His first football was a sock. Big ol’ tube sock, so long that he could stuff rags and other socks inside it. He and his brothers wore heavy winter coats – their football pads – and played in the living room. They broke windows. They punctured walls. They stayed inside.
The drug dealers were outside.
Before his math teacher at Gambold Middle School discovered the enormity of his beautiful mind; before he went to Tech and won city-wide math contests; before he was so good at science that he earned a full academic scholarship to Purdue; before he turned down that scholarship to attend Wabash and become one of the best Division III cornerbacks in the country, life on the Eastside for Brian Parks was football. In the house. With a sock.
“Funny she brought that up,” Parks was telling me.
He was talking about his mother. Funny she brought it up? I’m wondering why he’d say that. I’m wondering if he got in trouble when they shattered glass.
“All the time,” he says.
It beat the trouble waiting outside. Tonya Parks raised her four kids near Central Avenue and 28th Street, a tough location but all she could afford. She cared for the elderly in their homes, feeding and cleaning them. She worked at department stores. When she rode the bus home, the men hanging out on her street – “It seems like they were all unemployed,” she says – tried to cause problems. Her security system was Buddy, a 120-pound black lab whose bark sounded like a tornado roaring down Central Avenue.
From the corner of Central and 28th, her youngest child made it all the way to the leafy campus of Wabash, where Brian Parks is a dean’s list student and a star football player – Wabash visits DePauw on Saturday in the annual Monon Bell Classic – and the winner of exclusive scholarships.
“I never expected any of this,” his mother was telling me. “I always felt Brian would be up there, but not to this level. Not to win the awards, not to go to a private school. Not coming from a single-parent home with all the trouble outside the door.”
Tonya Parks tries to come up with more. She pauses. She is drawing a blank.
“Oh my gosh,” she finally says. “I can’t even put into words how proud of him I am.”
A few hours later, her son is telling me the same thing.
About his mother.
She read to him when he was still in the womb. She was teaching him numbers before he could talk, counting his fingers and toes. She gave him paper with hand-drawn dashes and had him trace those outlines. That’s how he learned the alphabet. And then to read.
Good news: Brian Parks became a monster student. Bad news: He tested out of a full day of kindergarten, where space was limited. Brian could go home at noon.
“I needed him at kindergarten all day!” Tonya is yelling. “He’s just so smart!”
All her kids are, really. She read to them in the womb, taught them to count, did it all because of mistakes she’d made in her own life. She was in middle school when she was sent away to boarding school in Knightstown, she was in high school when she got pregnant, and she never did make it to a four-year college.
“I felt like, if I started early with their brain, there was nothing they couldn’t do,” Tonya says.
Spelling tests were on Friday at school, which means spelling tests were Thursday night at home. Brian couldn’t leave the table until he got a perfect score, and then his mom sent him to bed like this:
“Bring me that 100 tomorrow.”
And he did. He sure did. He won city math titles as a sophomore (algebra II) and junior (pre-calculus), finishing what he almost started as an eighth grader (pre-algebra), when he finished second. No IPS kid had won back-to-back city math titles before Brian Parks of Tech did it in 2012 and ’13. He finished with a 3.69 GPA and full academic rides to darn near every public university in the state. But he wanted to go to Wabash.
He’s a remarkable young man, and he comes from remarkable stock. His mom, she didn’t do everything right – the boarding school, the high school pregnancy – but she took whatever work she could find and whenever she could find it, and there were times Brian Parks saw his mom only on weekends.
“Because she worked so hard,” he says.
I ask him how much his mother has meant to his success.
“I really can’t put into words what she has done for me,” Brian says, and he stops, and I sit quietly. Sometimes the best question is no question at all. Just be quiet until the other person starts …
“Proud is not …” Brian is trying to put it into words. He starts again.
“Pride would be an understatement of what I feel for what my mom has done for me and sacrificed for me. If she wasn’t on this earth, I literally don’t know where I’d be. I can’t thank her enough.”
Hey, Brian. Your mom’s going to read this. Pretty sure you just did.
* * *
Not everything about this story is a Hallmark card, OK? But the lawn-mowing story is pretty good. When he was a kid, Brian used the library computer to print up flyers for his grass-cutting business – the prettiest lawn pictures he could find – and stapled them to electric poles in the neighborhood. He earned $10 a yard.
“I thought I was rich,” he says.
It’s not all Hallmark, OK? But there have been special moments in football, too. Parks intercepted three passes earlier this season against Wittenberg, returning the final one 30 yards for a touchdown to set a school record and earn Division III national player of the week. Against Wooster a few weeks later, he added a fourth interception, this 5-7, 170-pound ball of muscle.
On Nov. 7, Parks won a $2,500 “Realizing the Dream” scholarship awarded by Lilly Foundation to one first-generation student at each of the state’s independent colleges and universities. Parks was the winner from Wabash.
But it’s not, you know. All Hallmark.
“I wasn’t a perfect kid,” he says.
Right. Well, when he was 8 he wanted to play with pop-guns, like his friends had. Brian’s mom couldn’t afford one, so he went to Walgreens and just sort of … stole it.
And got caught.
Brian spent hours in custody of the juvenile system, mortified. His mom hadn’t raised him that way.
“This is not my purpose,” he remembers thinking in the juvenile center. “This can’t be my purpose.”
Brian volunteered that story to illustrate a point:
“Everyone makes mistakes,” he says. “Everyone has something hard. You can’t give in, and I know there’s a kid out there just like me. He may read this story. He can learn from my mistake.”
Yes, but there are facets to the Brian Parks story that defy imitation. His beautiful mind for math, his hard-working mom, his alarm system – Buddy, the black lab. These are the particulars of a remarkable story.
So is this:
Tonya Parks has never seen her son play at Wabash. She watched him some at Tech, but those games were on Friday night. She’d get off work, hurry over, catch a few snaps. But Wabash plays on Saturdays, and Tonya works at Menard’s. Work comes first. That’s what she modeled for her kids.
Well, no. School comes first. That’s what she modeled, and that’s why she was at the ceremony Nov. 7 when Brian received that “Realizing the Dream” scholarship. Her boy has a 3.5 GPA at Wabash. He’s covering his bills with scholarships now, loans for later. So before the ceremony, Tonya told her bosses at Menard’s:
“I must be there.”
And this, she told me, is why:
“Since my kids were little, my goal was to make sure they became productive citizens and very independent,” she says. “Just do better than me. That was my goal. I know Brian will do better than me.”
In some ways, yes, he will. May he be as good as you in all ways, Mom.