SPRING VALLEY — When he was growing up, Eric Parker was scared. Not of anything in particular, but everything in general.
"When I was smaller, I was a softy," Parker said. "I was like a momma's boy."
Eric Parker isn't scared anymore. Especially not on the football field. He plays nose guard for the fourth-ranked Mount Miguel Matadors even though he is 5-feet 4-inches tall.
As a junior playing defense for the first time last season, Parker was named the Grossmont League 3-A defensive player of the year. Three of the five teams in the league's 3-A division had defenses ranked among the county's 10 best.
Parker started playing football five years ago after his older brother and friends convinced him that getting hit wasn't as bad as it looked.
He started playing in the midget age group division as an eighth-grader. Because of his speed, he was a running back.
"I was a little squeamish of the contact at first," Parker said. "I was afraid of everybody piling up on top of me. But after the first couple of times, I found out it wasn't as bad as I thought."
Because of his size, Parker has had to prove to himself and others that he can play. His first test came on the midget team.
"The toughest guy on the team was John Young," Parker said. "We were having one-on-one running drills and I was the running back and he was supposed to tackle me. I ran him over and everybody went 'oh.'
"He said, 'OK, OK, let's do it again.' So, I ran him over again. That was really the turnaround. I realized I could play. I was still the smallest guy on the team, but I was the hardest hitter."
Youth football was not the last time Parker had to prove himself.
"Eric and I have had this conversation before," Mount Miguel Coach Gary Cooper said. "I've told him, 'Every time you get on the football field, you have to prove (you belong).' And by the end of the game, they know Eric can play."
Said Parker: "When I first started playing, they thought I was going to be a pushover. When they first hit me, they knew I wasn't."
Now instead of having opposing players overlook him, Parker is finding they look for him.
"Now around the league they want to hit me," Parker said. "It makes it tough on me. But I'm up for the challenge."
Not long ago, however, Parker wondered if he was up for the challenge of playing defense. He said he was unsure of himself until midway through last season in a game against Monte Vista, the Matadors' first league game.
"I was hitting with the big guys," Parking said. "They weren't knocking me over. I was knocking them over."
During the summer, Parker trained with weights and gained nearly 20 pounds. He weighs 185.
"A lot of eatin' and a lot more liftin'," Parker said.
Parker received help from his cousin Sjohn Jackson, who is a senior cornerback at Colorado State.
"I wouldn't really want to lift weights, but he would push me," Parker said.
The two lifted for up to 2 1/2 hours a day at Grossmont College or used a set of weights at the home of Tony Jackson, Lincoln High School junior varsity coach.
Last season, Parker and the Matadors won the Grossmont League 3-A division title, and this season, they picked up where they left off. Mount Miguel defeated Bonita Vista, 14-0, in the season opener, and the Matador defense held the Barons to a net 1 yard rushing in 35 attempts.
Although he said he likes defense better than offense now, Parker had wanted to remain a running back. Cooper, however, had other plans.
"We put them through all types of tests the first week of practice (last year)," Cooper said. "We had all types of running tests, and Parker and Erik Stottlemyer were winning all the races. They thought since they were winning the races that they were going to be running backs.
"When I told them to go with the defensive line coach, they thought I was kidding," Cooper said. "They were a little shook up. Every once in a while, I'd see them trying to sneak over with the backs and I'd tell them, 'You get back over there.' "
Cooper's idea to put his fastest players on defense was successful last season. On the strength of a defense that allowed 6.4 points per game, fourth-lowest in the county, Mount Miguel advanced to the San Diego Section semifinals.
"We designed the defense around those two," Cooper said. "Parker is the quickest high school player I've ever seen in getting off the ball."
Parker lives on the boundary lines between the Morse and Mount Miguel school districts and was able to choose which school he wanted to attend.
"I'm glad I made the decision to come here," Parker said. "I had a misconception when I got here. I thought it was an easy school (to play football). I thought I'd have a better chance of making the team and playing at Mount Miguel. I didn't want to be one of the guys sitting on the bench."