Cordelius Parks had scratched his way into the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2009, and spent his first season on the St. Louis Rams practice roster before a late promotion to the team. The cornerback played in two games and recorded one tackle.
Parks – like many young men who aspire to the pinnacle of pro football, yet exist on its edges – then bounced around the league, Seattle, Minnesota, New Orleans. At his final stop, he was cut near the end of Saints training camp, last year. With a near-finished degree in mechanical engineering, he wondered if he should push on. But after long talks with his father and family, and some connections with Canada, he decided he would look north.
The call came on the day his father died.
In early April, Parks's CFL playing rights had been traded to the B.C. Lions from the Toronto Argonauts, as B.C. unloaded talented-but-unruly lineman Khalif Mitchell. Parks's phone rang, his agent on the other line with the news. Parks was in his father's hospital room and his dad, Harold Morrison, died later that day, at 61.
Morrison had been a hospital janitor and then worked for the post office, with he and his wife, Deborah, raising a family and a young football talent near Atlanta in Decatur, Ga.
"That's one of the strengths I've been playing off this season. This season is dedicated to him," Parks said after a midweek practice as the Lions prepared to head east to play the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday.
Parks has made an immediate impact: He returned an interception, off a tipped ball, in the first game of the year for a 45-yard touchdown, the only touchdown from an interception in the CFL this season. It was a weaving dash for a score that echoed his previous experience as a return man in football, and as a sprinter in track and field.
That agility has been part of his swift adjustment to the differences of the Canadian game, the wider field and different rules around cornerbacks and receivers.
Parks is tied for second-most interceptions (two) and his 33 tackles ranks him tied for 17th in the league among defenders. He has been a fast and smooth addition to a veteran secondary anchored by Dante Marsh, Korey Banks and Ryan Phillips.
It's added up to the best defence in the CFL, one that has yielded the fewest yards, fewest yards in the air, and tied for the fewest passing touchdowns.
Parks spanked a crucial potential touchdown down in Week 10. Last Friday, the Lions were playing staccato football and up only 22-16 early in the fourth quarter. The Ticats stomped down the field and quarterback Henry Burris had Greg Ellingson in the end zone on a 20-yard slant route, but a perfectly timed dive for the ball by Parks knocked the threat to the ground. The Lions held the Ticats to a field goal and went on to win the game.
Parks's connections with Vancouver extend several years. In the off-season, he trains at home in Atlanta with a group of defensive backs that includes Marsh and Banks and 10-year CFL veteran Byron Parker. They all told Parks he would play well, and have fun, up north.
Parks has been welcomed like it is a family of brothers – an experience he hasn't had elsewhere in football.
"A lot of vets, they're on teams to protect their job," he said on the field post-practice, thin dreadlocks hanging past his shoulder pads, his face bearded, helmet in his hand.
And even at 26, given it is his first year in the CFL, Parks gets teased by teammates, chatter of "rookie, rookie," and he brings the doughnuts – Krispy Kreme – to the locker room before home games.
Mark Washington, the Lions defensive backs coach, first saw Parks in an off-season practice in St. Louis, and immediately thought the cornerback would be agile in the rigours of the CFL, with its wider field and rule variations.
"The way he flowed, and just went around and saw things," Washington said. "He's a good flow player. Going with the game. Being able to see. I know my responsibility, I can see that, but I can also see through my responsibility to the next guy, and understand the flow of the game that allows me to do something a little bit extra."
The defensive secondary, after quarterback, is the hardest position to adapt when making the trek to the CFL from the NFL. Though Parks wasn't a highlighted name to outsiders, he was quickly an obvious starter in training camp and Washington has not been surprised at all.
"This is," the coach said, "what I envisioned."