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Throwback Thursday: Willie Parker's short but sweet Steelers career

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When looking back at the greatest Steelers running backs of all-time, don't forget Willie Parker, who for several fleeting seasons was one of the NFL's best backs.

"It almost seems like it didn't actually happen...like it was something we just dreamed."

While this quote was used in the 30 for 30 dedicated to Bo Jackson, it also applies when looking back on the career of Willie Parker.

It's safe to say that Parker made the most of a short but sweet career that began by watching every team pass on him seven times in the 2004 NFL Draft. Signed as a free agent by the Steelers that off-season, Parker then had to fight for a roster spot and playing time in a backfield that included a future Hall of Famer and a three-time 1,000-yard rusher that was also brought in that off-season.

With the playoffs, the division title and home field for the playoffs locked up, the little known running back from North Carolina finally got his shot in the Week 17 finale in Buffalo. Many actually thought the 14-1 Steelers would lose to the 9-6 Bills, who were still fighting for a playoff spot while the Steelers would be resting several starters. The game would be a chance for Parker and linebacker James Harrison to make their marks while offering a foreshadowing of things to come.

In his first career start, Parker gashed Buffalo for 102 yards on 19 carries that included a signature Fast Willie run, a 58-yard jaunt through the heart of the Bills defense. While Parker helped give Pittsburgh a slim lead late in the game, Harrison's fumble recovery for a touchdown helped ice an eventual 29-24 win to give the Steelers a franchise-record 15 regular season wins.

Parker's effort not only secured himself a roster spot for the upcoming season, it gave Bill Cowher the confidence to start him for the opening game of the 2005 season against Tennessee. With Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley out with injuries, Fast Willie burst onto the scene, rushing for 161 yards and his first career touchdown while also catching a pass for 48 yards in Pittsburgh's 34-7 blowout victory. Parker would have a firm grip on the Steelers' starting running back job for the next four seasons, a stretch that included many memorable moments for both Parker and the Steelers.

Fast Willie continued to feast on opposing defenses that season, rushing for 1,202 yards for an average of 4.7 yards per carry. In the playoffs, Parker rushed for another 225 yards that included his iconic 75-yard touchdown scamper in Pittsburgh's 21-10 win over Seattle in Super Bowl XL. The run was vintage Parker, finding the hole, bursting through the line and outrunning everyone to the end zone.

With Bettis' retirement minutes following the Super Bowl, the baton was passed firmly to Parker, who responded by being arguably the NFL's best running back in each of the next two seasons. He rushed for 1,494 yards in 2006 while piling up 1,716 total yards and 16 touchdowns while also rushing for not one but two 200-yard games on his way to being named to his first Pro Bowl. Parker was even better in 2007, rushing for over 100 yards in seven of the teams first nine games and leading the NFL in rushing heading into a Week 15 Thursday Night Football game in St. Louis.

This is where the story takes an unfortunate turn, as Parker suffered a leg injury on the one and only carry of the night. The injury shelved Parker for the rest of the season, and sadly, Parker was never the same for the remainder of his career.

As was the case three years earlier, there was a passing of the torch in regards to the Steelers backfield, but this time it was Parker on the passing end. The Steelers had drafted Rashard Mendenahll in the first round of the 2008 Draft, and Parker knew as well as anyone that his time as the team's featured back was closing. Just as Bettis had displayed to him, Parker was the consummate professional in dealing with Mendenhall, helping him throughout training camp despite fully knowing that the rookie was there to replace him.

Parker forged ahead, rushing for 138 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers' Opening Day victory over Houston. While his numbers weren't what they one were, Parker still had those moments of greatness, most notably his 146-yard, two touchdown effort in the teams divisional playoff win over San Diego.

Three weeks following that game, Parker led the team in rushing in the Steelers 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. One of the indelible moments in that game was Parker, who after finishing his best run of the night, pumped his arms in the air and led out a scream that seemed to symbolize where the game was heading.The win put Parker in rarefied air, as he and Franco Harris are the only pair of running backs to start and win multiple Super Bowls with the same franchise.

The torch was finally passed in 2009, as Mendenhall resumed the starting running back duties from Parker. Fast Willie continued to make an impact, rushing for 91 yards on 12 carries in the team's final regular season game against Miami. The win would be Parker's final NFL game, as he was unable to land a roster spot in Washington that ensuing off-season.

While his prime was short, Parker made the most of his time with the Steelers. He is arguably the most explosive running back in franchise history, and his efforts certainly had an impact during the teams run to two Super Bowl titles with him supplanted as the team's starting running back. While he may not have had a long career, Parker was and is a champion, something that will always resonate in a city that prides themselves on being champions.

We know his career wasn't a dream. The Steelers' two most recent Vince Lombardi Trophies serves as the evidence.