If he hadn't thought he'd look awfully silly, Chris Parker , 24 , might have pinched himself.
He tried to keep a hold on reality as he trotted up to the center and bent over to take the snap. He tried to concentrate on the job at hand, but his mind kept wandering. He was supposed to be looking over the defense, but all he seemed able to flash on was their helmets. And those of the offensive line immediately in front of him. And the one he was wearing.
Growing up in Southern California, it was a helmet he had seen often, but only from afar. Emblazoned across it were the distinctive horns of the Los Angeles Rams.
"What am I doing here?" he asked himself.
Parker could hardly be classified as a blue-chip recruit. After playing mostly as a defensive back at St. Thomas Aquinas High in San Bernardino County, he enrolled at Saddleback College in Orange County, where he played both free safety and quarterback. But not much of either.
"I just didn't feel," he said, "that I was given an opportunity."
So the next year, he moved to San Bernardino Valley College, where he beat out the competition to finally become a starting quarterback.
Onward and upward. But to where?
His choice of a four-year school came down to Cal State Northridge, in Division II of the NCAA, or the University of New Mexico, a Division I program.
The problem was that Parker didn't hear from New Mexico until the week before school started. He was contacted on a Thursday and would have been required to start classes the following Monday.
"Why did you wait so long?" he asked a New Mexico official.
"We just overlooked you," Parker was told.
His parents, Ted and Jane, pushed for Northridge.
"You can be a big fish in a little pond," Parker's father told him. "What's worth more to you, to say you played at a big school or to say you played ?"
Parker headed for the little pond. But even there, he hardly arrived with a big splash. It was more like a dash of cold water in the face when he got his first look at the depth chart. Among quarterbacks, Parker was listed fifth .
"Wow," he told himself, "welcome to big-time football."
Hunched over the center, Parker, 6-foot-1, 194 pounds, looked down the line, first to the left, then to the right. "I'm about to run a play for the Los Angeles Rams," he told himself. "Nobody here is going to do anything until I call the cadence. Everything is waiting on me. This is pretty neat."
He clapped his wrists together and, in a loud voice, barked out the signals.
Parker wasn't fifth on the CSUN depth chart for long. Coach Tom Keele was installing a radical new offense, the run-and-shoot, and he decided Parker was the guy to do the running and shooting.
"It was tough," Parker said of an offense based on the ability to improvise at the line of scrimmage. "You had to read the defense and the receiver had to read the defense and go from there.
"You know, it sounds kind of funny, but it was a shock to me because I never did that before. Throughout high school and junior college, I had never been taught to read a defense."
Because the quarterback and the receiver in the run-and-shoot have to operate on the same page in order to come to the same conclusion without benefit of a huddle, it helps if they have more than a passing acquaintance with each other.
That was not the case when Parker took over at Northridge in 1985, but he still did well enough in his first season to rewrite a few pages in the CSUN record book.
Parker completed 232 of 424 passes for 2,658 yards and 19 touchdowns. The attempts and completions, along with the 2,773 yards in total offense he generated, were school records. As a punter, Parker averaged 40.6 yards and one of his 48 punts traveled 72 yards.
A year later, Keele was gone and so was the run-and-shoot. Bob Burt, the new Matador coach, went back to the conventional I-formation and, although Parker's numbers dropped, the number in the all-important win column went up. Parker passed just 158 times, completing 81 for 1,167 yards and a dozen touchdowns. He also punted 44 times for 1,763 yards (40.1 average). But CSUN's record improved from 4-7 to 8-3 and the Matadors came within one minute in their final conference game of claiming the Western Football Conference title.
Parker's collegiate career was over, but not, he hoped, his football career. Coming out of Northridge, he didn't figure to get much of a look from the National Football League, so he opted for the Canadian Football League and drew some interest from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the spring of 1987.
"I pretty much neglected everyone else," Parker said, "and put all my eggs in one basket."
That turned out to be an ill-fated move because Parker's chances proved as fragile as an egg shell. Winnipeg turned thumbs down on him and he wound up working at a Woodland Hills health club.
But not for long. Parker signed a contract with the London Capitals of the European Football League and spent the summer leading that club to the semifinals of the EFL's postseason tournament.
Then, back home, back at the health club, back without much of an apparent future in the pro game in this country, Parker crossed paths with Tony Maddocks.
The football felt secure in Parker's hands as he took the center snap. Fading back, he was all business. Too much to worry about now than to luxuriate in his surroundings. He waited until running back Robert Delpino ran his route, watching the onrushing defense out of the corner of his eye. It was one of the easier throws he had ever been asked to make, just a short 10-yard down-and-out. Only the circumstances made it difficult.
Maddocks was a former receiver at Long Beach State who had had a cup of coffee with the Rams a decade ago as a free agent. Actually, it turned out to be more like a sip of coffee. Maddocks broke a foot in a preseason scrimmage and never returned.
Now a Valley businessman and a customer of the health club, Maddocks overheard Parker talking about his quarterback aspirations and asked if he wanted to go out and throw the football around sometime.
Parker was faced with a moment of truth. He had kept telling himself he was good enough to play in the NFL, but, suddenly, here he was faced with a man who could tell him how good he really was, a man who had caught footballs thrown by people like Vince Ferragamo and Pat Haden.
After they were finished playing catch, the young quarterback nervously asked, "Do I throw as hard as NFL guys?"
Parker wasn't just looking for a pat on the back.
"I thought I was good," Parker said, "but maybe I thought I was better than I really was. I needed someone else to tell me that I had the arm strength and that I was right up with some NFL quarterbacks."
Maddocks' reply caused Parker's heart to leap.
"You remind me of Vince Ferragamo," Maddocks said. "You have the dark complexion. You're good-looking. You have a great arm and you understand football. You have the ability. It's just a matter of showing what you can do. There are thousands of great athletes looking for the chance, just like you are. But once you have the opportunity, you have to do it."
It was Maddocks who wound up getting Parker that opportunity. Last January, he invited Parker to an annual flag football game that Maddocks and his old friends play every year on Super Bowl Sunday. In attendance was Maddocks' old high school coach, Billy White. White, who was impressed with Parker, knows Dick Coury, the Rams' quarterback coach.
White made a call and before he knew it, Parker had a call of his own, from the Rams. Could he come to Rams Park in three days for a tryout?
"I couldn't believe it," Parker said. "I was so nervous because I hadn't done anything in a while. I hadn't thrown a football in two weeks and I hadn't punted since the previous August."
Parker was supposed to show up March 6. Rather than ask for a delay, he did.
"I couldn't worry about it," he said. "To heck with the nervousness. Hopefully, I would not be that rusty."
With about six coaches watching, Parker threw 50 balls, punted six times and was told to come into Coury's office.
Parker figured, or rather hoped, that he would be asked back for another look.
The Rams, however, had something else in mind.
"You've got a strong arm and a good release," Coury told him. "We'd like to offer you a contract."
Parker tried to stay cool, but somewhere in his head, bells were ringing and firecrackers exploding.
He signed a one-year deal with no guarantee and, two months later, found himself in the team's off-season mini-camp, playing with people he had only seen on television and running an offense he had only seen in his dreams.
"He's kind of refreshing to work with," Maddocks said. "Anything can happen once you get out there. Being a free agent is not an easy row to hoe, but he knows now he has the ability. I feel like I'm almost living out my own dreams of 10 years ago through him."
Those dreams are still far from reality. The Rams have veteran quarterbacks in starter Jim Everett and backup Mark Herrmann. Additionally, they drafted Jeff Carlson out of Weber State.
"I'm a long shot," Parker said. "Everybody knows that. That's just common sense. But I can also be a backup punter and they've been having me hold on kicks, which I think is great. The more I can do, the more they are going to need me. And if I do get released, hopefully, somebody else will have seen me.
"Right now, I'm still so overwhelmed just to be there. I'm shocked when I think about the roads I had to go to get there--through high school, two junior colleges and a Division II school. I have always taken the long way around. So I'm still walking on cloud nine. Even if I don't make it, this is really something."
Parker lofted the ball in a smooth arc. Softly , it landed in the waiting hands of Delpino, who turned and headed upfield. Parker tried to control his elation. It was just a play run in mini-camp, but to Chris Parker, it might as well have been the Super Bowl.