The shiny black Lexus is parked outside the Vikings' training
facility. The beige leather driver's seat is almost completely
reclined, like a poolside lounge chair, a hint that the car must
belong to some towering linebacker or mammoth tackle. Looks,
however, can be deceiving. David Palmer, a wispy,
five-foot-something punt returner-wide receiver, settles in
behind the wheel. Can somebody be pulled over for driving while
Palmer is headed to the Mall of America, in nearby Bloomington,
Minn. Above the sporadic beeping of a radar detector and the
soothing R&B sounds on the stereo, a quote from Minnesota coach
Dennis Green is read aloud from the freshly inked pages of a
reporter's notebook. Says Green, "We've got to get the ball in
David's hands this season. I would expect him to have 40 to 45
Palmer jolts forward as if he has just been doused with ice
water. The music volume is lowered a notch. Even the Fuzzbuster
"He said that?" Palmer asks. "Forty-five?" A smile as wide as a
four-lane highway stretches across his face. "Just like college."
At Alabama, the spotlight followed Palmer like his shadow. Now,
after two quiet seasons in the pros, he has found that he misses
that white-hot glare. For kick returners, fame comes in fleeting
moments. Although Palmer, 23, led the NFL with 13.2 yards per
punt return last year, his only highlight was a 74-yard return
against Detroit on Thanksgiving Day for the first touchdown of
his pro career. Last season he also had 12 catches for 100
yards. In '94, his rookie year, the second-round pick averaged
6.4 yards on punt returns and grabbed six receptions for 90 yards.
Here, though, he is as anonymous as anyone else strolling
through the world's largest mall. "It's been so difficult for
me," says Palmer. "I'm used to making the big plays. I've been
just a role player. You know what I heard my oldest son say? 'My
daddy rides the bench.'"
Before Kordell (Slash) Stewart captured America's fancy, there
was David (Deuce) Palmer, the do-everything college star. For
three seasons (1991-93), the Birmingham native played wide
receiver, running back and quarterback, and returned kickoffs
and punts for the Crimson Tide. He finished third in the '93
Heisman balloting and was a first-team All-America as a junior.
His team went undefeated and won the 1992 national championship.
In Tuscaloosa, his number 2 jersey was a hot seller on campus
and the deuce is loose posters were plastered across dorm room
walls. "In college," he says, "I was the man."
However, beyond his charmed college career, life hasn't been so
easy for Palmer. His mother, Peggie Parker, worked three jobs to
provide for David, his brothers, Robert and Damian, and his
sister, Naqutta. At age 14, Palmer fathered his first child,
also David, who is now 8. Two years later he had a daughter,
Davida, and, by a second mother, another son, Davin. His
children live with their mothers in Birmingham during the school
year and spend the summer in Minnesota with Palmer and his
girlfriend, Carmelita Davis.
During Palmer's rookie season, Naqutta and her baby daughter,
Annie, lived in his Minneapolis town house. Last season, though,
the extra bedroom was empty. On June 14, 1995, Naqutta, then 17,
was killed in a freak shooting incident outside the family's
home in Birmingham.
Though he thinks about his sister often, Palmer refuses to dwell
on any of the trials he has faced in his life, looking ahead
with a determined sense of optimism. Ask him about the abject
poverty of his childhood and he proudly talks about having the
money to outfit his own children in designer clothes. ("My boys
only wear Tommy Hilfiger," he says.) Ask him about becoming the
father of three while still in high school and he says, "Having
them at such a young age, they have been able to come up with
me, see me play ball in high school and college and now. It's
been a joy." Ask him about his sister's death and he speaks
about letting the anger go, about forgiving and forgetting.
He knows that his latest trial--waiting, waiting, waiting for a
chance to shine on the field--is insignificant by comparison.
Last season he told himself to be patient, to look to the open
"My time will come," he says. Palmer settles back into the
lounge chair that is his Lexus. "What else did my coaches say?"
he asks. The notebook is out again.
From offensive coordinator Brian Billick: "We've spent a good
part of the off-season devising ways to implement his talents.
We hope to use him as a slot receiver, and he'll run with the
ball on handoffs and reverses."
"Did they say anything about my size?" Palmer asks. Well, yes.
Palmer is listed at 5'8", but even he would have to admit that
an inch or so shorter is closer to the truth.
Receivers coach Chip Myers: "His size limits him a little. It's
hard for him to block. At 175 pounds he gets thrown around."
Palmer interrupts the scouting report. "Guys tell me all the
time, 'If you were six feet, you'd be dangerous,'" he says. "I
don't think it makes a difference. I've been taking licks my
whole life. I'm a man out there. They think I'm small, but..."
Hold on, David. There's more.
Green: "David has a lot of natural gifts that transcend a 5'8"
receiver. With four, five, six years of experience, he could be
one of the top all-around players."
Myers: "He's been very patient. This season he has earned the
chance to play more. He was the first player back lifting after
the season ended. He has made a niche for himself. He can't live
on what he did at Alabama. Now we just hope we make him famous
The Lexus is cruising along at a fast clip. The Fuzzbuster is
protesting violently. Palmer doesn't seem to notice.
His mind is in the end zone. No doubt the word famous is echoing
in his head. "Just like college," he says. His time has come.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE After heroic Saturdays at Alabama, Palmer has labored in obscurity in Minnesota. [David Palmer]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME The Vikes are trying to devise new ways for the talented Palmer to break loose. [David Palmer in game]