Byron Parker: Slam Dunk Champ Takes Another Shot at the NFL
Five years ago, Byron Parker’s average day consisted of waking up at 5 o'clock in the morning to spend 12 hours in the Georgia sun and dirt working as a landscaper, wondering if he was going to play football again.
What he wasn’t wondering about was the bills, or feeding and clothing his one-year-old daughter Jordyn. After the sun set, Parker would spend five hours earning extra cash as a personal trainer at a gym. At one point, he even tried modeling.
By then, he’d already given up his dream of being a professional basketball player. Europe might’ve been, but wasn’t, and Puerto Rico would’ve kept him from his daughter. Instead, he chose football.
He might’ve given up. But football had different plans for Byron Parker.
Six years ago, Parker reached the high point of his basketball career. The Final Four was in New Orleans, and NCAA officials wanted a local player to take part in the slam dunk contest.
Shawn Finney, then-head basketball coach at Tulane, knew just the guy.
For the Green Wave, Parker was a tenacious defender who came off the bench to change the pace of the game. He didn't score that often, but he led the team in steals. He also had a 39-inch vertical leap.
“We need to get Byron Parker in the dunk contest,” Finney, now an assistant coach at Marshall, remembered telling his staff.
On national television, the 5-foot-11 Parker beat seven other players—including Duke's Dahntay Jones and Middle Tennessee State's John Humphrey—to win the 2003 NCAA Slam Dunk Contest.
Every year, around NCAA Tournament time, the contest gets re-broadcasted and Parker summons his old dreams.
Jones now plays for the Denver Nuggets and Humphrey rattles rims on the AND1 Mixtape Tour under the pseudonym “Helicopter.” Parker's trophy and the sneakers he wore during the contest are still sitting on his parents' mantle.
Sometimes he doesn’t need to think about it. Strangers still spot Parker and ask him about those days.
"A lot of people are like, 'Aren't you the guy that was in the dunk contest with Helicopter?' They still don't really remember my name," Parker said, "I always laugh and say, 'Yeah, that's me.'"
Then Parker tells them his story: How he gave up basketball—the game he learned as a two-year-old, dribbling on a court across the street from his grandmother's house in Marion, Ky, and how he traded sneakers for cleats. That he has a new dream now.
"Every time I tell them I play pro football, their first thing is like, 'What happened? Why'd you do that,'" Parker said.
The exposure from the dunk contest eventually landed Parker an opportunity to work out at a free-agent camp in one of the European leagues and for a team in Puerto Rico.
The biggest surprise from Parker's most notable basketball accomplishment? Finney and Parker received more phone calls that week from the NFL than the NBA.
"We had some NFL people start calling us and asking him about his abilities—he was kind of the right size to be a wideout or a (defensive) back or something like that—and wanted to know what his background was. And he had no background," Finney said.
It wasn't the first time football coaches came calling for Parker.
After graduating from Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., Parker said he received a scholarship offer to play football for Tennessee State University.
"But I thought it was a joke, you know,'" Parker said.
Parker signed to play basketball at Tyler Junior College in Texas. Parker's coach, Chris Crutchfield—now an assistant at Oral Roberts—had to tell Tyler football coach Dale Carr that Parker wasn't interested.
"At the time, he was turning into a heck of a point guard," Crutchfield said, "And I just didn't want to give him up like that."
But when Tulane football coach Chris Scelfo asked him to play his senior year in 2003, Parker—buoyed by the attention from the NFL scouts—figured he'd give it a try.
It wasn't easy.
Parker played in six games, mostly on special teams, and had 11 tackles for the season. In Tulane's final game of the year, he picked off East Carolina quarterback James Pickney and returned the ball 19 yards to set up a touchdown and helped the Green Wave win, 28-18.
Before those six games, Parker's football experience was a couple of years on his middle school team and toss-arounds in the yard with friends. Now, he was considering an attempt at playing professional football.
As Parker saw it, his basketball options were limited, and he had a baby on the way. He turned down an offer to play for a team in Puerto Rico, saying it wasn't the best place for his family, and signed with the Jaguars as a free agent.
After being cut by the Jaguars in 2004, Parker returned home to Atlanta.
He didn't have plans for basketball or football tryouts in the next few months. His only plan? Work as a landscaper, as a trainer and, yes, as a model.
"I did everything. Whatever it took," Parker said, "Any way that I could make money at the time—just because of my kid—that's what I did."
Nearly six months after being cut by Jacksonville, the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts offered Parker a contract. Later that year, Parker’s son Kyron was born.
"We look at athleticism, and he's probably one of the better athletes I've ever been around," said Adam Rita, the Argonauts general manager.
After playing in just six games his first year, Parker started at cornerback in 2006 and had eight interceptions, four of which he returned for touchdowns. He set a CFL record for most interception return yards with 348 and was named to the CFL All-Star Team.
Just before his All-Star season with the Argonauts, Parker signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys. Once again, he was released after training camp.
"The first time I went to Dallas—I'll be honest—I didn't even want to go," Parker said, "But a lot of the older guys and the general manager and even the coach at the time, (Michael) Clemons, he was like, 'Man, you got to chase your dream. You got to take your shot, because a lot of guys here will find it disrespectful if you don't go, because a lot of them don't get a shot.'"
After Dallas, Parker told himself that even if he got the opportunity to try out for another NFL team, he wouldn't take it. Nevertheless, after being named an All-Star in 2007 and getting his 18th career interception in 2008, Parker's decision was made for him. You’re going, the Argonauts told him. You have to take your shot.
"I think you only have so many opportunities to make the kind of money that they make in the NFL, or in life. And if you have that opportunity then you should go for it," Rita said, "We'll have a place for Byron if he doesn't make it—and he knows that."
Parker took visits to Atlanta and Buffalo before signing with the Eagles.
"(In Toronto), you're almost like one of the big fish in the pond, and coming here, being a small fish in the ocean, it was a tough decision," said Parker, who was making $100,000 as one of the highest paid Argonauts, "But I think it was the decision that I had to make that I didn't want to regret later in life."
As of May 27, the unofficial Eagles depth chart on the team's web site lists Parker as the third-string strong safety, behind Quintin Mikell and Sean Jones. He's 28 years old and considers this his last good shot at the NFL, but not his last in football.
"For me, I just love playing the game," Parker said, "At the end of the day, I just want to watch my kids play basketball or football. Or go to my daughter's recitals. That's my dream."
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