North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
To most around his hometown of Clinton, Willie Parker was known as “Fast Willie” because of his blazing 4.28 speed in the 40-yard dash. John Bunting, his coach at North Carolina, had a different nickname for him.
And it wasn’t as complimentary.
Bunting referred to Parker as “The Clinton Bypass” because of his propensity for bouncing runs outside in search of big plays instead of gaining tougher yards between the tackles. It was a style that didn’t mesh well with the hard-nosed former NFL linebacker and nearly derailed the 5-foot-10, 212-pound running back’s career.
Parker was a sought-after recruit out of high school, where he led the Dark Horses to the 2A state championship as a junior and rushed for 1,800 yards while averaging more than 12 yards per carry as a senior. But other than a memorable 131-yard performance against Auburn in the 2001 Peach Bowl as a sophomore in 2001, his college career was a major disappointment. On his Senior Day in 2003, he spent the entire game watching from the sideline.
Had it not been for Dan Rooney Jr., son of the Pittsburgh Steelers owner, that would have been the end of Parker’s athletic story. An area scout based in North Carolina, Rooney remembered Parker from his dominant days at Clinton High and convinced the team to sign him as an undrafted free agent for the league minimum of $230,000.
That proved to be a bargain when, after spending his rookie season as a seldom-used backup, Parker was thrust into the starting role when both Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley were injured. He took advantage of the opportunity by rushing for 161 yards on 22 carries in the 2005 opener against the Tennessee Titans and started 15 of 16 games. He finished the year with 1,202 yards — the second-most in NFL history for an undrafted back.
Parker capped his triumphant season by setting a Super Bowl record with a 75-yard touchdown run to help the Steelers to a 14-3 win against the Seattle Seahawks. It was a performance that earned him a four-year, $13.6 million contract. He rushed for better than 1,300 yards in each of the next two seasons, setting a single-game team record 223 yards against the New Orleans Saints in 2006.
Although injuries eventually cut short his career, Parker earned a second Super Bowl ring in 2009 before retiring.