Free-Agent Parker Hopes Rams Offer a Jolly Good Time

Here is the difference between someone who plays football for a living and someone who lives to play football:

Cleveland Gary, you've just been selected by the Rams late in the first round of the 1989 National Football League draft! To be chosen in the first round is one of the highest honors a player can receive! How do you feel???!!!

"I'm surprised that I fell as low as I did, but what can you say?" said Gary, his voice a dull, disappointed monotone. "But I'm happy to be a Ram."

Any happier and you'd have to hide all the razor blades and prescription drug vials from him. Gary sounded like a guy who had been sentenced to Leavenworth, not Los Angeles. "I thought I would go a lot higher than I went," he said with dismay.

Now on to Chris Parker.

Chris, you're 24, a no-name quarterback from Cal State Northridge who spent the last year in England playing an inferior brand of football for a London club team. No NFL franchise drafted you. No team even knew you had left the country. No team cared that you came back. Now you're a longshot Ram free agent. How do you feel???!!!

"If I didn't take this chance, there's no way I could make the team," he said happily. "I love the game so much. I'll do anything. If I have to punt, or hold for kicks. . . . I'll do anything."

Gary, the 25th pick and fifth running back selected, undoubtedly will be paid a generous signing bonus and earn a substantial salary. He is all but guaranteed a place on the regular-season roster.

Parker, meanwhile, didn't get a penny to sign. He doesn't even get gas money for his daily 100-mile round trip from Woodland Hills to Rams Park in Anaheim. It will be a miracle if he survives the early round of roster cuts.

You think he cares?

"I signed a free-agent contract," he said. "That means I'm tied to the team, but the team isn't tied to me. If I make the roster, then I get paid. But I couldn't be happier. This time last year I was in London playing--but that's not the NFL."

Parker still isn't in the NFL, but at least he's on the same continent. And this time he has a genuine contract, albeit an improbable one.

Ignored out of college by both the NFL and its Canadian counterpart, Parker didn't play at all in 1987. Then someone told him about Europe. "Said it was the minor leagues of football," Parker said.

So Parker grabbed his passport and left for London and his new team, the Capitals. The money wasn't much, mind you, but the team did provide him with an apartment, a meal allowance and travel expenses. In return, Parker was supposed to throw lots of touchdown passes, punt and help coach a team comprising mostly British subjects. Strong, large and willing the English are; skilled players they aren't.

"They don't have it all together," Parker said. "They don't have football technique. Here, we start real young. But they started playing football when they were 18, 19, 20, maybe older."

Wide receivers couldn't understand how to adjust their pass routes to a changing defense. Instead, said Parker, the receivers would run to their designated place and stand there, waiting, no matter the coverage, for a pass.

"That was funny," Parker said. "They couldn't grasp that part of it, that they could move to an open spot."

Punt returners, not quite sure how or when to field a kick, would often leave the ball alone, which helps explain Parker's inflated 50.6-yard average last season.

Despite the occasional problems, Parker's team managed to reach the playoff semifinals. As the schedule would have it, the playoffs were delayed in honor of the American Bowl, which last year featured the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins. Parker visited each practice and then attended the game. It was a sobering sight.

"All the Americans (four played on the Capitals) would go watch the workouts," Parker said. "We couldn't believe the differences. We dreaded having to go back to our team. I thought, 'I can't wait to get back to the States.' "

Parker got back, all right, but his playing plans were stopped at customs. Seemed no one much cared that Parker was the cat's meow for the Capitals. So Parker took a job with a health club and figured that was that.

Then it gets strange and wonderful. Parker was in the health club locker room one day talking about his European experience. The conversation was overheard by someone who knew someone who knew Dick Coury, the Ram quarterbacks coach. Still with us?

Anyway, Parker was invited to play in a Super Bowl Sunday sandlot game with the guy who knew Coury. As luck would have it, Parker played great and Coury was notified. That led to another invitation, this one to Rams Park and an audition with Coury.

Parker worked out for about an hour that day. He threw. He punted. He would have mowed the grass had Coury asked him to. When it was over, Coury told him to take a shower and report to the team office.

"I thought he'd say come back and work out again, but this time with real receivers," Parker said.

Instead, Coury offered him a contract. The date: March 6. Parker has been walking on air ever since.

Three times a week Parker gets up at 6 a.m. and readies himself for the drive to Anaheim. Parker doesn't mind. It beats selling memberships at the health club.

"I knew coming in that I would not get the best opportunity to show my stuff," Parker said. "This isn't exactly a team that needs quarterbacks. Jim (Everett) is young and they've invested a lot of money in him. But I had to take it because it was the only opportunity I had. Who knows, maybe somebody else will notice me."

For instance, Cleveland Gary.

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