Built of steel and concrete, the Nitro-St. Albans Bridge is a simple truss structure, unappealing to the eye. It spans the dun waters of the Kanawha River, which flows through the western reach of West Virginia. The bridge's dull-green girders, one fifth of a mile long, stretch from rare clearings in the sugar maples that flank Interstate 64. And on gray late-winter days, when the land is as bare as it was the day Chris Parker's life changed forever, the austere pass is unrelievedly dreary.
"I have come to recognize the total significance of that bridge," says Parker. "I see it as the crossroads of my life."
Twenty-live miles east of Huntington, the bridge leads toward Marshall University, a cozy, broad-lawned campus where Parker has become the best running back in Division I-AA football. It was shortly after committing to Marshall in 1991 that Parker, who lived in Lynchburg, Va., made a trip to the school with his girlfriend, two of her sisters and one of her brothers. Driving home after the visit, Parker lost control of his car as he headed onto the Nitro-St. Albans Bridge. In the crash that followed—one that Paul Stohl, the fire captain of Nitro, W. Va., calls "the worst thing I've been on in my 16 years"—Parker's girlfriend and her two sisters were killed.
Parker, who was 18 at the time, has learned to draw on the accident for courage and perspective. "Whenever I face something difficult, I think about that for motivation," Parker said before Marshall's season opener on Sept. 3. "Nothing can be harder than that."
Today he is a captain of the nation's top-ranked I-AA football team. He has so focused his talents that last season, as a sophomore, he gained 1,750 yards, the most in Marshall's 91-year football history. He has a striking ability to accelerate, remarkable balance and, above all, determination. "He constantly breaks tackles," says East Tennessee coach Mike Cavan, whose team faces Marshall each year. "You watch him, and you can't believe he doesn't go down. He runs much bigger than he is."
Off the field Parker is clearly shorter than the 5'11" at which he is listed in Marshall's media guide. He carries his compact body in a manner that suggests he is older than his 21 years. Parker moves with a clipped and deliberate gait, and his oak-brown eyes fix upon their subject. He speaks, even when talking of the fate that visited him so savagely, in a monotone.
"He's so responsible and levelheaded," says Kim Coleman, Parker's 25-year-old fiancèe. "He never gets excited. I look at him and what he's doing, and I think about what happened. I don't know if I could have gotten through it the way he has."
Chris is the second of five children born into the Baptist household of Shirley and Joseph Parker. He was, by his mother's account, the most willful of the Parker brood, and by ninth grade, despite his small size, he was playing junior varsity football at Heritage High School. "He got it into his mind that he could play," says Shirley. "And one thing about Chris: When he sets goals, he meets them."
Had it not been for a Heritage classmate and running back of prodigious strength, J.T. Morris, Parker might have risen quickly at the school. Instead, after two seasons of jayvee, he spent a good part of his junior year watching from the varsity sidelines. Nonetheless, when they weren't busy preparing for church, Shirley and Joe went on Saturdays to watch Chris's games. "That meant a lot," Chris says. "I wasn't playing all the time, but I wanted them to see what I was doing."
By his senior year Parker was doing fine. A veteran of the fast-food work-place, he had saved enough money to buy a snazzy sports car. He had met a girl, Tammy Yuille, and they had become a close and loving couple, often seen together in the halls of Heritage High.
Meanwhile, the school's football team had switched to a split-back offense. Together, Parker and Morris wore down defenses and led the team to an 11-1 season. Each gained more than 1,300 yards. "A lot of opposing coaches thought Chris was the better back," coach John Walker says.
But the big-time schools didn't agree. Parker's size and his low board scores kept away the Division I-A coaches who courted his backfield mate. Marshall, however, wanted Parker all along. "We were impressed by his quickness and by his work ethic." says Mickey Matthews, the assistant coach who recruited Parker. "When a kid goes straight from practice to a job every night, you know he's committed."
In February 1991 Parker learned he had done well enough on the SAT to play college football. Matthews called to offer him a full scholarship, and Parker accepted without hesitation, "I was real happy," he says. "I felt like I was in the prime of my life. I wanted to show off Marshall."
On Sunday, March 3, Chris, Tammy, her sisters Connie and Sharlene, and their brother Brian squeezed into Parker's sports car and set out early on the 300-mile drive to Huntington. "We made it by the middle of the day," Parker says. "It was cloudy, raining a little, but everyone felt good. We were having fun."
They drove around Marshall's campus, stopping at the nearly completed 28,000-seat stadium, where Parker would soon play. "Then we bought some strawberries and went to the gas station on Fifth Avenue," Parker says.
It was now midafternoon, and a thick mist had gathered on I-64. The road was wet, and Parker drove it at a high speed. Just beyond St. Albans he passed another vehicle, then swung back into the right lane. His car swerved from the road, catching the guardrail that leads to the bridge. Seconds later the car climbed the bridge's first slanted beam and rode up it some 30 feet. Then it fell to the road, its wheels toward the sky, and burst into flames.
From this wreckage Parker emerged physically unscathed. Only when he reached into his car and pulled Brian from the front seat did he suffer burns to his face and forearms. By then other people had arrived. The heat was overwhelming, and Parker was led to the side of the bridge, where he sat silently and watched the fire engulf the car. Tammy and her sisters were trapped inside.
During his 10-day hospital stay Parker was visited by the Yuilles, who had come to be with Brian while he recovered. The Yuilles absolved Parker of blame. Still, he was tormented by grief and guilt. At home, he lay on his family's couch for days. When his mother finally roused him, she immediately took him to church. "I had missed the funeral, and church was my chance to say goodbye, spiritually," Parker says. "I cried and cried. I wanted to give myself to God.
"I don't know if anyone but my mother could have gotten me oil' the couch, but she did. I realized that I needed to go on. Three people I cared about were killed. I got a second chance."
Parker's inner strength sustained his recovery. At Heritage he cleared Tammy's belongings from his locker. He walked the halls alone. He graduated with his class. Late that summer, as scheduled, he went to Marshall for his redshirt freshman year. There he grappled with his direction, struggling with grades and the football program's offense. And he endured a difficult court case that began in September, when the Putnam County prosecutors charged him with negligent homicide in the accident that had occurred six months earlier. "I thought I had suffered enough," Parker says.
On July 15, 1992, after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter, Parker was sentenced to five years' probation (which was lifted in July for good behavior.) During his sentencing hearing character witnesses for Parker flocked to the courtroom—Walker, high school teachers, Marshall coach Jim Donnan. Grateful for their encouragement, he went back to Marshall and got ready to play ball.
In the '92 season Parker displayed a powerful, slanting style, gaining 602 yards on 100 carries as a backup. Last year he showed even greater resolve. "One game, against The Citadel, Chris got hit at or behind the line seven times." recalls offensive coordinator Chris Scelfo. "Each time he gained at least three yards. He refused to take a loss."
Parker carried 339 times last season, fumbled only twice and set a Southern Conference record with 23 rushing touchdowns. He spent the off-season studying game films and adding bulk that brought his weight to 193 pounds.
"I think about the accident every day, and I wonder how I survived," he says. "It makes me feel I need to do something with my life."
Not far from Marshall Stadium. Parker lives with Coleman in a small second-floor apartment. Its walls are bare, and potted plants sit in one corner of the living room. This is Parker's home. He does not return to Lynchburg often, nor does he attend church in Huntington. But on Saturday afternoons Shirley and Joe Parker drive to Marshall Stadium to see their son play football, on the other side of the bridge.
The Nitro-St. Albans Bridge was, Parker now believes, "the crossroads of my life."
It is Parker's fierce determination, above all, that has made him a leading rusher in Division I-AA.