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 fianc�e. "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.