Ron Parker was known as “The Ghost” at Newberry College. That was because of his knack for making plays by materializing “out of nowhere,” as coach Todd Knight put it Wednesday.
The nickname speaks just as much to Parker’s improbable broader journey, from a poor, rural South Carolina island setting Knight says you’d be shocked to see … through Division II football … and being cut by three NFL teams … to standing on the verge of starting at cornerback for the Chiefs.
“I try not to think about it like that yet, because I still feel like I’m down,” he said. “I’m on the field, I’m still playing like I’m down to the bottom of the barrel.”
That’s a telling perspective in itself.
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Parker, 26, has been churning against the tide for too long to stop agitating and settle in now that he has this breakthrough in his grasp.
“So many times he’s been told this and that: Coming from a rough area. He wasn’t big enough. His academics weren’t good enough. Coming from a small setting in college,” Knight said. “I think a lot of kids would have given up. He kept fighting and kept scratching.
“And he’s still there.”
Parker’s father, Ronzo, is a truck driver, and his mother, Rose, worked at a local Montessori school. He grew up near Beaufort, S.C., on St. Helena Island, which like teammate Allen Bailey’s home of Sapelo Island, Ga., reflects the culture of freed slaves.
“Not a lot of people ever have been to the little island Ron’s from,” Knight said.
It takes two bridges to get there from the mainland, and it remains decidedly rustic around his childhood home.
“Lot of woods,” Parker said, smiling. “No street lights.”
For that matter, there wasn’t any early spotlight on him as a football player five miles away at Beaufort High.
Despite playing youth football, as a scrawny 5-foot-9-ish ninth-grader Parker decided he was too small to go on.
He fended off pleas of football coaches until he was a junior, when he had gotten an inch or two taller, filled in some and his mind “just told me, ‘I’m ready right now.’ ”
And he was.
So much so that football apparently trumped all else, including academics.
That’s what led to Parker attending Independence (Kan.) Community College, in hopes of getting his credentials in order for Division I, before he ended up at Newberry.
“It really took a while for him to get that part of his life together,” Knight said. “Football I think dominated so much. … Football was his way; it was his ticket.”
So he excelled at Newberry, but that was no pipeline to the NFL. Scouting has become so comprehensive and exhaustive that Parker could register as an intriguing commodity, but it was in an inconclusive context.
So Seattle had him in mind and suggested it would draft him late in 2011 but left him hovering.
Still, as soon as possible after the NFL lockout, he was signed by the Seahawks … only to trigger a dizzying two-year sequence of being released and re-signed.
Initially, he felt lost and stressed. But he never quite started thinking about Plan B, leaning on his sports management degree, because somebody else always seemed to want him as soon as somebody dumped him.
“I really didn’t have time to doubt myself,” he said.
Especially after being waived by Seattle, Oakland, Carolina and Seattle again last year and being promptly plucked by the Chiefs.
“I almost didn’t have enough time to blink,” he said.
And in that span, actually about 24 hours, everything started to change for Parker.
After registering all of three tackles in a total of 10 games with three teams in two seasons, Parker made an almost-instant impact with the Chiefs: In Week 2, he stripped Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and recovering the fumble in the fourth quarter of a 17-16 victory.
He finished the season with two interceptions, a sack and three pass breakups, all the firsts of his career, go to with 17 solo tackles.
He’s “a tough kid that’s going to challenge every play,” coach Andy Reid said in the offseason. “And that’s the thing that jumps at you … He made plays. It seemed like the ball went his way.”
Now the depth chart has, too.
Parker moved up to No. 1 during organized team activities in June promptly after incumbent Sean Smith was cited for driving under the influence.
“I kind of didn’t know how to take it,” Parker said, smiling.
If the promotion seemed largely a matter of discipline against Smith then, that element of it might be changing. Nearly a week into camp, Parker retains the edge.
How much longer is unclear, though regardless of whether he’s No. 1 or 2 he figures to be a significant part of a Chiefs secondary that is in flux and has to improve.
Just the same, Parker is taking the same approach that got him to this moment. He makes no assumptions.
He still rents a property, for instance. And when he visited Knight this summer, the coach was struck by how “the kid” had become a man and was talking about dedication to his job … not football, exactly.
In a parking lot as they said goodbye, Knight was curious what rental car Parker was driving now that he’s in the second year of a a two-year contract with a reported average salary of $600,000.
It was a Nissan Sentra — a fine car, but as Knight put it “one of the cheapest rentals.”
“It was good to see his head is still on straight,” Knight said.
And that Parker never gave up the ghost even after three teams gave up on him.
“The situations would be tough,” Parker said. “But at the same time I kind of feel like everything happens for a reason.”