Patriot games

Nate Peterson
Alec Parker prepares to catch a pass during a World Cup qualifier in October against Uraguay at Stanford's campus in Palo Alto, Calif. (Courtesy Dave Stephenson/ )

If rugby never found him, Alec Parker wonders what might have been.He’d probably never had the chance to see the world and proudly wear his country’s colors abroad.Unless, of course, he’d gone into the military. Parker said he considered it in college, even met with a Marines recruiter to talk about what a future in uniform would entail.You’re ideal – exactly the type of person we’re looking for, the recruiter said after Parker told him of his no-frills upbringing on a ranch in Old Snowmass, and his ardent love for his country. But, no, it wasn’t meant to be. Neither were dreams of college football glory.The tall, wiry kid from the small high school with a football program on its last legs had enough potential to get a scholarship from Division II Mesa State in Grand Junction, but he was destined for success elsewhere. As a college football player, Parker was a project: Rough around the edges, but unquestionably athletic and motivated. At Aspen High, he did everything but start at quarterback for the football team, it seemed, playing at every spot on the offensive line, as well as some tight end, running back, linebacker, nose tackle, defensive end – even kicker and punter. He also starred in basketball and threw shot put and discus in the spring for the track team.

It was that athleticism and his massive frame that most enamored his college coaches.When he arrived in Grand Junction, Parker said he weighed 190 pounds. Less than two years later, he’d added 50 pounds to his 6 feet, 6 inches and transformed from a gangly high-schooler into an NFL-sized tight end.He was going to start, for sure, as a junior in the fall of 1996, but not before a summer spent at home earning some money. That is, until rugby stole into his life and put a firm hold on his heart. It was something that he’d resisted at first, playing a sport he knew nearly nothing about with the lot of young men, most of them foreign-born, whom he knew from picking up work at the temp agency in Aspen.The locals ruggers took one look at Alec Parker and knew right away: He’d be a perfect lock on the pitch. He possessed the neccessary height for lineouts and massive hands, arms and shoulders seemingly built to swallow tacklers in the open field.Parker wasn’t so sure – didn’t even know what a lock was, or a lineout for that matter.”I was at Legends, which was a bar where they used to give you your paychecks on Friday,” said Parker, 33. “I’m around all these guys and they’re looking at me and they’re saying, ‘You know, you should really come out and play rugby.’ I’m saying, ‘No way, I’ve seen you guys, it’s insane, I don’t want no part of it.'”Then, a different tack.”They said, ‘You know, it’s 80 minutes of running,'” Parker said. “‘You’ll have a blast, and worst-case scenario, you’re in great shape by the time you get back to two-a-days.'”I just thought, ‘What the hell? That’s pretty good logic.'”Eighty minutes of running – and tackling. Eighty minutes of shared blood and sweat, typically followed by a few beers. Parker was smitten with rugby from that first match with the local Gentlemen of Aspen, even if he didn’t understand all the rules and strategies right away. A more streamlined brand of football, this was, with no downs and yardage markers and clock stoppages.

He understood the camaraderie and teamwork needed to be successful, the importance of every player doing his part, and that no role was more or less important than the next. That was enough to go on. He’d fill in the rest as he went.Mark Williams, the coach of the Gentleman of Aspen at the time, saw right away that Parker got it.Just like in football, the kid was raw, but he made up for what he lacked with unbridled effort and toughness. Parker was willing to be molded, did everything at full speed, and had a body built for withstanding brutal contact.Williams was so impressed that he told Parker he was willing to put in a recommendation with the selectors for the Eagles, the U.S. National team, to invite Parker to a team camp in June in Berkeley, Calif.Williams was one of the Eagles veterans himself, and felt Parker had what it took to make it at the international level playing against the world’s best.”Just a really incredible athlete,” Williams said. “He was raw, but I could see that there weren’t so many athletes like him on the international scene for the U.S.” And just like the persuasive arguments his teammates had won him over with earlier in the summer at the bar, Parker said he couldn’t help but be swayed by Williams’ pitch.”I said, if you’d like to travel the world, maybe get paid for it, you can do it,” Williams said. Remembers Parker: “Mark recommended me, and I was invited, but the U.S. was pretty set at my position. Luke Gross was there, who has just been recalled for the World Cup. He’s 6-foot-9, 260. Just some really big guys there, and after the camp, the head coach said I was too small for my position. “But,” Parker added, “one of those guys he had, he quit – just took off to New Zealand and was playing over there. I guess I’d made a good enough impression for the coach to give me a call right before they went to Hong Kong and Japan. And he said, ‘Do you want to go?'”There was no time to waffle, to even fully weigh the options. The most pivotal choice in his life had just been presented to him, and Parker had to decide right then. He listened to his gut, he said.”I was like, ‘Yep, I do want to go.'”

If there’s one regret after all these years, it was walking away from his teammates at Mesa State without really getting a chance to properly say goodbye. It wasn’t hard to walk away from his schooling, Parker said, because he’d never been very fond of it from the start.But calling his coaches to notify them he wouldn’t be back to play for them in the fall – that ate at him.”I still feel bad, because there’s kind of a loyalty on a football team, and I’d put the work in that summer and was pretty strong and getting fired up about football,” Parker said. “And then I just took off.”It was a decision that he couldn’t necessarily go back on, either – at least not after those those first two matches, in Hong Kong, and Japan.He’d shown up at that first team camp wearning a cowboy hats and boots, an outsider from seemingly the oddest place, Williams said, who refused to back down to anyone.A few weeks later, he had proved his worth to his new teammates and coaches.The Eagles offered Parker a team contract, a deal, that if signed, stipulated Parker had to be available to the team 111 days out of the year – all for the whopping price of $6,500.Not necessarily a great paying job, but Parker didn’t need much money anyway, and getting paid to play a sport – at the time – didn’t really feel like work at all.”All I had was a truck payment, so I was like, ‘Hell, that pays for my truck for the year, I’m set,” said Parker “I didn’t have any other bills or anything, and said I’m in.”In for the long haul, that is. After seven starts with Eagles, Parker injured his knee in the fall of 1996 and missed the rest of the competitive season. He came back in January 1997 to start in a match against Wales – the beginning of a three-year run with the Eagles which included starts in five Pacific Rim Cup matches and the three World Cup matches during the 1999 season. He took a break from international rugby in 2000 and 2001, but rejoined the team in 2002 and played with the Eagles all the way through the 2003 World Cup.

Now, 11 years after signing up to play for his country, Parker is one of a handful of Eagles veterans playing at this year’s World Cup in France who started on the previous two World Cup teams. (The Eagles opened pool play Sept. 8 against defending world champion England.) His 46 caps (starts) heading into the tournament is sixth on the all-time list – second only to his position mate, Gross, among active U.S. players. Like Williams before him, Parker has become a leader, someone whose teammates would run through a wall him for if need be, knowing he’d do the same for them.”They love him,” Williams said. “He’s always been that guy who hasn’t liked the limelight, but he’s definitely the heart and soul of that team. He’s one of the engines that keeps it running. The guy who wears his cowboy hat everywhere he goes.”Parker always wanted to play in packed stadiums full of rowdy fans, but he admits he never foresaw those stadiums being in Asia, Europe, Australia and South America.His gut was right, though, even when, back in 1996, he wasn’t exactly sure where it was leading him.”It’s been an amazing opportunity,” said Parker, who along with Williams, was one of the key pieces to Aspen’s storied run as a club team, winning seven national titles between the top two domestic leagues from 1997 and 2001. “One, I know, if I hadn’t played rugby, the odds of me leaving Colorado would have been 5 percent, other than to go see my mom who lives in South Africa. I would have never gotten to travel like I have. “Then, the other facet of it is, for me, I’m a pretty hard-core patriot, so it’s a huge honor for me to be able to represent my country. I wonder how I ever would do that, unless I’d gone into the military.”In 11 years, he’s matured from that young man with just a small truck payment into a husband and a father, but still there are some things that never change.What Williams saw in him, and Parker appreciates now more than ever, is the pure love of getting the chance to compete against the best. Nowhere else in life is the measuring stick so defined.”The only thing I can cling to is that I still get to play,” Parker said. “All the guys I went to high school with and played sports, the closest thing they’ve got to playing real sports is rec basketball. I still get to go and play, which makes it worth it for me.”

Rugby has also colored Parker’s life away from the pitch. He received offers after his first World Cup, in 1999, to play professionally in France and Japan. Though the offers were enticing, Parker couldn’t see himself living full time away from his beloved Colorado.It’s a decision he doesn’t regret, considering a few years later he took over running the 200-plus-acre ranch in Basalt owned by former Gents team president Andrew Saltonstall.Doing the kind of work he was raised on was a natural calling, and the ranch – where Parker heads up a hay operation – is the ideal place to raise his 4-year-old son, Bailey.”I just thought I have a really good life here, and I like what I do and I don’t really need a lot and I enjoy it, ” Parker said of his decision to turn down good money to play pro rugby. “So, I never did take any of them, but stayed playing with U.S.”There are parallels between his work on the ranch and what he does on the pitch.Parker said he learned long ago the value of a hard day’s work.”It’s good, this type of work,” said Parker, who, as one of two locks on the national team, is charged with making a majority of the tackles and winning lineouts (throw-ins from the sideline where each team hoists its lock in the air to fight for the fall) “Before this, it was framing. Anything physical, I think, is going to help you out in any sport. There’s a big chunk of it that’s mental, just with work ethic. You make a tackle, and you know you have to get up and go run 10 yards and make another tackle. It’s about desire.”Even at 6-foot-6, Parker is on the smaller end of locks at the international level. He said he tries to make up for a few inches with his work ethic.It’s that work ethic that Parker hopes has rubbed off on his teammates as they’ve geared up for this year’s World Cup, where they’ll be longshots in a pool that includes rugby powers England and South Africa.”You look at the top teams, and they’re together all the time, and they do shit, where you’re like, ‘That didn’t just happen’ and it’s just because they know what each other is going to do, Parker said. “Aspen had it for six years. The guys would die for each other, and played together so much that even when you were behind, you know we you were going to win. That’s what lacks right now with U.S. Rugby and what we need. There’s several facets of it. We’ve progressed ever so slowly. We’ve come a long ways, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is