Choice Route: An unexpected journey down Ron Parker's unlikely playoffs path
- A small-town high school, a car accident and countless turnover all preceded Ron Parker's and the Chiefs' divisional round matchup with the Steelers.
BEAUFORT, S.C. — It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I’m at home, watching the Chiefs-Broncos game, which is barely underway. Denver is just a few snaps into their opening drive. Starter introductions are still to come. I expect it will be a letdown. I didn’t always.
I mean, here was an ingenious idea by NBC—a chyron animation in which the players present themselves. And in those little moments they could submit so much more than their position or their years of experience. They could impersonate a sportscaster, suffer an existential crisis, protest a tight-fitting jersey. We, the viewers, could so relate. It was all in good fun until time turned this portion of the broadcast more serious.
Sunday night’s roll call figured to go down as yet another study in solemnity. But then just as I was about to abandon any hope of personal connection, the last defensive starter for the Chiefs—an impressive 29-year-old with dreadlocks and frosted lobes—made himself known. His position: Free safety. His name: “Ron Parker.” His alma mater: “Beaufort High School.”
Beaufort High School? Hang on… I know that place…
I live in Beaufort, you see. I’m not entirely comfortable saying this because, well, I only arrived a few days after Hurricane Matthew blew through. Since then I’ve discovered a darling Lowcountry harbor town crackling with culinary delights, historical wonders and too many tidal creeks and mossy oaks to appreciate at once. Still, other than the woman to whom I am related by marriage, I don’t really know anyone here.
Parker’s shout-out seems like a prime social occasion. It seems like an opportunity to better familiarize myself with this strange new town I now call home by retracing his path from here right to where you can expect to find him on Sunday—in the starting lineup again as the second-seeded Chiefs host the third-seeded Steelers in the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs.
My journey begins with a single step: tracking down his old Beaufort High coach, a man by the name of Mark Clifford. When I eventually reach him one school day afternoon before Christmas he sounds as if he’s in the middle of teaching a class. Nonetheless, he takes the call, telling his students he was “on the phone with a very important person, talking about someone I hope y’all might grow up to be like.” After explaining my motive for looking him up he invites me over.
“You know where we are, right? On the other side of the swing bridge...?”
Yeah. But, still: It’s a good thing I GPSed it anyway on the crisp December morning I was due. Campus is quite a bit off the main road into Lady’s Island, the bedroom district on the east bank of the Harbor River, and well hidden behind a thicket of trees. Somehow more than 1,400 students find their way.
At the door I’m greeted by a skyscraper of a man in bifocals who promises me 15 minutes before he has to peel off to class. Clifford dashes through a maze of cinder block hallways, and I struggle to keep pace with his loping gait. We stop at a wall-of-fame trophy case. News clippings of Parker are on prominent display.
We duck into an administrative suite, and Clifford introduces me to the three ladies working the front desk. One says she’s related to Parker, an unsurprising boast around these Sea Islands—home to about 50,000, most of them stunningly friendly. He hauls me into the principal’s office, where a bald man in a suit extends a hand from behind a massive desk. “Beaufort connection, huh?” Corey Murphy says before I can explain myself. “Yeah, Ron likes to shout us out. You know CJ Cummings, the world’s strongest kid, goes to school here too. He’s got a shoe deal… make yourself at home.”
Clifford and I settle inside a conference room, around a long table. A massive mural of the swing bridge, which stood in for a Mississippi River span in the movie “Forrest Gump,” brightens this windowless space. Clifford gets to talking about the time he joined the Beaufort High Eagles as a defensive assistant at the turn of the century. The team was in deep doldrums, winning something like one game in three years. Teammates cussed out one another other, fought on the sideline.
It was “an absolute nightmare,” Clifford says, but nothing a little shaking up couldn’t fix. He’d seen it done in the late-70s while playing for Clemson—a program that went from three-win doormat to ACC champion his senior year. All it would take, he believed, was a few kids with winning attitudes. And at the Parker house he found more than he bargained.
“You know,” says Clifford, “Ron has a twin brother, right?”
“Yeah. Name’s Don. Don was better than Ron, actually. But then he got caught up in a bad accident. I’m talking’ really bad…”
Clifford glances at his watch. We’ve been visiting for almost an hour. His class started 15 minutes ago. He bolts out of the room. I see myself out. I revisit the receptionist who claimed to be kin to Parker—“on his mama’s side,” says Louise Smalls. “You know his dad stays over in Port Royal.” And by that she means the sister village on the west bank. She says I should drop in on him, but this seems unwise. I’m not in San Diego anymore. I’m in a concealed carry state.
Best to set something up, I think. Even Parker’s old man agrees when I finally track him down. We make a plan to meet for coffee in town, just before New Year’s.
The high street in Beaufort is Bay Street. Among its many adorable addresses is Common Ground, a cafe-slash-ice cream parlor with a patio overlooking the river. It was an early discovery, my oasis during a months-long home wifi-less drought. Interestingly, Ronzo Parker had never been. And he’s lived in Beaufort all his life.
After exchanging many hopeless navigation cues we connect one afternoon at a table by the register. Because it still feels like fall here Ronzo needs only a black baseball cap and a matching track jacket to keep comfortable. Underneath is a T-shirt for Allied. He’s been moving for them for 30 years, he says. And when he claims that he’s done every part of the job—from packing boxes to driving the truck—there’s no missing the pride in his voice.
You can feel it when he talks about his daughter, Ronique, the eldest by two years and his boys—whom, he concedes, never gave him more trouble than the occasional mischief. You know, typical twin stuff. “They were so hard to tell apart,” he says. “When they were going to school, elementary, I’d put a red shirt on this one, a blue shirt on that one. But they got a little wise to and in the middle of the day they’d switch shirts. I didn’t play that with them. I didn’t want them playing that kind of game.”
They’d have stopped long ago if they could’ve. Even today, they laugh alike, walk alike. At times they even talk alike. You can lose your mind.
Ronzo knows. He saw it happen to Pete Carroll, too. This was a few years back, when Ron was a practice squad player with the Seahawks, during a family day at the football complex. “We’re eatin’,” Ronzo says. “The team’s eatin’. And here comes Coach Carroll. He’s got the playbook, and he goes, ‘Ron, you need to study this right here…’”
Carroll’s talking to Don. He doesn’t know this. Everyone else around the table does, though. After a while there’s no more stifling the laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Carroll says.
“Well,” a brave member of the dining party starts, “that’s not Ron…”
“What do you mean that’s not Ron? I mean, I’m looking at him.”
It was right about then, Ronzo recalls, that Ron pulls up with his cafeteria tray.
“Look behind you,” Don says.
Carroll looks at Ron, then looks back Don, gobsmacked.
“Can you play football?”
Twenty-five minutes into our conversation I notice a long line snaking from the register to the door and a flustered woman with big brown eyes breaking through. She pulls up a chair next Ronzo and introduces herself as “Rose Parker, Ron and Don’s mom.” Even though she and Ronzo aren’t together anymore, they still get on like old sweethearts. “We like to keep each other in the loop,” Ronzo says, smiling.
Rose has just come from work, a Montessori school, and dives right into the story time already in progress. It’s a woolly narrative, with family memories tangling with NFL gossip. But in this Lowcountry coffee shop there’s time and space for this yarn to unravel. Also: there’s ice cream. The Parkers help themselves to a scoop each before we all part company.
I suggest Don join us next time.
“Next time,” says Rose, “you gotta come by the house.”
Smash cut to the next afternoon. I’m en route to Saint Helena, a Beaufort locale three bridges removed from the mainland. I’m getting closer. At the last bridge crossing I spied the road sign touting this rural island as the birthplace of “American Idol” winner Candice Glover. I caught the sign after that, welcoming me to this place—“Seat of the Gullah Culture,” the rich outgrowth of one of the country’s oldest black communities. I passed the Penn Center, the first school freed slaves attended in the South, the venue where Martin Luther King drafted his “I Have a Dream” speech.
At the end of a dirt road in the middle of a wood I trundle into the driveway of a big green house. I’m not certain I have the right place until I walk past a car with an arrowhead hanging from its rearview mirror. Just then Rose appears on the front porch. “Welcome,” she says.
Rose hasn’t been in this area long, just six months. Ron bought the house for her after signing a five-year, $25 million extension with Kansas City last spring—his first big NFL contract. In a region where gentrifiers aggressively wield tax codes to displace longtime black residents, this isn’t an athlete being cliché. This is an awesome gift. It’s peaceful. It’s pine-fresh. There’s a tree out back bursting with grapefruit. (Rose would send me home with a shopping bag full.)
Inside, Christmas trimmings abound; “Steve Harvey” plays on a flat screen in the great room. It’s the day before New Year’s Eve, and Rose can’t wait. Friends and family are coming over to party. Many of the faces will be new to the amateur sleuths she now calls her neighbors. There are times when not even Don gets a pass because he’s arrived in an unfamiliar car or dressed inconspicuously. This, despite the fact that he looks exactly like the guy who bought this place. And the fact that he lives here, with his girlfriend and their precocious two-year-old daughter. And the fact that Don used to be a big deal in Beaufort.
A three-sport star, Don was everyone’s lock to go pro in something. Football was the least attractive option because it meant going to Beaufort High—and “them boys,” the Parker brothers used to say, “are sorry.” He and Ron—defensive backs, both—thought maybe they could borrow a relative’s Port Royal address and use it to attend Battery Creek High, the powerhouse that would send James Saxon, Greg Jones and Donnell Washington to the NFL. But there was no way their dad was falling for another bait and switch.
Back in the day Ronzo was the Eagles’ standout quarterback and linebacker. In the winters he played a little point guard too, well enough to get a blow in a college scrimmage with Dominique Wilkins—“the only man who ever dominated me athletically,” he told me over coffee. “I blocked his shot, and I think that pissed him off.” Sure, things may have gotten less rosy at Beaufort High since he played, but his boys could make a difference. “There’s two of y’all,” he told them. “When you go out, then your friends’ll come out. That’ll make the team much stronger.”
Though, ultimately, the boys would go where directed, they took their time going out for the football team. For good reason, Don says. “When we first got to ninth grade, the guys were so big out there. We’re lifting weights with these guys, and they’ve got the bar bending. We’re freshmen, and they want us to play varsity with these guys. We’re like, ‘these guys gon' break our back!”
They held out until their junior year, by which point there was a third member of their crew—another cat-quick DB named Sam Pope (who, in due course, found his way to the Arena League). Their first campaign together was another losing effort. “We won our first three games,” Don says. “So we thought we were gonna be doing good that year. But then we lost the rest of the games that season.”
But then the very next year came progress. With the Parker Brothers-led defense forcing something like 52 turnovers, by Coach Clifford’s reckoning, the Eagles ticked off 14 straight wins before registering their first loss in the playoffs. Still, Don thinks they could’ve gone even further. “See, them other teams they were more advanced than us. We would watch film, but wouldn’t break stuff down.”
It seemed like Don, with his stats and SAT scores, would get the chance to elevate that part of his game in college. But then his life changed forever when a pair of friends dropped by the Parkers’ old house.
The old house is just a short ride away from where we’re chatting. And when Ronzo drops by a short while later, we actually take that ride.
I file out of the house, behind the rest of the family, into Ronzo’s decked out Dodge Ram—another gift from Ron. He points out all the houses he’s moved people in and out of until we ease into the dirt driveway of a trailer home. They’d invite me inside, but the place is a hard-hat area—under renovation, essentially, ever since they closed on the other house. Besides, says Don, most of the history is here, outside, where he and Ron were perpetually at play.
It really bothers him that you don’t see kids around here doing that anymore. “It’s so different,” he says, sounding like a man 10 years older. He remembers walking with Ron to the rec center up the road to hoop with friends. Sports were their life. “We never rode the bus after school because if it ain’t baseball season, it’s basketball season. If it ain’t basketball season, it’s football season. Ever since school started, we would be there [late] for some kind of practice or something.”
The accident happened during basketball season. Ron was at practice. Don called in sick. He stayed home with Ronique, who was babysitting a handful of neighborhood kids. And they were working Don’s last nerve. When two girl friends pulled up to the old trailer and offered to whisk him away, Don climbed into the backseat. Less than a quarter mile down the road, they were rear-ended at a stop sign and sent hurtling into a ditch. The girls were ejected from the vehicle. Don only made it halfway out. What’s more, he was knocked out cold.
Then, at the hospital, came even chillier news: Don had broken his back in three places. He’d never play football again. His parents might’ve been more devastated for the kid—their great NFL hope—if this bombshell hadn’t been dropped while Don was in a coma. After a few months he woke up and rallied to a stunning physical comeback. But the episode really busted Ron up. In fact, he’s still not over it.
He tells me as much when we connect over the phone, a few hours before I head over to his mom’s house. He’s at the office, in Kansas City. Practice has just let out for the day. Ron used to hate practice. He wasn’t dead set on making it to the NFL either. Sure, he was good enough, but not as good as Don. “But once Don got in that accident,” he says, “I knew I would have to push myself harder just to make it for the both of us. It’s not two of us no more with the same talent. It’s one. I had to step up for him and try to bring home the pie.”
Fulfilling that quest meant putting half the country between himself and Don. “That was probably the hardest part of my life, when we first split up,” Ron says. “I’ll never forget when they dropped me off in Kansas [at Independence Community College]. I must’ve laid on my bed, with no sheets, and looked up to the ceiling and just cried—like, man, this is the first time I’ve felt my brother just not being around me. But from that day on, that’s when I really got focused and locked in.”
Turns out, Ron’s commitment to football would be much stronger than football’s commitment to him—not least because his hard-hitting approach to the game made it difficult for him to stay healthy. It was his undoing at Independence, where he drilled for two years but never dressed.
Ron’s football career could’ve stopped there. But then Clifford, his old Beaufort High coach, made a few calls and got him into a small Division II school back in South Carolina called Newberry. And even as he emerged as an unlikely pro prospect, Ron never thought he’d go all the way. “I was thinking maybe I could go back and coach at my high school and just give all the knowledge back to the kids coming up around there and help them be better people in school and out,” he says. But in time, he’d emerge as an intriguing prospect.
In 2011 he signed with the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent and struggled to hold down a spot on what had to be one of the league’s tougher practice squads at the time. Some, like wideouts Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette, became rotation regulars. Ron wasn’t so fortunate. In his first two seasons in the league he was cut a combined eight times by the Seahawks, Raiders and Panthers. It didn’t help that he was playing out of position, at corner.
Then when Seattle waived Ron one last time, in 2013, Kansas City scooped him up and added him to their special teams. From there, he played his way into the starting lineup—at safety—but didn’t really settle into the role until he was forced to step up again after his Pro Bowl counterpart, Eric Berry, was placed on the non-football illness list halfway through the 2014 season with what turned out to be Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Berry’s another vision of perseverance. He not only rebounded, but he reclaimed his starting job alongside Ron. Together, they lead perhaps the most opportunistic secondary remaining in the playoffs. (Although Big Ben & Co. gashed it pretty good in Week 4 on the way to a 43-14 road blowout.) The Chiefs as a defense led the league in turnovers, with 33. Ron’s contributions—12 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a Beckham-esc one-handed pick—may not pop off the page, but there’s no missing his impact. Certainly not for Rose. “You notice he still likes to coach,” she says at coffee. “Always telling them boys where to stand at and stuff like that.”
As for whether his team is well positioned to venture a bit deeper into the playoffs than their usual one and done, like to the conference round—something the Chiefs have only done once since the merger, Ron hesitates to look too far beyond Sunday’s game.
Incidentally, it will be broadcast on NBC—which means you’ll have a chance to meet Parker all over again. He promises that somewhere on the cutting room floor, Newberry got their props. But he’s not mad at the producers for going with his first take.
That shout out means so much, after all. It doesn’t just speak to school spirit, but pride in the Beaufort High alums who also made it to the league like Devin Taylor (a starting defensive end with the Lions) and Jimmy Legree (a reserve DB for the Cardinals) and Don—Ron’s frequent practice guest, semi-regular roommate and film study buddy.
It speaks to pride of place. Beaufort, as it turns out, is pretty special. The next time Parker introduces himself you’ll know exactly where we’re coming from.