championship ring.

“My dad means a lot to me. My mom means a lot to me, too — she’s just not too much into sports,” Willie said. “My dad, he kind of pushed me out to play when I was younger. He always motivated me, always said the things you do to get your kid to get up and go work out.

“I thought that would be a great gift for him. He started crying . . . It was kind of emotional.”

The last time Willie Parker played in a Super Bowl, he broke a record — even if few people noticed.

All he wants know is another ring. It’s about the Steelers, Parker said. And that’s not something he plans to overlook.

“We’ve got to go out and play hard,” he said, “and hopefully break a lot more records and get this win.”