Now that he has shown he's no fluke, Willie Parker wants to reach for the stars and not the twinkle-twinkle little ones, either. He has set his sights on the North star of the NFL, the brightest of the bright.
They don't come any more luminous than San Diego halfback LaDainian Tomlinson, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player after he set league records with 31 touchdowns and 186 points last season.
"I want to be better than L.T.," Parker proclaimed yesterday between the Steelers' double practices at Saint Vincent College. "L.T. can do all that stuff. He's like a role model to me. I look up to this guy. I just want to do what he does."
The goals don't get much bigger, but then Parker backed up his 1,202-yard season in 2005 with 1,494 yards last season, third most in a franchise history that includes Franco Harris, John Henry Johnson and Jerome Bettis.
He did so by carrying the ball 337 times, fourth most in Steelers history. Now Parker wants more, much more. He does not want to leave the playing field this year; he wants to not only be their starting halfback, he wants to stick around for third downs as well.
"I want to do it all," Parker said. "I wouldn't be no running back if I say I want to come off the field in certain situations. I want to do all the situations."
His coaches are inclined to let him do it, too. New coordinator Bruce Arians believes in running his best players until their tongues hang out, and Parker might be the odds-on favorite to take over the role as third-down back, something Tomlinson does rather well.
"L.T.'s had a lot of touches, and if Willie has those kinds of touches, his yards could be the same," Arians said. "I like the fact he wants to be better. I don't ever want him on the bench unless he's tired."
And, as new running backs coach Kirby Wilson noted, why take your best players out of the game?
"Any time your best player is capable of playing [downs] one through three, you want him out there, especially with all the chips on the line."
Tomlinson ran for 1,815 yards on 348 carries for the Chargers last season. He also caught 56 passes for 508 yards. Parker caught 31 passes for 222 yards, many on first down. His 16 touchdowns set a Steelers record but were barely half Tomlinson's total.
Also, if Parker were the third-down back, he'd have more opportunities to run against defenses that are spread out to defend against the pass.
"That's something I'm beginning to love, it's something I'm taking a lot of pride in right now," Parker said of the third-down role. "I want to be on that field catching screens on third down."
Receiver Hines Ward talked to Parker before training camp and advised him to work on his blocking and receiving this summer. He did it in the spring and has continued it in Latrobe because you can't play on third downs if you can't block the blitz.
"Willie Parker has a chance to be great because he's willing to identify what he needs to work on, and he's doing it," coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's doing a heck of a job."
The L.T. goal is a lofty one, but Parker's story already has a can-you-top-this feel. Undrafted mostly because he was a backup at North Carolina, Parker played little as a rookie and then burst into the NFL consciousness in his second season, 2005, when he won the starting halfback job. He rushed for those 1,202 yards and then set a Super Bowl record by running 75 yards for a touchdown.
A fluke, a scatback who only runs outside, a one-hit wonder -- Parker heard it all, then carved out his niche near the top of the Steelers' record book last season.
Like Pittsburgh and its smoky image that won't go away, people thought of Parker as an outside runner. Even Tomlin, coaching the past six years in the NFC, thought that of him. He changed his mind after watching video of him from last season, saying he did not realize he was such a good runner inside.
"Everybody looks at my speed and says he's just so fast. They look at me as an outside runner," Parker said. "I'm always going to carry that. But I'm always banging inside too. I'm going to get the yards whatever it takes."
In fact, Parker prefers to run between the tackles.
"I'd rather have the hole inside; you can spring them into a big play. Outside, you don't usually go too far."
And, to be sure, Parker wants to go far, not so much to Tomlinson's level, but higher.
"That's a long goal and a big one, but that's what drives him," Wilson said. "He wants to be considered in that category and on that level."