IT'S NOT too often that winning a slam-dunk contest leads to a pro football career.
But that's Byron Parker's story, and he's sticking to it, just as closely as Parker plans to stick to receivers this summer, in his third attempt to make an NFL roster as a safety/cornerback.
Parker, 28, came to Tulane as a basketball guard, led the team in steals his senior year. Never scoring more than 12 points in a college game, though, kind of kept him under the NBA's radar. Even after Parker won the slam-dunk contest at the Final Four in 2003 (to watch, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaAubBqAvVs), capping his rim-rattlers with a complicated, soaring, reverse-thingy he called "The X-Factor.''
As the saying goes, one man's smallish, dime-a-dozen point guard is another man's defensive backfield prospect. Or something like that.
"After the dunk contest, I got a call from the Jacksonville Jaguars," Parker said yesterday, after an Eagles rookie-camp workout.
The chronology of what led the Jags to call is a little tangled. Somewhere in there, around the time of the dunk contest, Parker decided to work out at Tulane's football pro day for NFL draft prospects, though he had never played the sport. And when then-Tulane football coach Chris Scelfo hailed a lunchroom table of basketball players, asking who wanted to play for him, Parker volunteered. Ultimately, Parker said, the Jaguars told him if he played a year of college football, using up his remaining athletic eligibility, they would take a look when he was done.
Turned out, they didn't take a real long look. One football season at Tulane, spent mainly on special teams, didn't quite impart enough technique and savvy to make Parker a real NFL defensive back. Keep in mind, he hadn't even played high school football.
"They used to tell me to stop skiing," Parker said. "The first thing I would do, as soon as I started to backpedal, was throw my arms straight back. It was funny, but it was frustrating. I was so used to being one of the top guys [in basketball]. Me not being that good, I kind of took it as a personal challenge to get better. It was rough, going out there with a bunch of guys who knew what they were doing. Me being the most athletic guy out there, I could make plays, but it wasn't technically sound.
"The thing that gave me the most trouble was coming out of my break, transition from out of my backpedal. I haven't mastered it yet, but it's better than it was a long time ago. I make plays on the ball a lot easier now."
When he showed up for his shot at the Jags, "I wasn't good. They would put me on Jimmy Smith. I could run a go-route with him, but that was about it," Parker recalled.
After the Jaguars cut him, Parker went to Toronto of the CFL, where he didn't play much at first.
"They were patient with me. They saw a raw talent, and they just let me grow into an all-star corner," said Parker, who was all-CFL in 2006 and 2007. "I had a good group of guys around me, a lot of guys who had played in the NFL, and they taught me the game."
Parker went to camp with the Cowboys in 2006 but was cut and went back to Toronto, where he began making his mark. He has intercepted 18 passes the past 3 years, returning six for touchdowns. His 348 interception-return yards in 2006 are a CFL record.
Scouts Jeremy Snyder and Johnathon Stigall brought Parker to the attention of Eagles general manager Tom Heckert, who included Parker with several CFL players in a tryout the Birds held late last season, after the Canadian season was done.
"He was head and shoulders above the others,'' Heckert recalled yesterday.
A 43-inch vertical leap and a 4.49 40, run indoors on a slowish NovaCare surface, cemented Heckert's interest. The GM found himself evoking former Eagles safety Clinton Hart, lately a starter for the Chargers. Hart came to the Eagles very raw in 2003 after playing college baseball and a little Arena football.
"[Parker] had a great workout, he really did," Heckert said. "He's a phenomenal athlete, and he's got size."
Actually, Parker seems to be shrinking. Tulane listed him at 6-2 for basketball, 6-1 for football. The Eagles list him at a muscular 5-11, 193.
Heckert envisioned Parker as a reserve corner until the Birds re-signed Joselio Hanson and traded for Ellis Hobbs. Safety might be just as crowded, but with Brian Dawkins gone, there aren't any established stars.
"Sean McDermott says that so far, he's picked it up well,'' Heckert said. McDermott, the secondary coach, is filling in as defensive coordinator while Jim Johnson is treated for cancer.
"This is where I'm supposed to be," Parker said. "It doesn't matter [what position]. If they tell me to play linebacker, I'll play linebacker. If they tell me to play nose tackle, I'll play nose tackle. I just love being on the field. I've been playing both safety positions. I'm more comfortable at corner, but sometimes it's good to be uncomfortable. I'm enjoying playing safety - I'm learning a lot more about football, playing the safety positions." *
For more Eagles coverage and opinion,