Samie Parker slowly flexes his gloved hands. His shoulders rise beneath a white practice jersey as he takes a single deep breath 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
When his right foot shoots forward, it's clear that Parker still has the blazing speed that made him a fourth-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004. He hits the line as the ball is snapped to quarterback Nate Davis. Parker breaks to the middle. Two hungry defenders in black jerseys wait for him.
A defensive back moves to wrap him up, but Parker spins to the outside. He loses his helmet but keeps his head up. Seconds later, Davis floats the football into Parker's arms. The coaches blow the whistle after the catch, and Parker trots back to the end line to wait for the next drill.
It's just after 9:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in February, and this marks the first simulated play that the former Chief has run for the Kansas City Command, of the Arena Football League. It's also Parker's first play of 2012, a year that he hopes will take him back to the National Football League — his goal since the Oakland Raiders released him in August 2009.
"It's the right place and right time for me to come back to Kansas City and display my talents," Parker says. "I really don't think I got a chance to showcase everything I can do."
To get from downtown Kansas City to the KC Sports Lodge in Independence — the Command's practice facility — you have to drive by Arrowhead Stadium on Interstate 70. Parker's route has been less direct. After the Chiefs didn't re-sign him following the 2007 season, Parker had stints in Denver, North Carolina, Seattle, Oakland, Las Vegas and Chicago.
Inside the gym of the Sports Lodge, whistles beat time with pounding rock music, and a TV above a treadmill is tuned to an ESPN discussion about the upcoming NFL draft. The likely No. 1 overall pick on April 26 is Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Just two weeks ago, the rookie was throwing passes to Parker, trying to — as Luck told Sports Illustrated in February — "adjust to the speed of the NFL."
Luck's other target was Parker's younger brother, Tray Session, a speedy University of Nevada wide receiver with his own NFL ambitions.
"I know he has the drive," Parker says of his brother. "He knows what it takes. He just has to get in front of guys and be able to compete."
If anyone knows how true that is, it's Parker.
The sound of two massive palms clapping grows louder near the end of the tiled walkway in the indoor practice facility. The claps are punctuated with screams, grunts — and laughter. Thirty-five hopefuls are in training camp, each vying for one of the Command's 24 roster spots. (The season opener against the defending champion Jacksonville Sharks is March 16.)
Like many Arena Football League teams, the Command is a halfway house for athletes whose names hover in recent memory. There's defensive back Rashad Barksdale, who played six games for the Chiefs in 2007. And college-football fans may recall Carl Gettis and Tommy Chavis from the University of Missouri, and Terrance Sweeney from Kansas State. The local focus stems from the constant reshuffling of the roster. All AFL contracts last for one year, with players receiving $400 a game (plus meals, lodging and a per diem on the road).
"How can you do a bobblehead night when you need four months' lead time?" asks play-by-play announcer Nick McCabe, who also handles marketing duties for the Command. "Who's going to be the bobblehead?"
The Command averaged 3,838 fans per home game last year on its way to a 6-12 record — a far cry from its final season as the Brigade in 2008, when 12,828 fans regularly invaded the Sprint Center. Eager to build a local following in the Command's second year, McCabe admits he is handicapped by the structure of contracts that come with league-exempt clauses. A player is free to leave at any time if he receives an offer from the NFL or the Canadian Football League. (If a player loses that pro berth and wants back into the AFL, the team he left retains first-refusal rights.)
The Command has already come close to losing Parker. Several CFL teams have reportedly expressed interest in the wideout, with a potential deal in the works as late as mid-February.
"The AFL doesn't want to be a feeder league," McCabe says. "At the same time, we take pride that the guys we evaluate get picked up by the NFL. And nobody is going to turn down an NFL contract."
Four gleaming sets of aluminum bleachers sit between two practice fields of artificial turf, each cordoned off by a wall of Plexiglas panels spanning the length of a football field. On one side, the defensive- and offensive-line players work on pass rushing. The AFL skews heavily toward passing. The Command ran 152 rushing plays as opposed to 420 pass attempts during the 2011 season. The defensive backs and wide receivers square up on the other half of the practice field.
Eight years after he reported to River Falls, Wisconsin, for the start of Chiefs camp, Parker is back in a Kansas City uniform. He holds onto the white barrier on the far side of the field, standing between advertisements for an urgent-care clinic and a dog-training service. He swings his right leg up like a ballet dancer and stretches his hamstrings.
O.J. Simpson, a rookie wide receiver trying to make the team, pinches the corners of his jersey with his thumb and forefinger and holds his number up after making a catch near the sidelines.
Simpson, who played at Truman High School and Missouri Western State University, announces: "3-2 — remember that number." He looks right at Jack Belcher. "Big Dog," as Belcher is known to Command players and staff for his favored choice of T-shirts, is the only fan here for training camp.
An oversized bald man with a single gold hoop gleaming in his left ear, Belcher is clad in a Kansas City Brigade jacket — the previous incarnation of the Command. That team lasted from 2006 to 2009, when the AFL suspended operations. When the AFL returned to Kansas City in 2011, the logo remained, though the name changed.
Belcher will be the unofficial statistician for McCabe this year. As one of the three founding members of KC Flight Crew, the team's fan club, he'll be in the front row of the end zone for every home game at the Sprint Center.
"It's me and football," Belcher says. "I don't love anything else, and I love this game better than anything. Here the guys get more personal. You've got to be a people person to play in this league."
The defensive and offensive lines cross between the barriers. Several players banter with Belcher on their way to a touchdown drill. Defensive Backs Coach Eldrick Hill lays out orange cones 10 yards apart.
"This is the end zone. You've got three [downs]," Hill shouts, and then sends two short blasts through his whistle.
Parker breaks inside again off the line. This time, he can't separate. The ball thrown by backup quarterback Steven Gachette spins away on the turf, well out of Parker's reach.
It's the fourth day of camp, the first with pads, and guys are scrapping to make the team. An offensive lineman whips a defender to the ground, taking personally an errant hand to the face mask.
"This is what happens when you put the pads on," a defensive lineman says. "The bullets start flying."
"Let them fly," Belcher says, grinning.
The wrestling match is broken up before it becomes a fight, and the drill resumes.
Parker trots back to the end line and slaps hands with his fellow wide receivers.
"I'm glad they signed Samie," Belcher says. "He played here for us before with the Chiefs, and he's fast and quick. If he can find the room to maneuver, he'll be real good."
Speed has never been the issue with Parker. It's likely the reason that he's still playing football at age 30 (he turns 31 on March 25). That, and he's finally in the same city as his 4-year-old daughter, who he hopes will be a regular at Command games.
Parker was a sprinter on the track team at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. The aptly named Jackrabbits captured a Division 1 California title in 1998. Polytech is a pro sports factory that has sent more than 50 players to the NFL in the past 85 years.
As a freshman, Parker ran routes against former NFL safety Omar Stoutmire. After graduating, Parker worked on technique with future NFL wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Terrence Austin.
"I love seeing them in the NFL now, and I hope they might say, at the end of the day, that Samie was a guy who helped me when I was younger," Parker says. "I don't go around looking for them to acknowledge me. I just want to pass on my knowledge."
Two years after graduating high school (he redshirted a year), Parker hauled in nine catches for 162 yards and a touchdown in the University of Oregon's 38-16 undressing of Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl.
At Oregon, he was also a three-time All-American in track, clocking in with a top time of 10.18 in the 100-meter dash.
Football had brought him close to his stepfather, Tracy Session. But in September 2003, Session was gunned down in his native Long Beach. He was 37.
Parker, the oldest of five, had always found purpose in football. Now he was determined to make the NFL and set an example for his younger siblings.
In his final game in a Ducks uniform, Parker was named most valuable player of the Sun Bowl for a 16-catch, 200-yard performance. Oregon lost 31-30 to the University of Minnesota.
Parker graduated with school records for catches and receiving yards. His 4.36-second 40-yard sprint made him the fastest wide receiver in the 2004 NFL draft.
"The fastest player in college football needs more bulk," wrote Charles Robinson in the Orlando Sentinel, ranking Parker as the 15th best wide-receiver prospect.
The Chiefs had a history with Oregon speedsters. Hurdler J.J. Birden played five years for Kansas City between 1990 and 1994. A decade later, the Chiefs were coming off a 13-3 season and needed a defensive lineman and help at wide receiver.
The Chiefs drafted Parker's teammate, defensive tackle Junior Siavii, with the 36th pick overall. The franchise selected Parker with the 105th pick. (Twenty-one picks later, the team chose a brash defensive lineman out of Idaho State, Jared Allen.)
Parker was seen as possibly the second coming of Birden. But he stumbled out of the blocks with the Chiefs. A hamstring injury in training camp robbed him of the speed that he'd always relied on for separation.
Late in the 2004 season, Parker was given the chance to start against the Denver Broncos. In the 15th game of the year, Parker slipped behind the defense for a 35-yard touchdown.
"I remember that first touchdown," Parker says. "I usually can block out a lot of stuff while I'm on the field. But, man, Arrowhead was just going crazy."
Parker's emergence allowed the Chiefs to let go of receiver Johnnie Morton after an injury-riddled season. In 2005, Parker hauled in 36 passes and three touchdowns, despite a knee injury that limited him to 11 games.
"I'm cautiously optimistic and excited about Samie Parker," then-General Manager Carl Peterson told The Kansas City Star before the 2006 draft. "Hopefully, good things are going to happen there."
Parker posted similar numbers in 2006: 41 catches and a touchdown. Peterson showed less confidence in Parker's future in the 2007 draft, tabbing LSU's Dwayne Bowe with the 23rd overall pick.
The Chiefs' offense had been retooled to focus on Larry Johnson. Quarterback Trent Green was traded to Miami in the offseason. With backups Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle under center in 2007, Parker took a step backward. He caught two touchdowns but only 24 passes in 16 games. He averaged the lowest yards per catch (12.4) of his career. The still young wide receiver became less a story of unrealized potential and more of misevaluated potential.
"2005 and 2006 were productive years," Parker says. "I think I should have been a little more vocal. But I also think I could have played multiple positions. Maybe I could have blocked for [Chiefs kick returner] Dante [Hall]."
The Denver Broncos signed Parker in the 2008 offseason. Perhaps Denver's front office was sick of seeing Parker on the opposite sideline (his 18 catches and two touchdowns were the most he had against any team).
"This is a good situation for me because I'm going to be able to come in and compete for a job," Parker told The Denver Post.
However, he couldn't emerge from a crowded corps of receivers that included Brandon Marshall, Brandon Stokley and Eddie Royal. He was released on August 25, 2008. The Carolina Panthers signed him a day later.
"I want to showcase what I can do," Parker told the Associated Press." I just want to contribute to the team."
Two days after Parker suited up for a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was cut. He signed with the Seahawks 10 days later.
Parker had become a guy you bring to camp to challenge your players and fill out your roster — a name that appears in the transaction roundups of sports sections. When Seattle released him after three days, he'd been on three rosters in 18 days.
For the first time since Pop Warner, Parker wasn't on a football team.
Parker returned home to California after his aborted season. There is no shortage of football players to train with in the Golden State. In the offseason, he caught passes from University of Southern California alums Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel, working to build trust with quarterbacks still in the league.
"I had faith in myself," Parker says. "I just had to be out there playing on Sundays every offseason to make sure I still have a shot."
He kept in shape by running on the beach and was signed by the Oakland Raiders on May 12, 2009. Parker made it through training camp before he was let go on August 26. The Tennessee Titans worked him out a week later, but he ended up signing with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League.
"I always knew going into the game that Samie Parker was going to show up, compete and play his balls off," says Tim Rattay, a teammate of Parker's during the 2010 season in Las Vegas and wide receiver coach the following year. "If we needed a big play, he was going to be the guy who made it."
Parker played 11 games for the AFL's Chicago Rush in 2010, catching 78 passes for 1,135 yards and 15 touchdowns (compiling fairly similar stats to his four-year career totals in the NFL). Thousand-yard receivers are in high demand in the AFL, and the Command has three of them with Parker, Bret Smith (the team's leading receiver from the 2011 season) and Syvelle Newton.
Parker has spent most of the morning engaging the younger receivers, explaining a blocking assignment on a "bubble screen" — a short pass in the flat, where a receiver takes a step forward before reversing field and moving toward the quarterback to catch a pass behind a theoretical wall of blockers — or congratulating them on a catch.
Parker knows what it's like to be Anthony Parks, a former Olathe East High School standout, who is hoping he can stick around longer than the two-day contract he signed in mid-February. Parker went through the same training-camp battles four years ago, attempting to learn playbooks between drills with names he just learned in the huddle.
"Samie is going to be a huge benefit to the young guys on the roster," says head coach Danton Barto. "He's easygoing, one of those veterans that wants to help guys learn. I like that he's talkative and easygoing until he steps on the field, and then he's all business. Not everybody knows how to switch it on and off."
The Command practice ends just before 11 a.m. with a team recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Parker, Smith and Newton stay on the field to run 15-yard corner routes. Balls keep sailing long. The timing isn't there yet.
"He can still run," Barto says.
Parker plants his left foot, leaves a defensive back flat-footed and bursts free toward the sideline. The ball arrives after he has made his break, but Parker adjusts backward and tucks it under the arm of his sweat-soaked gray undershirt.
Parker can run, but can he catch on? That's the question that Parker has to answer for himself. He wants to know if he's good enough to still play in the league. The average NFL career is three and a half years. Parker had four. But he wants more. He figures he has two more years, and maybe one more shot at a training camp, before he stops playing and pursues coaching.
Playing in a system where he might see 10 to 12 passes a game, Parker just wants to be seen — by his daughter, by scouts, and by his younger brother who continues to work on his own NFL dreams.
Parker's green eyes flash as he looks up from the metallic bench where he's being interviewed, realizing he doesn't see any of his teammates nearby.
"I've got to go," Parker says, scooping up his cleats and the white tape he just peeled off his wrists. "I don't want to miss my ride. I didn't drive here."
Then he does what he does best. He runs.