TAMPA — There are times when Preston Parker thinks about what could have been.
The former Florida State star receiver is on the bubble of the Bucs roster, battling for an NFL job that he, at one time, seemed destined for. But Parker's dreams of being a first-round pick were derailed by bad decisions, three arrests in a three-year span.
"I saw everything go away," he said.
Parker, 23, was humbled, having lost everything from his spot with the Seminoles to his driver's license, hurting the chance to provide a better life for his 3-year-old son, P.J. But given a second chance, first by Terry Bowden at Division II North Alabama and now as an undrafted free agent with the Bucs, Parker is taking advantage.
Parker, due to a January 2009 DUI arrest, has to walk to most places and gets rides to practice. According to coaches, he has been a "model citizen" while impressing them with competitiveness, athleticism, confidence and kick returns and coverage.
Whether Parker survives roster cuts, lands on the practice squad or catches the eye of another team, his NFL future looks a lot brighter than it did a year ago.
"He's a dynamic young man," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "He's been impressive. He's been tough. Anybody that jumps in (cornerback Aqib Talib's) face and isn't afraid to go route for route … I've got a lot of respect for him. So does Aqib.
"When we have a heart-to-heart about wideouts, (Parker) keeps coming up; that hungry, young, desperate type of individual that we've had around here for years."
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Terry Bowden, the former Auburn coach, said Parker has the talent and intangibles to play in the NFL.
It was Parker's poor judgment off the field that held him back.
There was Parker's arrest in late 2006 for shoplifting a $9.99 DVD from a Tallahassee Best Buy. In April 2008, he was arrested in Palm Beach Gardens and charged with carrying a concealed handgun (a felony reduced to a misdemeanor in a plea deal) and possession of 4.81 grams of marijuana.
The last straw for FSU was Parker's DUI arrest Jan. 31, 2009, when Tallahassee police found him asleep in his idling car at a McDonald's drive-through.
"I made bad decisions," Parker said. "And it blew up."
But Bowden said his father, former FSU coach Bobby Bowden, didn't believe Parker was a bad kid. So Terry convinced school administration to "go on a limb" and give Parker a shot with a "zero tolerance" policy.
Parker responded. On the field, Parker racked up 52 catches for 789 yards. Off the field, Parker passed drug tests, went to class and was on the athletic director's student advisory committee.
Parker said he didn't realize how good he had it at FSU, from the Nike gear to the charter flights, until he rode 8-10 hours on a bus at North Alabama.
"From the time he got here, he made his mind up that he had another chance and he wasn't going to mess it up," Bowden said. "He lost that mansion, and he had to go live in the middle income district. Maybe that's the lesson he had to learn; how much he could lose by making those decisions in life and how much he had to gain."
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Former FSU linebacker Dekoda Watson, the Bucs' seventh-round pick, sees a big difference in his former teammate.
"Through all the things he's been through, all the things he's done, a lot of people tried to judge him and think he was a bad person," Watson said. "Everybody makes mistakes. It's how you bounce back from that really shows whether you're a worthy man or not.
"He's a lot more humble, a lot more aware. When we hear a lot of these young (kids) getting in trouble in school now, he's like, 'I don't want them to go through what I went through.' "
The Bucs have had success stories of long shots who Morris said, "just wouldn't go away."
Morris cited Corey Ivy, who went undrafted out of Oklahoma and played for three teams (one in the XFL) before coming to the Bucs in 2001. A year later, he contributed on defense and special teams for the team that won the Super Bowl.
"Those guys had the innate ability to fight and fight no matter what," Morris said.
Parker could be that same type of guy. After all, he smiled, saying, "I'm still here."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.