Bob Shields was on the prowl. It was the summer of 2008 and the head coach at Riverdale Baptist High in Upper Marlboro was looking for players who could not only compete on the field but also carry out the school's mission of service and character.
Shields had already attended numerous combines, and his next stop was a youth-league camp in Columbia, Md. While perusing the various drills, a short, beanstalk-thin eighth grader caught his eye. The kid lined up on the track, dipped into a sprinter's crouch and proceeded to smoke his peers in the 40-yard dash. The clock operator's stopwatch flashed "4.6"-- unheard of for a 13 year old.
Unconvinced, Shields wanted to see him run again. So a few hours later the speedy eighth grader toed the starting line, burst out of his stance and exploded through the finish. This was no fluke.
"I couldn't believe it - another 4.6," said Shields. "After that I had a little talk with him and his dad about coming to Riverdale Baptist."
The eighth grader listened attentively as Shields talked to him about everything but football. He stressed virtues like commitment, service, honor and discipline. Could this phenom eighth grader possibly buy in?
"I was impressed," said Sterling Parks. "I went down to visit the school and I loved it - the students, the coaches, the program's goals. I've been there ever since."
If only it were that perfect. Sure Parks loved the school, but he wasn't quite ready to play football for Bob Shields when he arrived.
As a freshman, Parks was intimidated by the Division-I athletes on the Crusaders' varsity (they have no jayvee team). He wondered if he'd ever see the field. Moreover, he enjoyed running track, where he could show off that 4.6 speed.
Shields wasn't going to push him, but when Parks said he wouldn't play his sophomore year either, the coach had to be a bit miffed.
"We were pretty loaded with talent and I guess he didn't think he could make an impact," Shields said.
There was a little more to it then that.
"I just wasn't committed to football my first two years. I was running track at the time," Parks said. "If you're not focused on football 100 percent, you shouldn't do it. It took me a couple years to get my head straight."
While Parks was busy burning up the track, his friends were lighting up the gridiron. They were all excelling, but the difference was Parks' classmates seemed to be having a bit more fun. Plus it's no secret football players hold more cache on campus then track stars.
On game days, Parks would watch his friends from the stands, almost wishing he could join them. He knew he had just as much or more talent then anyone on the roster. Right then and there, Parks made up his mind: Next year, he would try out for football.
"Sterling came up to me and said he was serious about football this time," Shields said. "I told him what it would take in terms of practice, commitment and study time. He listened, and he really put it all together here for us."
It was a longtime coming, but Shields and the Crusaders finally saw that mythical speed manifest itself on grass. Thanks to two years on the track, Parks had lowered his 40 to a scintillating 4.4 seconds, good enough to rank among the fastest athletes in Maryland. On top of that, he had sprouted to 5-feet-10 and bulked up to 170 pounds.
Parks was officially ready for Friday nights.
Playing second fiddle to lead runner Marlowe Wood, Parks carried the ball 52 times for 593 yards and two touchdowns last season. That's a mind-numbing 11.4 yards per carry average, or almost double what Jim Brown averaged in his prime.
"For my first year," said Parks, "it wasn't too bad."
Although Wood garnered most of the headlines, Parks had numerous eye-opening moments. In particular, his run against Friendly, which put him squarely on the map.
On first down from the Riverdale 20-yard line, Parks took an off-tackle handoff, cut to the outside, blasted through a hole and dashed by the defense for a touchdown. He never slowed down, even after sprinting 80 yards.
"Friendly has some kids that can flat out run," Shields said, "and he blew by them all."
In just one year, Parks had gone from a football novice to a talent on par with the best 'backs in Maryland. Besides his obvious athletic skills, Parks showed uncanny vision and feel for the game. He could anticipate holes, cut back behind blockers and sidestep defenders without losing his balance. And while he lacked bulk, Parks generated power with his speed, crashing into linebackers like a racecar driver going full bore into an opponent's rear.
"In one year, he was as good as any player I've ever had in this program," Shields said. "He's outstanding."
So, how'd he do it? How did Sterling Parks accomplish in one offseason what it took others three years to figure out?
His friend and teammate, lineman Greg Powers, has one possible answer.
"When Sterling decided to play football, he was very serious about it," Powers said. "He's not easily side-tracked once he sets his mind on something. He was absolutely focused on becoming great."
That's not an exaggeration. Many high school athletes talk about how hard they work, but few of them realize what that actually entails.
Running a few laps and lifting a few bars every other day isn't going to cut it. It takes actual sacrifice, like giving up weekend parties in favor of suicides, 500-pound squats and isometric training. In other words, it has to hurt.
This is a typical Friday night for Sterling Parks:
Jog several miles
Lift weights for an hour in his basement
Go outside for defensive back drills
Run with a weighted sled
Wide receiver/pass catching drills
Run up and down hills
Running back/cutting drills
Resistance and biometrics training
A light jog
"I had to make up for lost time," Parks said. "I gave up everything to get ready for football. I work harder than everybody else."
Parks' mother, Latanya, was a firsthand witness to these workouts. She watched her son run through the rain and the snow, turning on the floodlights when it got too dark to see.
"He is not lying," Latanya said of Parks' workout routine. "He goes out there and he works. I'm not just saying this because I'm his mother, but there's something special about him."
She wasn't just talking about his work ethic or skills either. Parks' self-discipline, coupled with an overwhelming desire to better himself, isn't normal. Last season, it bore itself out in full force.
Along with his legendary workouts, Parks was an avid learner who firmly believed he knew nothing about the game. He soaked up his coaches' constructive criticism and then put their words into action.
"Sterling did exactly what he was told to do - and he did it well," Powers said. "He's not the type of runner who you tell to go through the A-Gap and he goes to the C-gap. He trusts his blockers and he trusts his coaches."
What's more, Parks harbored no ego, which endeared him to his teammates. After practice he would volunteer to pick up the water bottles and carry in the cooler. During games, he willingly surrendered the spotlight and offered to take on blocking responsibilities.
"I'll do anything for my team," Parks said. "I'll gladly open the door for my teammates' success."
Next year, however, Parks will get his turn to shine. He'll be a senior, and Shields is planning to feature him heavily in the offense.
"We're going to let his speed and agility take over," Shields said. "He's going to be a threat running and receiving."
Two-thousand total yards is not out of the question.
And if that happens, neither is a Division-I scholarship.
"That's my goal -- to get to a school like Ohio State," Parks said. "If I keep improving and I keep working, I can be a game-changer at the next level."
Not bad for a guy who has played one year of football.