Former Arizona State linebacker Colin Parker watched all 253 picks of the 2012 NFL Draft on television, waiting for his name to be called. It wasn’t.
But less than 15 minutes after Mr. Irrelevant had been crowned, Parker did get a call. His agent was on the phone with an offer to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals.
It was a total shock. Parker had heard from a handful of teams before the draft, but never the Cardinals. The Broncos and Raiders had shown serious interest in the 6-foot-1, 223-pounder. A few others had asked for his draft-day contact information, but the Cardinals had never called.
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“When the draft was over, a lot of the teams that had talked to me had drafted linebackers, so I didn’t really know who I was going to hear from,” Parker said. “The Cardinals told me they had some interest, and I was more than happy to stay home.”
Parker knows nothing is guaranteed heading into this weekend’s rookie camp, but all he wants is a legitimate chance to make a career of football. Getting that shot at home is just a bonus.
Growing up in the Valley, playing at Hamilton High School in Chandler and spending five seasons at ASU, Parker has built quite a following here in Arizona. From friends and family to former coaches and teammates, Parker has a lot of people pulling for him. Accordingly, Parker has come to appreciate more the chance he’s about to get.
“At first, it didn’t really mean that much to me because I was planning on leaving,” Parker said. “I didn’t think I was going to get the opportunity to stay home, so it really wasn’t that big of a deal to me. But the more I think about it, the more it excites me, because very few people get an opportunity to play in the place where they grew up.”
There is certainly no one more firmly in Parker’s corner than his father, Anthony Parker, who much like his son played high school football in the Valley and went on to ASU before a nine-year NFL career. A former cornerback still connected to coaching circles in the area, the elder Parker has heard plenty from people excited for his son, but all their excitement combined probably couldn’t equal his.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” Anthony Parker said. “Just the fact that he has an opportunity is huge for him and his family. Considering what he’s had to go through with his injuries and then finding a way to get the playing time he deserved, this is just everything coming full circle for him.”
Perhaps most pride-inducing for Anthony Parker is that he saw first-hand all his son went through just to reach this point. In his junior season at Hamilton, Parker tore his anterior cruciate ligament. He endured extensive rehabilitation only to do the same thing his senior season.
Then, after securing a scholarship to play at ASU, Parker faced uncertainty about his football future when coach Dirk Koetter was fired following the 2006 season. But new coach Dennis Erickson honored the scholarship, and Parker had his chance.
Coming off the injuries, though, Parker got off to a slow start at ASU. With Parker not moving well and the Sun Devils thin at linebacker, defensive coordinator Craig Bray decided to move Parker from safety, the position he played in high school.
“I wasn’t sure if he’d ever play,” Bray said. “He couldn’t move well, he had constant pain — he would fight through the pain. The things he went through to play, a lot of players wouldn’t do it.
“Colin just had an unbelievable work ethic and such a strong desire to play that he fought through a lot of pain, and a lot of disappointment as well.”
Playing time was scarce for Parker, and after redshirting his first year, he recorded just eight total tackles over the next two seasons. He finished fifth on the team with 57 tackles in his junior season and finally, leading up to his senior season, got the opportunity to compete for a starting job. When Brandon Magee suffered a season-ending injury before the team’s first game, Parker’s role became much more significant.
By the second week of the season, Parker had set a career high for tackles in a game (he had 10 in ASU’s win over Missouri) and was leading the team in that category. Playing all three linebacker positions, he finished the season with a team-best 75 tackles, and Bray called him the team’s “most valuable defensive player.”
Parker was also a captain his senior season, which allowed him to display his leadership skills and created a little more interest among NFL teams. But even after ASU’s pro day, interest didn’t pick up much. Parker didn’t get any workouts or even any team visits, which he’d hoped to use as means of differentiating himself from other linebackers in the draft.
“It was a weird feeling after the draft,” Parker said. “I watched every single pick, and to not have my name called was a little bit disappointing.”
The Cleveland Browns made an offer just after the draft, too, and Parker doesn’t know if any teams called after the Cardinals. It didn’t matter. Picking the Cardinals was an easy decision, and he forgot about his disappointment quickly. The Cardinals told Parker they liked his versatility and his intelligence, a trait both his father and Bray noted as one of the biggest reasons he could stick in the NFL.
“He’s an extremely smart football player,” Bray said. “I really believe the mental part of the game is where he’ll have the opportunity to stay there. There are a lot of guys out there who have a lot of ability, but they can’t learn the sophisticated packages that there are in the NFL.”
Parker also excelled on special teams at ASU, becoming a reliable leader on each unit. Bray believes that will be another strength for Parker in camp, and Anthony Parker said it will be paramount.
An undrafted free agent himself, the elder Parker knows just how much it means to bring more than one skill to the table.
“One of thing things I told him as an undrafted free agent was if you’re not on the first unit of special teams, you’re not going to make the team,” Anthony Parker said. “You have to be able to play special teams and you have to be able to play multiple positions. If you can do that, you’re a huge asset to any team. He knows that, and he’s got that background.”
As much as anything, though, Parker wants to make Cardinals coaches notice his work ethic — the work ethic that kept his career alive through two major knee injuries and seasons spent buried on the depth chart.
This weekend’s rookie camp is Parker’s first chance to shine in front of the coaches, particularly with veterans not in the picture yet. His dad’s advice heading into camp? Look sharp, learn quickly and, more than anything, act like you belong.
“I’ve just got to go out there knowing this is where I’m supposed to be and be confident in my abilities to play,” Parker said. “You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get. When you get in there in practice, you have to be able to perform. So I need to show them that.”
Parker and his family are realistic about his chances. He knows the road to a career in football is a lot tougher for an undrafted free agent. Then again, he’s faced a pretty tough road already.
There’s a lot of work to be done if Parker wants to suit up for the Cardinals in Week 1, and he knows it. He’s not thinking much yet about the season — he has to make the roster first — but just the chance to work toward that point and possibly take the field in front of countless family members and friends means perhaps more than anything he’s accomplished to this point.
“It means everything,” Parker said. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to play in the NFL. Making any active roster would be a great accomplishment for me, but to have it at home would be great. I don’t know how many tickets I could get, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be enough.”