TORONTO – Defensive back Byron Parker has become a bona fide offensive threat for the Toronto Argonauts.
Parker has returned four of his team-high seven interceptions for touchdowns this year. That leaves Parker second on the team in TDs scored behind receiver Arland Bruce III (who has 10).
The sophomore cornerback has found the end zone twice as often this season than heralded running back Ricky Williams, a former NFL rushing champion.
If Parker can return one more interception for a touchdown in Toronto’s final two regular-season games, he will tie the CFL record held by Edmonton’s Malcolm Frank. Parker and the Argos take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Rogers Centre on Friday night (TSN, 7:30 p.m. ET).
“It’s more hilarious to me more than anything,” Parker says with a chuckle. “It’s a very humbling experience that I’m going through right now.”
Parker, who was named the CFL’s defensive player of the week Wednesday, is tied for second in CFL interceptions, just two behind league-leader Barron Miles of the B.C. Lions. But Parker has set a league record for return yards with 342, breaking the previous mark of 300 set in 2003 by Eric Carter of the Lions.
What makes Parker’s accomplishments more impressive, though, is that he’s played just nine games with Toronto, re-signing with the CFL club in August after being released by the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The six-foot-one, 196-pound Parker didn’t start playing football until his final season at Tulane, where he played for the varsity basketball team and in 2003, captured the NCAA slam dunk title.
“Byron is special in what he brings to the table,” said Argos head coach Mike (Pinball) Clemons. “It’s amazing because he hasn’t done this (play football) for very long.”
At Tulane, Parker was used mostly on special teams, starting just one game at cornerback. Predictably, he had a 19-yard interception return in that contest.
“When I was playing basketball, I was always told I was a defensive back but I never believed people,” Parker said. “I’ve always wanted to do something that was going to challenge me and football just seemed to be the right thing.
“I figured I’d give it a shot and it seems to be working out for me so far.”
In only his second CFL season, it’s not surprising that teams have routinely tested Parker. But the 25-year-old native of Madisonville, Ky., has used his speed – he ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at Dallas – and jumping ability – he has 43-inch vertical – to meet those challenges.
“I sit back every now and then and think about what might have happened if I could’ve been here for the whole season,” Parker said.
“Then again, if I had that many picks early on I might not get that many balls thrown my way later on. “It’s hard to say but right now I’m just out there having fun.”
While speed and leaping ability are certainly two big reasons for Parker’s success this year, so is being surrounded by proven performers on a veteran Toronto defence.
“Every day I come into work, I get to learn from some of the best,” he said. “(Argos defensive back) Kenny Wheaton played for the Dallas Cowboys and then there’s someone like (cornerback) Jordan Younger.
“I also have someone like (former CFL all-star cornerback) Adrion Smith on the sidelines. I’m really thankful to the Argos because they really were the first team to give me an opportunity to play.”
But there’s no denying Parker misses basketball.
“Every time I get around a basketball court . . . if I go see the Toronto Raptors, my hands start to twitch,” he said. “To me, basketball is my love.
“But I love football now because there’s no other sport where, even if you’re having a bad day and you’re frustrated, you can hit the guy in front of you as hard as you want and it’s legal.”
Still, Parker believes if he was given a serious shot, he could have made an NBA roster.
“When I was younger, I took basketball for granted because it came so easily to me,” he said. “Had I worked on my game like I should have, I think I would’ve had a shot because I hustled and was defensive-minded and liked doing the things that didn’t show up on the stats sheet.”
For now, Parker is content to hustle, play defence and do his part to help Toronto win its second Grey Cup in three years.
“If I get another touchdown, that’s fine, but it’s not what I’m going out to do,” Parker said. “Being part of something special and winning a Grey Cup with a team is much more important to me.”