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.