I was always a fan of Willie Parker, an undrafted free-agent out of North Carolina who played for the Steelers from 2004-2009.
I admired Parker, the super-fast running back dubbed "Fast Willie," for taking on the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of future Hall of Famer and Steelers icon, Jerome Bettis.
Not only did Parker take the mantle from The Bus during Bettis' last year in Pittsburgh, he ran with it to the tune of 4,803 rushing yards in four years as a full-time starter--including seasons of 1,204, 1,494 and 1,316 yards, respectively.
That 1,494 yard rushing season is what I want to focus on at the moment; you see, it occurred in 2006 when I was still super-passionate about fantasy football.
I began playing fantasy football three years earlier in a league that included mostly family and friends. It also included money. And when money is involved, it has a way of making you more emotionally invested in your fantasy team.
Unfortunately for me, I was not and have never been good at fantasy football (I still play but in "fun" leagues). But 2006 was actually the exception, as it turned out to be the only time I made the postseason in this particular family/friends/money league.
The stakes were high for me all year, as I wanted to finally make it to the next level of fantasy football.
I'm pretty sure the stakes were high for Fast Willie, too. After all, with Bettis gone and the Steelers coming off a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, a game in-which Parker set a Super Bowl record with a 75-yard touchdown run to open the second half, people were going to be watching to see if No. 39 could make them forget about No. 36.
He couldn't, but not for a lack of trying...or production.
The 2006 season turned out to be Parker's most productive, and he was a fantasy player's dream; in-addition to rushing for nearly 1,500 yards, Parker scored 13 touchdowns on the ground and three more through the air.
Perhaps his most productive game of the season (and arguably the best performance of his career) came in Week 10 against the Saints at Heinz Field on November 12.
The Steelers came into the game reeling with a 2-6 record after dropping five of their past six games. Not only were the defending Super Bowl champions in danger of not making the playoffs; it looked like things might unravel totally for head coach Bill Cowher in what would turn out to be his final season in Pittsburgh.
New Orleans, on the other hand, came into the game with the exact opposite record and was looking to put the last bit of dirt on the Steelers chances of defending their title.
As for me, I was fighting for a playoff spot, and as I battled the best team in my league throughout this particular Sunday, I held a sizable lead at the 4:15 kickoff.
After Pittsburgh jumped out to a 14-0 start, things began to turn sour for the home-team, and the Saints scored 24 of the next 27 points to take a 24-17 lead at halftime.
The score remained the same until midway through the third quarter, when Pittsburgh began to seize control for the second time.
Roethlisberger connected with receiver Cedrick Wilson on a 38-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 24 with 7:03 left in the third.
I was feeling pretty good about things. Not only were the Steelers back in the game, my opponent's players--including Parker--had done very little on the day.
But you know how it is with first place teams in fantasy leagues. They almost always find a way to pull games out of their...well, you know.
The next time the Steelers took over on offense, Parker took over the game.
With 2:57 left in the third period, Parker gashed the Saints' defense for a 72-yard burst down to the 10-yard line. Four plays later, Parker put the Steelers ahead for good, with a three-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, to make it 31-24.
As I watched Fast Willie race those 72 yards and then score that touchdown, I cheered. However, even as I was cheering, I was dying inside.
On the second play of Pittsburgh's next possession, Parker did his Super Bowl run, only one yard better, as he raced around right end for 76 yards down to the New Orleans' four-yard line. One play later, Parker was in the end zone again, and the Steelers were ahead, 38-24.
Again, I cheered during the long run, and then during the touchdown, but I knew my fate had been sealed. Mr. Lucky First Place Team (that's what he was known around my apartment that night) was in the clear, thanks to Parker posting a minimum of 26 fantasy points in a matter of minutes. (It was more than 26, but I don't have the heart to go back and tally all of those Fast Willie fast-break fantasy points.)
The Steelers went on to win the game, 38-31, and I went on to lose my fantasy match-up by some score that I do not remember.
As I touched upon earlier, I made the playoffs as a wildcard, and in my first postseason game, I managed to blow my brother out before exiting the following week.
As for the Steelers, despite a good second half, they missed the playoffs with an 8-8 mark.
But while Pittsburgh struggled as a team in '06, Fast Willie was a beacon of light. Weeks after his epic game against New Orleans, Parker became the first Steelers running back to eclipse the 200-yard mark twice in the same season, when he tallied 223 against the Browns in Week 14. In doing so, Parker set a single-game franchise rushing record that still stands today.
Parker made his first of two Pro Bowls in '06. The following year, he was leading the NFL in rushing as late as Week 16 before fracturing his tibia against the Rams and was never the same again.
Willie Parker may not have been able to follow in Bettis' footsteps, but he certainly made some footprints of his own during his short time with the Steelers.
And, oh yeah, he cost me a fantasy game.
I don't hold that against you, Willie.