TAMPA, Fla. -- When you reach the National Football League from a tiny, rural town, when small-time becomes big-time and childhood pickup games on tired, tattered fields lead to the immaculate blades on which Super Bowl XLIII will be played, oftentimes there is a perspective that is wholesome. There is a grounded investment of the mind, heart and soul that is enduring.
There is an organic armor built that helps you survive the worst.
One that helps you reap, relish and appreciate the best.
That is what Edgerrin James and Willie Parker possess. This season, this Super Bowl appearing season for these two running backs with the gift of fleet feet and the twang in their voices and earthy views in their rap reveals both are more country than city, more substance than sizzle. Arizona's James is from Immokalee, Fla. Pittsburgh's Parker is from Clinton, S.C.
You could take the combined population of both hometowns, multiply by two, place them inside the site of this Super Bowl, 75,000-seat Raymond James Stadium -- and still have nearly 20,000 seats to spare.
"I think we're two guys who always remember where we come from," Parker said.
It sure seems to help both get where they are going.
"I know that there have been ups and downs in my life just like there have been ups and downs in my pro football career," James said. "When you're young, you just have fun and you're surrounded by so many people that don't have much. So, there isn't really any other way you can deal with it, when you look at it. Then as you get older, you start looking back and you realize how tough it was."
Sort of like their 2008 seasons.
The start was solid and then the middle was ruggedly tough and then the end blossomed and they looked back and realized how tough it was.
Parker fought through injuries and his analysis upon his return that he was not enough of a focal point in the Steelers offense. In the four regular-season games leading into Week 16, he averaged 14 carries per contest. But in Pittsburgh's playoff victory over San Diego, Parker carried the ball 27 times. James felt invisible from Week 8 through Week 16 and in many ways he was. He totaled only 18 carries during that span of nine games compared with 52 carries in Arizona's three playoff games.
Letting his unhappiness be known led to happiness, Parker said.
"If I've got something to say, I am going to say it, and I think everyone has that right," Parker said. "And I said late during the season that I wasn't getting the ball enough. If you think you should be playing and they think you are playing enough, well, yes, that's a feud. Coach (Mike) Tomlin pulled me aside and we had a good talk. He let me know about distractions. I understood. I respect him."
Tomlin knows what he has in Parker, a fifth-year pro who is 5-feet-10, 209 pounds. This undrafted player is 6-0 in playoff games he has started. He is only the fifth player in Steelers history to lead the team in rushing for four consecutive seasons (the others are Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, John Henry Johnson and Fran Rogel). And Parker owns the Super Bowl record for the longest rushing touchdown (75 yards vs. Seattle in Super Bowl XL).
James (6-feet, 219 pounds) has rambled for 10 seasons, seven in Indianapolis and three in Arizona.
He told the Cardinals, he told everyone late in this season that he did not come to Arizona to be an offensive lineman. He felt more like a blocker than the running back who is the leader among all active NFL backs with 57 career 100-yard rushing games. The player only 618 rushing yards shy of moving past Tony Dorsett into seventh place on the NFL's all-time rushing list.
In the postseason, as with Parker, James has found his team turning his way, calling his number. Arizona in the regular season ran the ball 340 times and passed it 630 times. But in the postseason the numbers are 100 runs, 92 passes.
"To run the ball, you can't get behind," James said. "You've got to play your game. You've got to mix the run and the pass. We're trying to do our thing, make sure we take care of our responsibilities and we'll be all right."
But both will get their hands on the football, something that was not happening at the lowest points in both theirs' and their teams' seasons. All around, lessons learned. For James and Parker, all of it tangible reminders.