ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — It takes two bridges to get to his boyhood home on St. Helena Island, so Ron Parker is used to circuitous journeys.
"Lots of woods, no street lights, like that," the Kansas City Chiefs’ cornerback and South Carolina native said Wednesday with a grin.
To fully appreciate the destination, you have to understand the route. Especially the ones that feature more insane twists than a George R.R. Martin manuscript. To wit, we present the first paragraph from Parker’s 2012 biography on the Carolina Panthers’ official website:
Signed as a free agent from Carolina’s practice squad by Seattle (12/5/12) … Signed to practice squad by Carolina (11/7/12) … Waived by Carolina (11/5/12) … Signed as a free agent from practice squad by Carolina (10/17/12) … Signed to practice squad by Carolina (10/10/12) … Waived by Carolina (10/8/12) … Signed as a free agent from practice squad by Carolina (10/6/12) … Signed to practice squad by Carolina (9/2/12) … Waived by Seattle (8/27/12 ) … Placed on injured reserve with an injured Achilles by Seattle (12/13/11) … Claimed off waivers by Seattle (10/24/11) …
"My first year, with me bouncing back and forth, it took me a year to figure it out," Parker said after practice at Missouri Western State. "At first I was running around, stressed out. After a while, I (knew) it was a business. So whatever happens, I just try to go with it and just do that the best."
Waived by Oakland (10/22/11) … Signed as a free agent from practice squad by Oakland (10/1/11) … Signed to practice squad by Oakland (9/27/11) …
"I never really thought about a Plan B, yet; I always knew I could play in this league," Parker continued. "So I knew whatever position God put me, it’d be worth it."
Terminated from practice squad by Seattle (9/22/11) … Signed to practice squad by Seattle (9/5/11) … Waived by Seattle (8/31/11) … Signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by Seattle (7/28/11).
Take a right at the fork; when you see the maple tree that’s bent like a wishbone, hang a slight left; stay on the road as it winds, over the hill, through the woods, past grandmother’s house, and, voila! You’re a starting cornerback in the NFL.
"It’s a different feeling," Parker said. "It’s a different feeling than what I (have had) in the NFL, because … my last couple years, I was kind of playing kind of a backup role, special-teams player. I was just waiting for my opportunity, so now it’s a different feeling. So now I’m getting used to it."
From July 2011 until December 2012, Parker was officially waived, cut, terminated or generally kiboshed at least six times by three different clubs. So, yes, this whole running-with-the-first-team thing might take some getting used to.
"At first, you’re just kind of lost because you really don’t know what’s going to happen, what’s going on, what team you’re going to be (going) to," said Parker, who’ll turn 27 next month. "But now I feel like, with the situation I’m in now, I feel like it’s a good chance for me to take advantage of the opportunity. So I just come in here, work hard every day, and try to give everything I’ve got to hold my spot down."
And here’s the funky part: A week into training camp, he’s still here, still lining up with Eric Berry or Husain Abdullah over his shoulder, barking out signals.
Once camp started, the presumption among the press corps/fan base/free world was that Parker, a product of Division II Newberry who was acquired last August off of — you guessed it — waivers, was just keeping Sean Smith’s seat warm while Smith sat in the corner with the DUNCE cap for his alleged role in a June drunk-driving incident that involved a collision with a light pole.
"I kind of didn’t know how to take it," Parker said of his promotion. "Because it’s like, we’re in the middle of minicamp and I’m playing a bigger part in the defense. So I was just kind of waiting on training camp to get going and see (what happened)."
So far, he’s still there. Still on top of the mountain.
"I see now the spot still stands," he continued. "So I’m just working every day to get better."
When minicamp broke, the Chiefs wished Parker a nice mini-vacation and charged him with three tasks upon his arrival in St. Joe:
1. Be physical.
2. Get your hands on balls. (Stop giggling!)
3. Make plays.
"And that’s all they ask," he said. "And I try to go out there and do that for them every day. One day at a time."
You get yanked around the way Parker has in a short, winding NFL career, you learn to embrace the little things. Things such as not waking up at 5:45 a.m. in a cold sweat, wondering if the footsteps outside will lead to a man asking for your playbook. Things such as not going to bed wracked with pain.
"The one thing that (held) me back a little bit was injuries; I wasn’t able to stay healthy at the beginning of training camp (in the past)," Parker said. "So that’s the biggest key for me, just being healthy."
The humble part, he’s already got down pat. Twin brother Don used to match Ron step for step, stride for stride, until a car accident slowed down his career. They grew up on an inland sea island in greater Beaufort, S.C., a close-knit hub of communities with names such as Lands End and Frogmore, designations that sound like something ripped from the pages of a pirate novel.
"Fastest island in the country," offered Mark Clifford, Parker’s coach at Beaufort High School. "Everybody who comes off that island is probably a 4.5 (40-yard dash). My joke is that if that bridge ever went down, we’d be 0-and-10. I love that place."
Clifford had to sell Parker’s parents on the boys going out for football, back in the day. More than that, he had to sell Ron. The future Chiefs defensive back thought he was too small — 5-foot-10, 180-ish-pounds as a sophomore — to play football as an underclassman, so he stuck to basketball and baseball.
"The coaches would come after class, they would come and get me every day (and say), ‘We want you, we need you out here,’" Ron recalled.
They did, and they did, and eventually, it worked. The rest, as they say, is history — although that history is somewhat complicated and convoluted, too. Holes in the academic portfolio meant enrolling at a junior college, which led to a stint at Independence (Kan.) Community College, where Parker barely saw the light of day, let alone the football field. Newberry (S.C.) College, some two hours and 45 minutes northwest of home, stayed on him and offered a safe landing. In 2009, Parker — then a 6-foot-1, 200-pound safety — was named South Atlantic Defensive Player of the Year. The next fall, he was a preseason Division II All-American and led the league with five picks, hands as soft as warm croissants.
"He was a great target (in high school)," Clifford said. "We probably would use him 10-15 plays a game on offense and throw it to him about eight times. And he’d catch every one of them."
According to the scouts at ProFootballFocus.com, last fall NFL quarterbacks threw at him nine times while he was lined up as a cornerback — and only three of those balls were caught by their intended receivers, for a conversion rate of 33.3 percent. PFF charged Parker in 2013 with one touchdown surrendered but two picks, one pass breakup and an opponent passer rating of 56.0. A tiny sample size, sure, but the aforementioned Smith was targeted 99 times, allowing a catch rate of 50.5 percent and an opponent passer rating of 86.4.
So you might be shocked Ron Parker is still here. He isn’t.
"In a way, I feel that it’s my job to lose," Parker said. "Because it’s like I’m there now, and it’s like whatever I put out there on the field, that’s what’s going to stand out there for the coaches. So I try to do my best to make plays and just bring what I do to the table."
The road rolls on. Long, winding — and totally worth it.
"The whole community on that island looks up to him," Clifford said. "Of course, if you ask anybody (here) who Ron Parker is, they know."