Ten years after car accident, former Latrobe kicker continues fight toward recovery
The instructor is not in a forgiving mood.
Too bad for Garrett Parker.
Or so you might think.
“Get your left arm up even with your right arm,” Parker's trainer demands.
With a smirk, Parker forces his weaker arm into a near-locked position, attempting to level the 45-pound bar overhead. He struggles to keep his posture, but he does it with such conviction.
He works diligently, refusing to be intimidated.
On another day, when others decline to take part, Parker, 27, is giving his best shot at executing difficult handstands.
“I do not want less than being my old self,” says Parker, a former Latrobe High School football player whose life was changed dramatically when he sustained a critical brain injury from a violent car accident before the start of his senior year in 2003.
Parker was considered a top kicking prospect by Division I schools after booting 22 of 27 field-goal attempts in three years at Latrobe prior to the accident that left him comatose and near death.
Among the interested colleges: Pitt, Indiana and Ohio University.
“I don't think he ever missed a meaningful kick for us,” says Pat Murray, who coached Latrobe to a 7-3 record in 2001 — a mark the Wildcats have not equaled since — when Parker, then a sophomore, hit three field goals of 40 yards or better.
In 2002, he nailed a game-winning 42-yarder against Franklin Regional during a driving rainstorm that left a lasting impression on Murray.
“That one really sticks out,” he says. “We led the whole game, and they scored with a minute-and-a-half left. Just then, it started pouring. We had to run our two-minute offense. (Quarterback Ryan) Flynn was outstanding. I think he was 5 for 5 in passing on that last drive and Garrett had to make that kick in the wind and rain.”
Parker vaguely recalls the scene. He longs to recapture the past, at times sitting and staring, wondering what might have been. And there are those determined times when Parker clings to a football and vows to kick again.
“I was good at it,” he says with a punctuated tone.
Practice makes perfect?
Though he regularly heads outdoors to work on his kicking skills at Latrobe Memorial Stadium, the odds of ever regaining his true form appear to be against him.
Yet, Parker has been an underdog for nine years running since almost dying on that July 2003 morning. The injury left him unresponsive to doctors at the onset. He spent nearly a month at UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Pittsburgh, undergoing tests while breathing with the help of a ventilator and being fed through a tube. Doctors told Parker's family that he likely wouldn't walk or talk again.
But he began to respond to commands and miraculously pulled through. He was transferred to UPMC Rehabilitation Hospital and was able to return to high school in January 2004, just six months after the accident had occurred.
Two months later, Parker was granted a waiver by the WPIAL Board of Control to participate in high school football during the first semester of the 2004-05 school year, though he did not play again.
Murray, who added Parker to the roster that year, continues to be heartened by his former player's determination to recapture his old form.
“He hit a great shot. He hit a line-drive down the middle,” Murray says, recalling that dramatic, game-winning kick against Franklin Regional 10 years ago. “That was what Garrett was. He was gregarious and dramatic and happy-go-lucky. He had the personality of a successful kicker. If he hit a bad one, it lasted five minutes and he moved on. That's why Garrett has succeeded in life now after the accident because of that personality and fortitude.”
It was a foggy morning, by some accounts, on July 29, 2002, when Parker and former teammate Seth Schrecengost were headed along a secondary road near St. Vincent College. They were on their way to Latrobe Memorial Stadium for a speed and agility workout on the track prior to the start of training camp.
Nobody seems to recall exactly what happened or why Parker, the driver, veered off the road, took out a fire hydrant and a large bush and slammed into a tree. Schrecengost escaped with minor injuries. Parker wasn't so lucky. Neither boy faced charges.
“I remember the day like it was yesterday,” says Flynn, an assistant baseball coach at Division II Texas A&M-International. “I got a phone call that Garrett died in a car accident.”
Flynn says he received another call shortly thereafter that Parker and Schrecengost were alive, and that Schrecengost's biggest problem only was a slight concussion. He returned to play for Latrobe that season.
“It was the toughest 45 minutes of my life,” Flynn says. “I was in Ocean City, Md., on vacation. It was July 29. It was my birthday.”
Nevertheless, Flynn was grateful to have learned that Parker survived.
“Garrett was not a partier, like some of us,” Flynn says. “I don't ever remember him being that type of person.”
Flynn recalls that “the entire community was devastated; I remember sitting in the waiting room at the hospital in Pittsburgh. I knew I wasn't going to be able to see Garrett, but I wanted to be there. I was his holder our junior year. We were good friends.”
Somehow, Parker pulled through. With the help of his mother, Dottie Parker, he's been rehabilitating himself toward a sense of normalcy.
Onward and upward
Garrett Parker appears content with setting other goals.
“I didn't have a choice after I smashed my car,” he says. “I was good at kicking. I dream of doing it again.”
Meanwhile, Dottie Parker watches intently as her son presses on.
“I love him. I won't give up on him,” she says, at times, fighting back tears. “Garrett is not his old self because of this. It's not there yet. I'm not sure if it ever will be.”
The kid who started out playing soccer and parlayed it into becoming a strong and accurate placekicker has earned a degree in liberal arts from Westmoreland County Community College. He's been through countless hours of occupational and physical therapy sessions. He's sung in his church choir and taught a Sunday School class at Latrobe Presbyterian Church. He's spent countless hours doing volunteer community work and he's held summer jobs with local parks and recreation organizations.
On gameknot.com, an internet site devoted to chess, Parker's page includes his profile. In the section called “additional info,” Parker has typed these words: “Have a traumatic brain injury from an automobile accident. Fighting my way back to the top!”
A teammate and a friend
Who knows if Parker ever would have made it to the top or anywhere close? College and the NFL certainly had entered his mind at an early age.
“I remember when we were at a Pitt showcase at their indoor facility on (Pittsburgh's) South Side,” Flynn says. “He had all eyes on him. All the skill position coaches were there with their groups of players. At the end of the session, even the linemen had stopped doing what they were doing to watch Garrett kick. He was killing 55-yard field goals. I just put my shoes on and said to myself, ‘I've seen him doing it a million times. I'm not watching.'
“He put on a show for everybody with those short, stumpy, rhino legs.”
Parker smiles at Flynn's comical reference.
Like Dottie Parker, her son's former coach, Murray, who taught him in school, tries hard not to choke up. There is more to Garrett Parker than those 55-yarders, he says.
After all, Parker is doing handstands at his fitness class. He's making the best of a tough situation.
“He was the same way in class as he was on the football field,” Murray says. “A strong personality in the classroom, too. He was an excellent student.
“We all saw Garrett as our friend, and not just the kicker. His personality was strong and vibrant. His personality was so dynamic. Everyone remembers it.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5617.