Memories will last if Steelers' Parker doesn't

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Some of Willie Parker's memories will probably be emblazoned forever in the minds of his teammates and fans.

The first of his 26 career 100-yard rushing performances in the 2004 season finale in Buffalo, the game that convinced Bill Cowher he needed to seriously consider Parker as a starter, not a reserve.

A 75-yard touchdown run on a play called Counter 34 Pike early in the second half of Super Bowl XL in Detroit -- the longest touchdown run in Super Bowl history.

Setting a franchise single-game record that had stood for 36 years when he rushed for 223 yards in a Dec. 12, 2007, game against the Cleveland Browns.

Leading the National Football League in rushing with two games remaining and breaking his leg in Week 15 in a Thursday night game in St. Louis in 2007.

"He won two Super Bowls with us," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "He'll always be a Steeler for life, in my opinion."

Even if he is no longer with the Steelers.

That possibility is creeping closer to reality because Parker, a former two-time Pro Bowl running back, is an unrestricted free agent who sounds as if he has played his last game with the Steelers.

After losing his starting job to Rashard Mendenhall in Week 4, Parker played sparingly the rest of the season, even though he might have gone out in grand style when he rushed for 74 of his 91 yards on the final game-preserving drive in Miami.

At age 29 and with an average of 244 carries in each of his past five seasons, he wants to, and thinks he still can, be a starting running back in the NFL. Even though his 5-foot-10, 209-pound frame has absorbed a lot of blows.

"I'm a starter always looked at myself as starter, that's what I want to be," said Parker, who was an undrafted free agent from North Carolina in 2004. "So, till I hang up pads, that's how I'm going to look at myself. Rashard is a great back and he had a great season and, hopefully, he'll carry it on.

"I had six great years here with the Steelers. We won two Super Bowls. I want to thank the organization and thank everybody. You know how the business goes. I love these guys. I love the organization. I'm a Steeler by heart. We'll see what happens in the future."

The development of Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,108 yards on 242 carries after an injury shortened rookie season, has likely hastened Parker's departure.

It is likely he could return to the team at a value significantly less than the $3.6 million he was paid this season. But it is more likely he can land with another team who is seeking a former two-time Pro Bowl running back with six years experience.

If Parker leaves, the Steelers will have to find a replacement. Their offseason roster includes several candidates, including Isaac Redman, or possibly Justin Vincent, both members of the practice squad.

But they might have to use the middle to late rounds of the April draft to get a backup for Mendenhall.

And that is not a far-fetched possibility.

In the past three years, backs such as Cincinnati's Bernard Scott (sixth round), Indianapolis' Mike Hart (6), Miami's Lex Hilliard (6) and Ahmad Bradshaw of the New York Giants (7) have all been plucked in later rounds.

"It's a business," Ward said. "If Willie's not here, he had a phenomenal career with us. There's still a lot of football left in Willie. Hopefully he'll end up here."

Gerry Dulac: . First Published January 26, 2010 5:00 AM


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