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USC's Parker Gets a Second Chance After Foot Surgery

College football: Receiver has been an unexpected contributor after being told twice that his playing days were over.

October 08, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The things the doctor told Larry Parker last year, Parker didn't want to hear. Couldn't bear to hear.

So he asked another doctor.

The second doctor said the same as the first: The football career that looked so promising when Parker was a sophomore starter for USC's last Rose Bowl team in 1995 was over, because of his left foot.

A stress fracture along with the malformed bone structure Parker was born with made it hopeless. The pain and associated injuries would keep him from ever playing again.

"When the doctors told me I wasn't going to play again, I didn't really listen," said Parker, a fifth-year senior.

Instead, he asked another doctor.

And finally, Dr. No. 3 gave the receiver the few words that offered the sliver of hope Parker needed.

"I got three opinions," he said. "Two said I wouldn't play again. One said he could do the surgery and see if I could possibly play again."

Quite possibly, it turns out.

Thanks to the chance that foot specialist Phillip Kwong of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic offered, Parker is back after sitting out last season because of the surgery and has emerged as USC's third-leading receiver, behind R. Jay Soward and Billy Miller. He is also one of the Trojans' talented bunch of kick returners.

"All I can do is thank God I can play again," Parker said.

He has played quite well, slipping into the game beneath the spotlight that shines on Soward.

In Saturday's victory over Arizona State, Parker had five catches for 105 yards, the biggest game of his career. His 44-yard reception in the second quarter helped set up USC's first touchdown, and he also had a 37-yard catch.

Against Oregon State, he caught a 47-yard pass for what was, surprisingly, the first touchdown of his career, considering he had 49 receptions over his first three seasons.

USC's passing game has struggled overall--most notably in the three-completion game against Florida State when USC had only 23 yards passing--and Coach Paul Hackett acknowledges the offense is still "in its infant stages."

Too often, that means USC's passing game consists mostly of bombs for Soward or occasionally Parker, and swing passes to the running backs.

Hackett says that's partly a pass protection issue, and that quick, deep passes are fairly simple plays to execute.

But for USC's offense to mature into a more efficient machine, the Trojans need to start completing passes to possession receiver Mike Bastianelli--a forgotten man with one reception this season after catching 33 passes last year--as well as tight ends Antoine Harris and Lonnie Ford, who are supposed to be a crucial part of the West Coast offense.

"We haven't figured out how to get [Harris] into the passing game," Hackett said. "It's a reaction to the Florida State game, keeping everyone in to block. As we feel more comfortable there, we'll throw more to the tight end."

In the meantime, Parker doesn't want to waste any of the opportunities that come his way. After all, he was never sure he'd get another.

"I'm a fifth-year senior. I've got R. Jay playing in front of me," he said. "When the ball comes to me, there's definitely pressure to make sure I catch it."

It's been a long time since Parker was a freshman backup to Keyshawn Johnson and an occasional kick returner.

His sophomore season, he started every game and caught 25 passes. He also was USC's leading punt returner, and ranked second in the Pacific 10 Conference with a 9.2-yard average.

He spent his junior season as a backup, as the injury trouble piled up.

"The hamstring injury, the quad, the sore foot, it was all related to my foot problem," said Parker, who learned that the injuries were sometimes caused by him trying to avoid the pain in his foot. "The injury that hurt the most was the stress fracture, but the other problem was that the structure of my foot was out of alignment," he said. "As I grew up, the older and bigger I got, with the weight on it, at times I could barely walk."

Last fall, he made the fateful decision to have surgery, uncertain if he could recover to play a final season.

"I went home a lot last year when the team was playing. I just kept going because I'm not a quitter.

"My mom, when I was frustrated, would just say you've got to worry about the end result."

He was in for a surprise when he came back, because a new coaching staff that wasn't around when he was a promising youngster somehow decided to give him plenty of opportunities.

With a stable of returners that includes Soward, Chad Morton and Daylon McCutcheon, Hackett includes Parker in the mix--even though he probably doesn't even know Parker has come close to returning punts for touchdowns three times in his career--losing two because of clipping penalties and one when he took the ball 63 yards only to fumble at the five-yard line, with the Trojans recovering in the end zone for a touchdown.

"I didn't even play last year, so there was no film to look at," Parker said. "For them to give me an opportunity to play, I really appreciate it."

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