It was no secret tailback Willie Parker hadn't been himself this season — certainly not to his coaches and fellow Steelers, not to the fans and not to the club's popular former running back, Jerome Bettis. Now an NBC analyst, the man nicknamed the Bus was on the Heinz Field sideline before Sunday's game against San Diego when he spotted his one-time understudy, who had missed five games to injury this season and lost some of his spark as well.
After three straight seasons surpassing 1,200 yards — after setting a Super Bowl record three years ago with a 75-yard touchdown romp in Pittsburgh's victory over Seattle — "Fast Willie" needed a lift.
And the Bus pulled up at the perfect time to provide one.
"He just told me to believe in myself," said Parker, 28, who dealt with knee and shoulder injuries. "He heard and read all week long how I am healthy, and he said he just wanted me to show him.
"I looked him in his eyes and put my hand over my heart, and I really didn't have to say anything. He understood what I meant."
Parker proceeded to show Bettis and Steeler faithful he was back, flashing his familiar speed and darting moves to finish with a postseason career-best 146 yards on 27 carries — the third-highest total in team history and most since Franco Harris' 153 in 1975.
His performance helped propel Pittsburgh to its 35-24 triumph and into Sunday's AFC Championship Game against bitter North Division rival Baltimore. And it gives the Steelers a much-needed offensive boost as they prepare to face the league's No. 2 defense (second only to themselves).
"I'm not struggling anymore and I'm definitely back to full speed," he said. "Right now I just feel good and I'm ready to keep making this run."
Parker's teammates were just as excited to see him find his footing.
"They were whooping and hollering and going crazy," Parker said. "It was just like I'd started all over again, like I'd just come into the NFL."
None of Parker's previous four seasons had been marred by injury. And his anguish mounted as he wound up gaining only 791 yards, part of a running attack that ranked 23rd in the league.
"It was definitely frustrating for me," he said. "I felt like I turned into a whole different person."
The low point came during the lead-up to the second game against the Ravens on Dec. 14, when Parker criticized the team's approach to running the ball. Coach Mike Tomlin favored a two tight-end alignment for blocking instead of an I-formation with a fullback leading the way.
Tomlin was quick to put Parker in his place, remarking, "Every morning I come to work, I walk past five Lombardi (trophies), not five rushing titles."
But Tomlin still wanted to let Parker know how much he valued him. And to demonstrate it, he named Parker a captain for the Ravens game.
The move paid off, helping build the tailback's confidence on the heels of an awkward episode. Parker wasn't dominant, gaining 47 yards, but he had several good runs during the 13-9 road win.
"He has had a rough go of it at times from a health standpoint during the season," Tomlin said. "But he weathered it early, and he appears to be rising at the appropriate time. It's great for him, and it's even better for us."
Parker continued to turn the corner during the regular-season finale, rushing for 116 yards and a touchdown in the 34-0 rout of the Browns. But it remained to be seen if he could display the same dominance against a quality opponent — until Sunday.
In the process, Parker took some of the pressure off of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who didn't have to push to make things happen with the passing game.
"I tell him this all the time: 'Just trust yourself and believe in yourself,' " Roethlisberger said. "He's too good of a running back to question himself."
Three years ago, the Steelers won the Super Bowl with Bettis carrying the load and Parker excelling in support. With the Bus gone, Parker is keenly aware he's in the driver's seat now.
"It's more on my shoulders than it was in 2005," he said. "Back then, I could kind of relax a little bit because he was taking more of the carries."
Bettis went from that to giving some well-timed advice. Parker, for one, was thrilled to take it — and run with it.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.