STORRS — Spencer Parker was back home in Newington one weekend during his freshman year at Lasell College when he and his dad tuned into the UConn football game. Parker can't remember the opponent. He remembers vividly what his dad said.
"You can play with these guys," Scott Parker told his son.
"My dad knew I really missed football," Parker said Tuesday at the Burton Family Complex. "I was thinking Division II maybe. He told me, no, I can play with these guys. It kind of got stuck in my head."
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Convincing himself that giving up college volleyball was the right thing to do was one matter. Convincing Paul Pasqualoni to the point of giving this unlikely walk-on tight end a scholarship for his senior season is quite another. And from there, catching an 11-yard touchdown pass against Michigan on national television Saturday night, a night when suddenly anything was possible at Rentschler Field?
Spencer Parker is still peeling his emotions off the wall on that one.
"My phone was completely blown up with text messages," Parker said.
Ray Allen was at the game. Derek Jeter was at the game. Kemba Walker, too. All sorts of sports celebrities were there. Did any of them text you?
"Nah," Parker said, laughing. "Just about every friend and family member did. I think the whole of Newington pretty much contacted me."
Nights like Michigan can make campus cult heroes out of a guy like Spencer Parker. A terrific, diving catch in the end zone by Geremy Davis, which would have gone for a 39-yard touchdown, was overruled by video review.
"After something like that, it's tough to keep a drive alive," Parker said. "All the momentum swings the other way. But our offense dug deep on that series."
Chandler Whitmer found Davis for an 18-yard pass. Max DeLorenzo of Berlin, one town over from Newington, carried for 12 more yards. After a 2-yard loss, Parker lined up on the 11. What were the chances of the next play coming his way?
"Maybe 50 percent," he said. "I was one of the early checkdowns on that play. The defense Michigan had there, the safety was on the outside. I'm on a cut route right over the middle — a kind of a skinny post pattern — and in practice I get the ball on that play a good amount."
The safety and linebacker didn't follow. Parker slid inside the safety, and before he could recover, it was a touchdown on the first official catch of Parker's college career. Parker did catch a two-point conversion against Towson.
"Perfect read, perfect pass," said Parker, who later caught another pass in the game. "Chandler hit me right in the hands. There was not a chance I was going to drop that ball. They'd have to rip it out of me."
Moments later, a fumbled punt, touchdown, and bang, just like that UConn had a 14-7 lead at halftime. The lead would expand in the third quarter on Ty-Meer Brown's fumble return: UConn 21, Michigan 7.
"It was one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life, just hearing that many people cheering for our university in that big of a game," Parker said. "It was surreal. Everyone was going nuts."
Too surreal, too nuts, maybe, to end in victory, and Michigan eked out a 24-21 dose of reality. Yet for the kid from Newington, who decided he'd give up Division III volleyball to take a shot at major college football, the night will remain unforgettable.
"Everybody was there, my family, my coaches; it honestly was like a dream come true. There's no other way to explain it. It was unreal. It was perfect. Out of high school, I thought I'd go to [Lasell] and stay for volleyball or transfer somewhere bigger for volleyball. I never thought this could happen."
Parker began playing volleyball in ninth grade. His mom, Robin, persuaded him to try it.
"My brother [Tyler] was a good track runner in high school and went on to run in college [at New Haven]," Parker said. "My mom wanted me to have my own sport."
He played in the offseason for a club team. He played for the CT Juniors run by Ryan Woodcock. At 6 feet 4 and with a vertical leap between 34 and 36 inches, he had the body and the hops.
He was all-state in volleyball his junior year. The 2009 All-Courant player of the year, he was the best player in the state his senior year. Football didn't take off for Parker until his senior year. He played linebacker his junior year. As a senior, he led Newington into the Class L finals as a quarterback. He threw for 1,500 yards and ran for 1,300 more.
"I had it in my mind I wanted to pursue volleyball and see where I could go with that throughout college. I loved Lasell. It was an awesome place."
"I really missed football. Yeah, I missed football that much."
Parker led Lasell with 228 kills as a freshman in 2010. He was named first-team All-Great Northeast Athletic Conference. He left the Newton, Mass., school after his sophomore season. He didn't get into Storrs initially. He went to the UConn West Hartford branch that fall before transferring to the main campus. Parker knew that Matt Cersosimo, who has since become coach at Conard-West Hartford, was the UConn recruiting coordinator. He emailed him. He called him. Cersosimo gave Parker the dates for tryouts.
"There were seven walk-ons and it wasn't like a full tryout like they do in the fall," Parker said. "They had us do things players on the team were already doing, lifting, running."
There were no guarantees.
"I thought I was going to be a practice player here, to be honest," Parker said. "I knew quarterback was a reach. One of my old buddies [Alex Kaiser of Newington] was a walk-on. He played tight end. I saw Ryan [Griffin] and [John] Delahunt were seniors and were going to graduate. I saw it as the best opportunity. I wanted to get on the field any way I could."
He didn't get on the field in 2011. In 2012, he got into eight games, made three tackles and earned a letter for his special teams play.
"I did everything I could do to make myself better," Parker said. "After spring ball, I saw the depth chart. I knew at that point I could play with these guys. I knew I'd be playing this year."
Dad was right. More than that, a walk-on became a senior scholarship player.
"I was in the training room and Coach Pasqualoni came down," Parker said. "I don't usually see him in there. He came up to me, told me they'd be able to put me on scholarship and shook my hand. I was speechless. My parents were unbelievably happy."
Pasqualoni has been especially impressed with the speed of Parker, hand-timed in the 40 at 4.6 seconds.
"Ryan Griffin was a terrific receiver, great hands and a pretty crafty route runner, but if you line them both up in a 40-yard dash, Parker would win," Pasqualoni said. "He's legit fast for a tight end. I think that surprises people."
Interested in law enforcement, Parker would like to get into the state police after graduation. Can't you imagine Parker in uniform working at the Rent in 2020 and some fan stopping him and going, "Michigan? 2013? Am I right?"
"I know you're supposed to think it's like any other game, but inside I'm like, 'This is unreal!'" Parker said. "Playing Michigan is something I could do in a video game when I was younger and never imagine actually playing and scoring. It was just awesome."