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Tennessee Athletics photo by Maury Neipris / Tennessee's Eric Parker clears a hurdle during the second day of the SEC indoor track and field championship meet at Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium in College Station, Texas, this past February.

Eric Parker chose to carve his own path.

And in the end it's hard to see how Parker, who just completed his freshman season with the University of Tennessee track and field team, didn't get the last laugh.

The youngest of three brothers, he had seen his brother T.J. rush for a combined 2,433 yards his final two seasons at Cleveland High School. His father, Reggie, won a pair of football state championships during the Blue Raiders' 54-game win streak from 1993-96.

So it should have come as no surprise that a coach approached the youngest Parker about playing that sport for the school. But he had no interest, choosing instead to focus on track, which led the coach to tell him, "There's no way you can run track in college without playing football."

Track, though, wasn't his first love. Parker remembers going into his dad's bedroom and asking if he could try out for the baseball team in sixth grade.

"And I told him, 'Eric, you haven't practiced in a while, so if you want to try out for the team, you need to practice," Reggie recalled recently. "I told him he needed to be throwing balls, catching the ball, and if he didn't do that, he couldn't try out."

Parker didn't practice, but he also shrugged off the potential consequence. When tryouts rolled around, he approached his dad, who told him he couldn't go out.

"That was one of his requirements, and he didn't do it," Reggie said.

Parker didn't play any sports other than football that year, but the following year, his middle school track coach approached him about running. So back into his father's bedroom he went to ask permission.

"He needed a reason why I wanted to run track; I told him I like to run and jump," Parker remembered.

That was enough, and he would then dedicate himself to perfecting his craft — which may have been a different craft had he obeyed his father in sixth grade — by working tirelessly.

So when he was approached about playing football, he declined, but he never forgot those words: "There's no way you can run track in college without playing football."

"It was kind of weird for me because no one else had ever said that," Parker said. "I know there are a lot of athletes saying there's no one on their side and they want to prove everyone wrong, but that was never the case for me. And that was the only person who had ever told me I couldn't do something; everyone else was giving me the confidence, the motivation and everything, and I was like, 'I'm going to get him on my side.' I was going to show him I'm going to do it, and make him believe in me like everyone else does."

His father sung a different tune.

"I was (ticked) off," Reggie said. "When he told him he wasn't good enough and he wasn't going to run college track, it (ticked) me off. But looking back at it, it was a good thing because that gave Eric all the motivation to prove that man wrong."

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Tennessee Athletics photo by Maury Neipris / Tennessee's Eric Parker jumps during the first day of the SEC indoor track and field championship meet this past February in College Station, Texas.

Parker went on to win two TSSAA state championships in the 300-meter hurdles and another in the 100-meter hurdles. He was also a two-time all-state selection in the decathlon before electing not to participate his senior season.

One of his high school coaches, Janorie Davis, had sent an email to the Tennessee coaching staff in an attempt to drum up some interest and see what it would take to get the Volunteers to look at him early in his high school career. The response was that Parker needed a 110 hurdle time somewhere in the range of 13.8 seconds.

When Parker hadn't reached that time late in his senior season, he had moved on. Tennessee hadn't really been on his radar to begin with, so at one point he committed to Western Kentucky. But in the state sectional meet on April 30, 2019, he ran a 13.84 — beating the field by more than two seconds.

A few days later, Tennessee called.

On May 22, 2019, he officially became a Vol while also becoming the first Chattanooga-area athlete to sign with a Southeastern Conference track program since Signal Mountain standout McKenzie Ethridge signed with Mississippi State and Rhea County's Chase Sholl signed with Tennessee in 2016. He's only the second track athlete in Bradley County history to run for an SEC program; Cleveland's Garnett Holloway ran for Vanderbilt from 2003-07 and won the SEC heptathlon title in 2006.

Parker's first season in Knoxville was one of adjustments but also progress. His family thought he had been recruited as a decathlete, but the itch and the desire to run hurdles was just too much. So he started practicing and working on hurdles on his own, which caught the attention of his coaches. They decided to put him in the 60-meter event in a meet against Indiana, and he responded by running an 8.17, winning for the Vols.

He topped that with an 8.06 at Texas Tech two weeks later, and he finished 13th in the SEC indoor championships with 4,573 points, third on the team. His best event that day was the hurdles, where he placed fourth.

"Whenever I first went there, I thought I would be a hurdler," Eric said. "But actually, they didn't want me to just be a hurdler, they wanted me to do both (hurdles and decathlon) and it took me a while to catch on that they wanted me to do both as opposed to just being a decathlete or just being a hurdler. Once I figured out they wanted me to do both of them, it honestly made me realize just how much of a team sport track really is because in high school I didn't really see that much."

With the coronavirus pandemic canceling the outdoor track season this spring, Parker came back home in March and spent time running hills and doing other workouts in his neighborhood. With more knowledge about what to expect with the Vols, he believes there are better days ahead.

If not for a lazy summer in middle school and some personal motivation, that would not have been the case — at least not when it comes to running for Tennessee.

"I think that if Eric would have listened to the coach and played football, I do think he could have played football in college, but I think it would have taken away from his ability to run track and his passion because football is a very demanding sport with 7-on-7s, showcases and camps," Reggie said. "He's done well. I'm proud of him. I do remember (the coach's comments); they motivated him and they (ticked) me off — and they still do in a sense — but it motivated him and it pushed him."

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Tennessee Athletics photo by Caleb Jones / Tennessee track and field team member Eric Parker starred at Cleveland High School before signing with the Knoxville program.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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