It was Wednesday, August 13th, 2003 at about 8:00 a.m. I was in Colorado Springs, Colorado at the campus of the US Air Force Academy. But I wasn’t on the campus. I was above it. I was sitting in the back of a US Air Force UV-18B Twin Otter, quickly climbing up to our cruising altitude of 5,000 feet above ground level (AGL). The engines hummed as we leveled off. One last time, my group checked each other’s parachutes. Chest strap secured. Check. Leg straps tightened. Check. Rip cords secured. Check. Pilot chute ready. Check. Helmets strapped. Check. Goggles on. Check. The jumpmaster threw open the jump door, located on the back-left side of the plane. He called for us to slide on our benches closer to the door.
The indicator light switched from red to green. We were now directly over the drop zone. The crusty, former special operations combat controller, a senior master sergeant, grabbed me by the collar of my flight suit. He pulled me close to him and pointed at my face.
“STAND!” he yelled.
“IN THE DOOR!” as he shifted his finger from me to the open door of the plane. I had been in the same spot three times the day before.
But this one mattered more. This was my last chance. I moved toward the door. I placed my right hand inside the fuselage and my left on the outside of the plane. My feet were on the edge of the floor, but my toes were hanging off the edges. I looked at the propeller, blowing a 100mph wind in my face. I bent my knees and pushed my hips forward. I looked back at the jumpmaster, holding on to the right side of my harness.
“Check out!” he responded.
I looked back at the propeller. I can do this. I will do this. I will not fail. I will succeed. I had the confidence.
I brought my body slightly taller.
I crouched again, pushing my hips as far forward as they could go.
I left the plane.
When I became a freshman at Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland in 1998, I had an unfounded idea that I should try to become friends with seniors. I thought they were cooler than me; they drove cars, had jobs and money, and seemingly more freedom. I figured if I could befriend a few, that my life would get better. So, I decided that hanging out in the seniors’ locker spaces before school started was the best place to go. I plopped myself down against some lockers and tried to gin up conversations with anyone around.
I met a kid named Chris, a senior, and he didn’t completely blow me off like others did. He was slightly overweight and had dark hair that brushed in front of his eyes. He had a few other friends to whom he introduced me, including Jay, Mike, and a few others. Jay had a car and eventually offered to give me rides home from school every now and then. I felt so cool.
I’d go to our school’s football games with Mike, and yes, he’d pick me up from my house and drive us there. I was a long-time fan of Metallica and Slayer but Mike introduced me to the heavy metal band Anthrax and their 1990-album “Persistence of Time.” A big metalhead, as well, he would crank up the first song on the album, “Time,” and play it on repeat. It was a thrashy, fun, long song, which we listened two twice on our way to Friendly’s to get some ice cream sundaes after the game was over. But Chris, Mike, and Jay weren’t the greatest guys, either. While Mike seemed to be doing well, Chris and Jay were kind of deadbeats. Both came from broken homes and both smoked cigarettes.
As the school year went on, I continued my friendship with the seniors, but also played hockey on the junior varsity team and eventually joined the lacrosse team. I didn’t care for lacrosse; I was 140 pounds going up against defensemen who were 200 pounds…and could run faster than me. I quit the team in the early part of the season and joined the stage crew for the spring musical.
I came out of my freshman year unscathed. I didn’t start smoking, I didn’t do anything stupid, I didn’t break any laws. But something about me had changed. And another close friend in my grade, Bob, had noticed. It was Saturday, August 14th, 1999. He called me.
“Dude, what are you doing tomorrow?” he asked. It was Sunday, I had no plans.
“You should play football with us this year. Equipment pickup is tomorrow.” I thought about it, remembering how, at the beginning of my freshman year, I was jealous that some kids were wearing Wootton football jerseys on Fridays. How did they get on the team already? When did practice start? Now, I knew.
“Dude, you need to come back to the light.”
Bob was referencing a change he had seen in me over the past year, particularly my dyed blonde and green hair that came down to the middle of my cheek. I had dyed a few strands of it green during my stay at summer camp about a month before, and had it highlighted a month before that. But Bob was also referring to my friend group, and a few other things he noticed about me.
I don’t know what it was that clicked in me, but I agreed and told him I would see him tomorrow at the equipment pickup.
On Sunday, my mom drove me to the high school gym were the coaches were signing up players and handing out equipment and locker spots. I walked up to the man sitting behind the folding table positioned just inside the entrance of the gym. It was Coach Thompson, the assistant lacrosse coach. Turns out he was also the head JV football coach.
“Hi, Coach Thompson,” I said with a smile. He looked up, confused. My green and blonde hair was in front of my face and eyes. I pulled it back. “It’s me, Parker.”
“Well look what we have here,” he said. I didn’t process, at the time, that he might not be happy to see me, considering I quit his lacrosse team in the middle of the season. Nevertheless, he signed me on to the JV football team and sent me through the different stations: shoulder pads, hip pads, pants. The helmet station was first. The assistant there popped a helmet on me, and I immediately couldn’t see. My hair was in my eyes. So, after collecting the rest of the pads and putting them in the locker room, my mom took me a barber shop.
Sitting down in the chair, the barber asked me a simple question: “Am I using a one or a two?” referring to the depth of the guard on his clippers. “How do you know I want it that short?” I inquired. “I’ve had plenty of you football players come in and tell me that you need your hair chopped off because you start practice tomorrow.”
He was right. “I guess I’ll go with a two.”
My hair was gone. No more highlights. No more green. No more head flips to get the hair out of my eyes.
The next day began a transformative time for me. It was two and a half weeks of two-a-day football practices, a training program unlike I hadn’t experienced before. Each practice was three hours long, starting at 9 a.m. and ending at noon, and again from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. The Washington, DC area in mid-August is a humid, hot place, and temperatures regularly reached the mid-90s, sometimes topping 100 by the afternoon. The morning practice was dedicated to physical conditioning: sprint drills, strength training, and agility work. The afternoon practice focused on the game: running plays, learning defensive formations, and honing special teams. The only days off we had were Sundays.
It was hard and was painful. Two days into practice I was extremely sore, but there I was, practicing six more hours the next day. I had blisters on my feet from my new cleats. Aches. Pains. But as practice went on, something inside me changed.
After a brief water break, in which we hydrated from drinking out hose connected to a multi-holed PVC pipe, Coach Thompson, our head JV football coach, called us back. But then I piped up.
“Hats on, boys!” referring to getting our helmets back on.
“And on the hop!” telling everyone to trot over instead walking. I was becoming a leader and I was gaining more respect from my teammates. And I intended to continue that in the next drill we ran, and the goal was very simple.
One on one. One kid took a football and tried to run between two cones, about five feet apart. The only difficulty was that there was another kid standing between the two cones, and it was his job to stop the ball carrier.
“Ready!” Coach Thompson yelled. “Don’t let ‘em cross that line!” Coach Thompson would shout at the defender, before turning back to the ball carrier. “You better get through those cones!”
I went up against a kid named Dave. We came from the same grade, were equally sized and equally matched, and neither of us played football our freshmen year. Coach Thompson handed me the ball. Dave stood on the line between the cones.
The whistle blew.
I put my shoulder down and ran right at Dave. Our pads crunched. We struggled. I crossed the line.
“Do it again!” the coached yelled. The whistle sounded.
I reset and tried for one of the sides. Dave tackled me outside of the cone.
“Again!” Another whistle.
With a head of steam, I charged at Dave and gave him my right forearm to the center of his facemask. It knocked him backwards and I walked over him across the line.
“Yes!” Coach Thompson screamed. “I like my strong safeties to be able to hit!”
It was true and it would become true. During our three scrimmages before the season started, I was the JV starting strong safety. Bob, my close friend who suggested I play football, was the middle linebacker. The two of us lined up behind our defensive line, along with another linebacker, waiting to pounce on any ball carrier.
But there was one problem: my confidence.
I was unsure of myself, particularly in games. I wanted to support my team, but I didn’t want to get hurt. I wanted to win, but I didn’t want to make a mistake. These dichotomies played in my mind as the games went on, and my in-game performance suffered. The coaches noticed.
As the real season was getting closer but before school started, I spent several days back at the same summer camp I attended earlier in the season along with a few hundred other kids from the regional Jewish youth group. While I was at the event, I lost my starting position and I never got it back. My teammate James, a freshman, earned the position and held the starting spot the rest of the year. My playing time was severely limited, as I found myself as a member of only the punt team. It was the only playing time I’d get. The season ended, hockey started and finished, and, instead of playing lacrosse, I joined the co-ed volleyball team instead of going back to lacrosse. Volleyball worked out much better for me. After a great season, I earned a spot on the second all-county team.
The summer of 2000, the season between my sophomore and junior years, came and went, and once again I joined Bob to get our pads and start two-a-days. The only difference was that, this year, I’d be a member of the varsity football team. Not because of any tryout, simply because I was a junior. I went to practice and did my best, but now was going up against seniors who were significantly larger, faster, and stronger than me. I knew I wouldn’t be a starter.
Right before school began, I went back to the same summer camp for the youth group event, and missed a significant portion of practice. But this time I wasn’t concerned. I had no chance of playing in anything that mattered. My only shot at glory on the field would be only as a scrub at the end of the games when our team was losing.
When I came back from the youth event, I had been out of practice for almost a week. I lost my motivation, so I told my mom that I wasn’t really interested in going back to practice.
“What are you going to do instead?” she asked. “Doing nothing is not an option.”
“I’ll play volleyball,” I replied.
Although this was 2000, the internet was still fairly new, Google was only two years old, and most search engines were not robust. Using search tools like AskJeeves.com, I’d ask Mr. Jeeves, “Where can I play volleyball in Rockville, Maryland this fall?” The results would turn up nothing significant. So, I turned to my school directory and started calling kids from the volleyball team. No one knew anything, except for a kid named Gerald, who told me that there was something called “Junior Olympics” and that he was playing in it, but that it was “really competitive.” It was his way of saying he didn’t think I was good enough. I lacked the confidence to research it further. Dejected, I felt out of options.
That night, or perhaps the night after, sometime in late August/early September, but before school started, my mom took me to see a movie that had just come out in theatres. It featured Keanu Reeves, still relevant back then as the Matrix had come out the year before, Gene Hackman, Orlando Jones, and a few others. It told the story of professional football league players going on strike, forcing the teams to find new guys to play in their absence.
It was called The Replacements.
To this day, I don’t know what it was about that movie that triggered something inside me. But something happened. Something catalyzed. Maybe it was the feel-good story of the deaf tight end who finally got a chance to play, or the washed-up coach (Hackman) who got a second chance, or the quarterback (Reeves), who finally gained the confidence in himself to make the plays that he knew, deep down, he could make. Whatever it was, I felt different. I regained my motivation. I told my mom that I was going to go back to football practice the next day. I had no idea at the time that the decision to go back to practice would lead me on a course of events that would forever change my outlook and perspective on life, particularly my confidence.
I played in only a few games that year, just as I had predicted. I played safety for a few snaps at the end of a game when my team was losing. I made a few tackles and that was it. Our team finished 0-10 that year. But it was not from a lack of talent, because we had plenty. It was from a lack of coaching. Coach Cavanaugh, the head football coach, quit at the end of the season and disassembled his staff. Wootton High School hired a guy named Doug Miller, a former member of the University of Maryland Terrapins football team in the mid-1980s, as the head coach, and he brought with him a staff of experienced assistant coaches.
We already knew that the 2001 season would be different. But it was different inside me, too. I was a senior. It was my last chance to play.
In addition to the coaching change, the offseason was different, too. We had more conditioning sessions earlier in the summer and participated in a seven-on-seven passing league with other high school teams. During some of our conditioning, we had competitions, and I ended up beating a lot of kids.
“Watch out, yall, Parker got fast!” I’d yell at them. And I was faster than I had ever been, thanks to my successful volleyball season, in my which my agility improved dramatically. My motivation was there. It was back. As was the training and practice. The passing league came and went with Coach Miller and his new staff putting people in different positions to see where they shined. Now with about 15 pounds more on my still lanky body, I was up to 155 pounds. After reviewing the scrimmages and passing league, in which I played safety on defense and slot receiver on offense, Coach Miller told me I would be the starting outside linebacker on the right side of the defense.
And I was not just an outside linebacker, I was a quasi-defensive end. Our coach had determined that the passing threat for most of the teams we played was minimal, so we needed to focus on stopping the run. Coach Miller told us that we would run a 6-2 defense, in which we would have four down defensive linemen, including two tackles and two ends, but that the outside linebackers would also play on the line, contain any runs, and drop to the flats if there was a pass play. But it was run first, pass second. My job was simple. Keep the contain. Drop to the flats in a pass play.
School started and the games followed. Saturday, September 8th, 2001 was our first game, and we entered with a 15-game losing streak. While most games were on Friday nights, this one, for some reason, was on Saturday morning at Rockville High School. I liked that our first game was Saturday morning. We didn’t have to go to school all day, then reset our minds to focus on the game. The whole day revolved around that game.
I woke up, drove to school, and went to our locker room. We all grabbed our gear, hopped on our bus, and had plenty of time to warm up before the game started at noon. I played well, made some tackles, and our team emerged victorious. We won 21-17. What losing streak?
Three days later, tragedy would strike America and all sporting events, including our Friday night game against Quince Orchard, were cancelled that week to allow time for everyone to grieve and pay respects for the victims lost on 9/11. The next game we played was the following Friday against Damascus High School, and it wouldn’t be easy. Damascus was ranked 16th in the DC area at the time, with a powerful running game behind a Division 1-recruited offensive guard, who weighed more than 300 pounds.
We played great and took Damascus down to the end of the game. Down only six points and driving with less than four minutes to go, our quarterback threw an interception that ended our drive, sealing Damascus’ victory. But I played well that game. I was going up against a tight end who was about my size, perhaps only slightly bigger, so I felt like I held my own. We lost, but I was proud.
My sense of pride, however, ended the next week, on September 28th, against Northwest High School. Northwest was tough. The kids seemed gigantic. Faster. Meaner. And there I was. This puny, 155-pound kid going up against a 200-plus-pound tight end. And I’ll admit that I was afraid of him not only because he was a lot bigger than me, but because he was confident. He and his team called us out. “These white boys ain’t got nothin’,” they would say as their offensive lineman walked up to the line of scrimmage. I could sense the confidence beaming from them. I just didn’t have it. I was terrified.
Terror is not something you want to have, let alone, put on display when you’re playing football. But it showed, and I got manhandled. Three times in the first half did this massive tight end get around me, hook block me, and basically throw me down. I crumbled. The containment that was my primary responsibility was lost. The running back gobbled up yards.
At halftime, Coach Miller spoke to us in the locker room.
“What the hell is going on out there? Jesus Christ, Parker, how many times did you get hooked on sweeps?”
“Three, sir.” It’s all I could say.
The only good play I made the entire game was in the second half, when I heard Coach Miller screaming from the sideline.
I took the cue and, upon the snap, practically ran as fast as I could toward the sideline, hoping to keep the running back contained. Northwest’s tight end was running with me and trying to get outside of me so he could hook me and allow his running back to turn the corner. But I didn’t let him. The running back tried to turn the corner and I was able to grab on to his shoulder pads and take him down with a one-handed tackle.
When watching the game film the next morning, Coach Miller told me that’s exactly how each other play should have happened. I was too embarrassed to remind him that the only reason I did that is because he told us what play was coming. I felt like a failure.
The following week we went back to practice to get ready for our game against Richard Montgomery High School. And one of those days, whether it was Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, I don’t remember which, was the day that would change my life forever. It was something I’ll never, ever, forget.
I was playing my typical position, as the right defensive end/outside linebacker going against one of our tight ends, a kid named Justin. As the offense ran the play, I moved down the line and contained the run.
“DO IT AGAIN!” Coach Miller screamed.
The offense ran the play again.
I contained it.
“THAT’S IT! I’M NOT DOING IT ANYMORE!”
We all looked at Coach Miller, wondering what he meant. He pointed directly at me. Everyone of the other 60+ kids on the team looked and waited.
“Parker, I’ve had it. I’m not playing you in games anymore. Every week you come out here and show that you can do it in practice, but you get in the games and you choke. You’re a fuckin’ practice player and I’m not gonna have it anymore.”
There I was, standing in front of my entire team, called out for being a failure in games. I was crushed. I felt worthless. The feeling of that moment still burns today.
And Coach Miller stuck to his word. I didn’t play against Richard Montgomery other than on the kickoff return team. The following week against our rival, Churchill High School, I only played three downs, having replaced a briefly injured teammate. I registered one tackle, but was immediately taken out. We lost the game.
While I eventually switched from linebacker to safety and regain a starting position, thanks in part to a difficult conversation between my dad and Coach Miller, and had some great plays in those final games, there is no lesson, no memory, no statement that is more visceral, even today, as that late-September afternoon on the practice field.
I was called out for not being able to perform when it mattered.
As I stood in the door of the plane, my memories of the day before flashed before me. On Tuesday August 12th, 2003, I had made three parachute jumps from this same plane. The first jump went fine, as did the second, but the third did not. I had poor body position and had an awkward exit from the plane. I brought my arms up instead of bringing them down, and that caused me to flip. However, my training…my preparation…kicked in and I arched my body, which put me in a belly to earth position. Stable, I pulled my rip cord, got under canopy, and floated to the ground.
When watching the video of my jump, my jumpmaster praised me for pulling my rip cord when I was belly to earth, but he failed me on the overall jump because I had flipped, something he said was unacceptable. He gave me a 3 rating. 1 and 2 passed. 3 did not.
I protested and talked to the head jumpaster, Staff Sergeant Thompson. “Parker, I wouldn’t have failed you because you leveled out,” he said. “But he’s the jumpmaster for your group, and it’s his call.” The jump counted towards the five I needed to earn my basic parachutist badge, but another failure meant I was out of the program and would not earn my wings.
Anyone who failed a jump that day went through three hours of additional ground training to ensure we were fit to jump again. To me, the jumpmasters wanted to know if I was a practice player. They wanted to ensure I had the preparation necessary to accomplish the mission when it mattered.
At dinner with the other cadets, my third jump was all I thought about. While waiting for our food at a local restaurant, I kept slapping my hands down to my side. Bring my hands and arms down. Not up. After dinner, I went back to my room, and for hours, I practiced exiting the plane, using the door of the room as my makeshift plane exit. Again and again, I would simulate jumping, throwing my hands down to my side, and pushing my hips forward. That was the training. That’s what I needed to do.
My mind focused. I was no longer going to be a practice player. I cannot fail. I must not fail. I would succeed. I would win. I just needed to do it. Trust the training. It will work. Just like in football. Keep the contain. Protect the sweep.
I brought my body slightly taller.
I crouched again, pushing my hips as far forward as they could go.
I left the plane.
I threw my arms down to my side and arched my body, hoping the relative wind would begin to level me out.
“Arch thousand!” I began to count aloud. I kept my arms down.
“Two thousand!” I continued, my arms still down, my pelvis pushing forward.
“Three thousand!” I began to sweet my arms , just slightly, as my body began to level out.
“Four thousand.” My arms were out, elbows bent at 90-degree angles. My legs were slightly bent, yet strong.
“Arch thousand.” I deepened my body’s arch.
“Look thousand.” I looked down at my rip cord as I transitioned my hands, now one above my head and one holding my rip cord.
“Pull thousand.” I grabbed the rip cord and punched it out to the side, pulling the pin which kept my pilot chute contained. It shot out.
Air hit the spring-loaded pilot chute, pulling it above my body. The bag, in which the canopy was perfectly folded and contained, began to empty its contents, and my descent began to slow.
“Check thousand,” I said looking up at my parachute.
“Check canopy. Shape, spin, speed.” I had a beautiful 300-square foot canopy above me. Perfectly rectangular and flying straight.
“Look around for other jumpers.” None in sight.
“Check altitude. Turn off reserve automatic activation device.” I was at 3,000 feet and turned a dial that engaged my reserve parachute’s pilot chute if I was still falling fast.
“Release brakes. Check straight flight.” All good.
“Check left.” I turned my head to the left, looking. “Turn left 90.” I pulled the left brake riser and made a left turn. Done.
“Check right. Turn right 90,” I said, repeating the same on the other side.
“Check full stall.” I pulled both brakes down and practiced stalling the canopy, which I would need to do in preparation for landing.
“Orient myself to the dropzone.” I entered my landing pattern and safely made it to the ground.
The senior master sergeant only had two words for me in the review of my video.
It was all I needed to hear. I did what needed to be done. I was no longer a practice player. I was confident. I was motivated. I was successful. I completed my fifth jump later that day and had my wings pinned by head jumpmaster Staff Sergeant Thompson.
I called my parents and grandparents to tell them the news. They were excited for me, but they had no idea about the lessons I had learned, the confidence I had gained. I was no longer a practice player. I could do whatever I set my mind to.
Upon returning home, I went to Bolling Air Force Base and bought several sets of the basic parachutist badge. The original one, pinned on me by Staff Sergeant Thompson, I gave to my grandfather, the former air force bombardier and navigator.
Through parachute training, I learned that there were three important factors in being successful in any position. The first is preparation, making sure that you have the training you need to get the job done. The second is motivation, the desire to want to be there. But the third, and perhaps most important of the three, is confidence, ensuring that you know you can get the job done. Until this point, I didn’t know what confidence was, but now it was real. Now, I could taste what that was like, and I could feel its power.
From that point on, confidence became a major tenet of my life. It’s how I approached my school work and academic tests, my first F-16 flight in which I neither vomited nor lost consciousness, my career as a financial adviser as I was 22 years old convincing clients to transfer large sums of money under my management. In all those situations, I had the preparation; I was trained. I was motivated, I wanted to do be there, doing all those things. But the most important thing was the confidence. It was the swagger.
Later in life, I learned another valuable lesson, as well. Too much confidence became arrogance, something that would come back to bite me many times in my mid-to-late-20s. As I grew older and more self-aware, I have learned to balance confidence with humility. Now I approach life with a balance of the two: confident in things have preparation and motivation, and humility in situations in which I don’t. The balance of the two is key. And most importantly, as I learned from a tech company’s CEOs, the balance is a dial, not an on/off switch.
I’ll never forget that September day on the football field. The practice player that was once me. I’ll never forget how visceral, how crushing….how motivating that moment would become. And I’ll never forget how a cheesy football movie called The Replacements, a high school football coach named Doug Miller, and an early morning skydive in Colorado Springs would forever change my life.
Here is the video of my jumps, starting at my third. You can see me flip and level out, and then my successful fourth and fifth jumps. This video has never been shared outside my family. Click on the picture to view the YouTube video. (The sixth jump seen at the video is my first civilian jump.)
Here are the pictures following my third, fourth, and fifth jumps.
Jumpers from my plane. I’m, standing, second from the left, giving three fingers, signifying that we just completed our third jump. I had just failed.
Jump four is successful. With me is Cadet Joel Thornton from Purdue University.
The entire crew from my fifth and final jump. I’m standing third from the left, with the helmet. In the center, standing, is an Air Force Academy fourth-year senior, Cadet Dudley, our jumpmaster for this flight.
Getting my wings pinned from Staff Sergeant Thompson.
Never give up. Never stop.