Like most identical twins, Ron and Don Parker were inseparable. Especially on the athletic fields where they grew up near the southern tip of South Carolina.
They dominated their youth leagues in football, basketball and baseball to the point where parents asked to see their birth certificates for proof of age.
Ron was a star athlete. But Don was the superstar.
That would change when Don didn’t show up for basketball practice one Saturday morning during their junior year at Beaufort High.
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Someone ran a stop sign on St. Helena Island and rear-ended the car in which Don was a back-seat passenger. The car flipped over, landed in a ditch, and he suffered a broken back in three places.
Ron Parker came upon the accident scene on his way home from practice.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, whoever is in that car is in a tough situation,’” said Parker, now the Chiefs’ starting left cornerback. “I pulled up to the stop sign, and they were putting him inside the ambulance. I saw my family and my sister running in the road crying.…
“That’s when I realized it was my brother lying on his back on the side of the road. I met them at the hospital, and the only thing I remember him saying was, ‘My back, my back …’”
A young man and woman in the front seat emerged from the car without a scratch, but Don Parker wasn’t breathing, couldn’t walk, and doctors feared he may not walk again.
The incident was life-changing for both twins.
“Once that car accident happened, Ron felt really, really bad …” said their father, Ron Sr. “Looking at his brother laying there in a cast … he can’t move or can’t do anything, you felt so bad. You’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this for my brother.’
“Once he made up his mind to do that, there was no turning back … he turned it up a whole ’nother level. He picked his grades up … he was determined to make it.”
Parker, 24, became a picture of perseverance as an NFL player. He would be released eight times by three teams from 2011-13 before making the Chiefs roster as a special-teams player last year and winning a starting job this season.
He couldn’t let his brother down.
“He’s been my inspiration,” Ron said. “He always wanted to see what this feeling is like, so I try to go out there every day and put it on for him.”
The dreadlocked Parker was at his best in last Sunday’s 17-13 victory at Buffalo, hacking a fumble from the grasp of Bills running back Bryce Brown at the goal line that prevented a touchdown and 14-point Chiefs deficit. He also broke up three of four passes inside the Chiefs’ 15 in the final three minutes, and took Buffalo’s leading receiver, Sammy Watkins, out of the game with air-tight defense.
Watkins was unknowingly double-teamed because Ron Parker was getting an assist from his brother on every play.
“Don was the real deal,” Ron said of his brother’s athletic superiority. “I never admitted it to him until he couldn’t play anymore. After that, I tried to play every snap for him.”
Ron still thinks about the accident. What was Don doing in that car and not at basketball practice? And what if he had been in that car?
“I was at practice,” Ron said, “and I don’t know why he wasn’t there. He was sick or wasn’t feeling good.”
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Don Parker eventually recovered from his injuries, and though he wasn’t allowed to play football anymore, he went on to play center field for the Clafin (S.C.) University baseball team.
Today, he works at a food-service plant in Newberry, S.C.
“He had good speed and tracked everything down,” Ron says proudly.
Ron began his college career at Independence Community College. Away from his twin brother and family for the first time, the heartland was a culture shock for the native South Carolinian.
“I hated it in Kansas,” Parker says with a hearty laugh. “It was hard for me. Being away from home, I didn’t have much money … I wanted to go closer to home to play ball …
“After I left, I said, ‘I’m never coming back to Kansas …’ It’s crazy, but I said in the back of my mind, the only way I’ll come back to Kansas if I were to play for the Chiefs. And 10 years later, look where I’m at …”
Big 12 and SEC schools recruited Parker while he was at Independence, but he was so determined to return home that he did not graduate from the two-year junior college and was ineligible to play big-time college football. Instead, he surfaced at Newberry College, a Division II program with an enrollment of 1,155 students and a 4,000-seat football stadium.
Parker became a three-time Division II All-American and led the South Atlantic Conference in interceptions with six in 2009 and five in 2010.
Despite his 6-foot, 206-pound frame and 4.36 speed in the 40-yard dash, Parker was not invited to the NFL Combine, nor was he drafted.
The NFL would soon go through a lockout, so undrafted players waited on hold until the league reached a labor agreement in the summer. Parker was signed by Seattle at the start of training camp in 2011 and would begin an odyssey in which he bounced between practice squads and active rosters of the Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders before finding a home with the Chiefs in 2013.
“Yeah, we loved him,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who signed and waived Parker five times in less than three seasons. “Imagine what would have happened if we didn’t like him. He was a really good kid for us and battled with a bunch of guys.
“We’ve had really good depth for the last couple years, so it’s been hard to make the team, but he was certainly right in the mix. That’s why we kept bringing him back, because we were trying to figure out a way for him to stay with us.”
Parker appeared in five games with Oakland and Seattle as a rookie in 2011 before finishing the season on injured reserve because of an Achilles’ injury — one of several ailments, including to his ankle and knee, that kept him off the field during his first two seasons as a pro.
After consultations with doctors, it was determined Parker’s chronic leg issues had to do with the shoes he was wearing.
“We put some orthotics in, and he didn’t have the issues with pulls strains, soreness, anything again,” said one of his agents, Justin Turner.
Still, there were no guarantees.
“When he got cut by Seattle (in 2013),” Ron Sr. said, “I told him, ‘Son, you don’t have to do anything else. I’m proud of you already. You’ve already done something a lot of people can’t say they did.’”
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The Chiefs called it their Second Draft at the start of the 2013 season, when by virtue of having the worst record in the NFL in 2012, they had first crack at any players waived before the regular season.
After the final roster reductions, the Chiefs claimed seven players — including Parker, who had been let go by the Seahawks for the fifth time.
“You saw his athleticism,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. “You saw his ability to run. He’s got an innate toughness about him. How we were situated in the defensive backfield, it was a no-brainer to take him.”
Parker contributed on special teams in 2013, forcing a key fumble on a punt in a win over Cleveland, and he had an interception in his only start, at San Diego in the regular-season finale.
During the offseason, in the wake of the Chiefs’ playoff loss at Indianapolis, where big passing plays by the Colts overcame a 28-point, second-half deficit, strong safety Eric Berry suggested the club move Parker to free safety.
“He’s a playmaker … you can see that every day in practice,” Berry said.
Parker opened the preseason as the starting right corner and was beaten on a couple of big plays and twice flagged for penalties in the exhibition opener against Cincinnati. But he bounced back to win the starting left cornerback spot in the regular-season opener.
When Berry suffered a high ankle sprain at Denver in week two, Parker took over at his more natural strong safety spot and started six games there before moving back to left corner at Buffalo when Berry returned. During the course of the season, Parker has played safety, corner and nickel back, and his dad says running back may be his best position.
Parker ranks second on the team with 41 tackles, and has an interception, a sack and the huge forced fumble at Buffalo. The Bills targeted him 10 times last week and he allowed four receptions for a paltry 21 yards.
“That’s as good as it gets …” Parker said of the Bills game. “After the game I kind of felt that I had an all right game. After watching it, it looked better than what I thought it was.”
Parker, who will be paid $645,000 this season, couldn’t have picked a better time for his breakout year, because he is about to become an unrestricted free agent.
This week, he’ll face the Seahawks, who went on to win the Super Bowl last year. He’s thought about missing out on being part of a championship team, but…
“I also wondered if I was on that team, I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m now,” Parker said. “If I was there, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to show off my talent.”
The talent that he and his brother shared.