The story of Sirr Parker’s childhood was so compelling that Hollywood turned it into a Showtime movie.
All but abandoned by his parents and reared in poverty by his benevolent grandparents, gang-involved cousins and other relatives in South Los Angeles, Parker nevertheless flourished as a nearly straight-A student and heavily recruited running back at Locke High, earning a football scholarship to Texas A&M.
The movie inspired by his improbable story, “They Call Me Sirr,” made its broadcast debut in 2001, six years after the former homecoming king graduated from Locke.
“Even if this bio-pic wasn’t based on someone real,” Los Angeles Times reviewer Lynne Heffley wrote, “the story of a young man who perseveres against dire odds, takes responsibility for himself and others, cares about people and works hard toward attaining a goal would be a worthy subject for family viewing.”
In that case, how about this for a sequel: Parker, a college graduate, makes good on a high school vow to return to his roots to mentor at-risk kids facing the same type of hurdles?
It’s playing out in real life at Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center in Downey, a kind of way station for youths in trouble where Parker works as a detention service officer.
“I come from the same type of situation,” Parker says during an interview at his Hawthorne apartment, “so I’m speaking from experience as opposed to just repeating something I heard. I know exactly what they’re talking about when they express their concerns over their difficulties and obstacles.”
Parker, 32, notes that where he comes from, unfortunately, his upbringing was not all that uncommon.
“There are hundreds of thousands of kids who’ve been through similar situations or even worse,” he says. “I have a friend who comes from a far worse background than I did and she’s on the verge of getting her doctorate.
“I was just one that was chosen to be talked about. A lot of that comes from being an athlete.”
Parker’s story came to light during his senior year at Locke, where he drew the attention of recruiters from USC, UCLA, Washington and Notre Dame, among others, by running for more than 1,100 yards, scoring 19 touchdowns and showing off his eye-popping speed while playing for a winless team.
Despite an absentee father, an unstable, substance-abusing mother, the constant threat of gang violence and easy access to drugs, he also compiled a 3.78 grade-point average.
From the time he was 1 until he was 11, it was revealed, Parker had lived at 76th and Broadway with his grandmother, Florence Mosley, who also cared for countless other children, among them several of Parker’s cousins, until her death in 1988.
The sounds of sirens and gunfire were ever present.
As his mother drifted in and out of his life, Parker says, he later lived with an aunt in Rialto and, after the birth of a younger brother, with his mother and sibling in a homeless shelter.
His grandfather, Louis Mosley, also cared for him.
“I had role models that probably weren’t your typical role models,” Parker says, “but they were people who I looked up to and didn’t want to let down. . . .
“My cousins were in and out of jail, in and out of jail, but no matter what was going on in their lives, they made sure that I was straight, made sure that I was on the right path. They had inspirational words to lift me and make me feel better.”
Parker, given his uncommon first name by his mother so he would command respect, says he never got caught up in the chaos.
“I’ve never drank in my life; I’ve never smoked — none of that,” he says. “The negative part of my ‘hood never was attractive to me. My whole thing was to . . . make it better for myself than it was for my grandparents and my parents. There were certain things I wanted in life that I couldn’t get by hanging in the neighborhood.”
E.C. Robinson, who coached him at Locke, says Parker never wavered in pursuit of his goals.
“Some of the kids that are brought up where he was brought up, they had a lot of anger, but Parker didn’t have that,” Robinson says. “Very seldom would I see that kid get mad with another student or get upset with a teacher. He wasn’t one of those kids.
“He really stayed focused.”
Parker wasn’t a star at Texas A&M, but he led the Aggies in rushing as a sophomore. As a senior, he caught the winning touchdown pass in a double-overtime victory over Kansas State in the 1998 Big 12 Conference championship game, ending the Wildcats’ bid for a perfect season and national title.
Not taken in the 1999 NFL draft, he eventually played in two NFL games with the Cincinnati Bengals — as a cornerback.
Short, unproductive stints in the Canadian Football League and Arena Football League led to his retirement six years ago, whereupon he focused his attention on mentoring.
Single, Parker has a 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. Eventually, he’d like to open a group home for children.
“I say it every day at work: I love my job,” he says. “Not too many people can get paid to mentor kids every day.
“I’m dealing with kids who have no hope. Society has turned its back on them and they see gang-banging and selling drugs and committing crimes as the only way to go.”
Parker’s aim is to show them they have other choices.