DeVante Parker is an introvert playing arguably the flashiest position in American sports.
He has a SpongeBob SquarePants keychain and a 3-month-old daughter.
He’s so responsible and risk-averse that friends have called him “Granddaddy” since high school.
And he’s such a homebody that the coveted wide receiver left a three-inch stack of recruiting letters from Alabama coach Nick Saban unopened because he had no interest in leaving Louisville.
So when Parker, the Miami Dolphins’ No. 1 draft pick and Ryan Tannehill’s new best friend, reports to his first NFL practice Friday, the biggest challenge won’t be learning routes or dodging safeties.
It will be staking out on his own for the first time.
“I’m not worried,” Parker said during a a half-hour conversation with the Miami Herald in his grandparents’ home. “I can still keep in contact with [my family].”
Added grandmother Yvonne: “He’s a grown man now, and we’ve taught him the best we can teach him. It’s time for him to make choices.”
For years, that choice was to stay close to the home he shares with Yvonne and her husband Willie, who is so tight with his only grandson that Parker calls him Dad.
When Parker was young, he would wear Willie’s arm out throwing whatever ball he could find.
When Parker was a budding star at nearby Ballard High School, football coach Mike Jackson got nowhere trying to convince Parker to attend high-profile summer camps. As a result, he went largely under the national recruiting radar; it’s almost comical now to think that Rivals.com deemed 76 receivers better than him in the Class of 2011.
He wanted to play football when it was football season, start at point guard for Ballard during basketball season, and run track during the spring. Friends would go out and party after a win; he would go to bed.
“I tried to get him to go to the basketball camps,” Ballard basketball coach Chris Renner said. “I told him, ‘I’ll get you on the best AAU teams.’ He said, ‘I don't want to do it. … I don’t want to go play AAU and travel.’ That’s the limelight. He wasn’t looking for that.”
For that reason, Parker’s college choice wasn’t much of a choice at all: He would go to either Kentucky or Louisville.
He was on the fence after Louisville fired coach Steve Kragthorpe; then-Kentucky coach Joker Phillips smartly ingratiated himself into the Parker family, and almost got his prized recruit to move 70 miles east.
Louisville ended up hiring Charlie Strong, a total unknown.
“I give coach Strong DeVante’s number,” Jackson said. “He calls DeVante and DeVante calls me 10 minutes later and said, ‘Coach, I just wanted to let you know, I’m committed to the University of Louisville.’ ”
The decision, of course, delighted his family — and their neighbors in a middle-class suburb where Cardinals fans outnumber Wildcats fans by seemingly 100 to 1.
He had a quiet freshman year before catching 10 touchdown passes as a sophomore and 12 as a junior. He could have gone pro then, but returned to complete his education. The Atlantic Coast Conference named Parker to its preseason all-conference team ahead of his senior campaign.
But when it came time for the ACC’s media day, Parker didn’t want any part of it. He simply isn’t wired that way.
Bobby Petrino, who replaced Strong before Parker’s senior season, knew it was important for his biggest star to be there. So he suggested Parker talk about his love for SpongeBob SquarePants, a cartoon he has loved since his childhood.
“He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t party,” said Louisville wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas, who played for the University of Miami and the Dolphins a generation ago. “He plays videos and watches ‘SpongeBob’ and eats hamburgers.”
Added Parker, who caught 43 passes for 855 yards as as senior despite missing half the season with a broken foot: “I don’t like all the attention. I just don’t, for some reason. I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t like being famous and all that.”
Parker is so shy, he agreed to a half-hour, sit-down interview for this story only after his family begged him to do so. And only if the most important people in his life — Willie and Yvonne, mother Raneca, aunt Tracy and daughter Nylah — were with him.
That’s how it always has been. His father, former Louisville running back Anthony Shelman, has never really been in the picture. Raneca sent Parker to live with her parents when she had to pick up a third shift as a caregiver.
So when Parker went to Chicago for last week’s NFL Draft, there was no question that the whole family would join him. They also made the flight to South Florida for Parker’s first news conference with the Dolphins.
“We couldn’t be more excited about DeVante as a player [and] as a person,” Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum said last week.
Said general manager Dennis Hickey: “We talked to coaches who were at Louisville and formerly at Louisville. They just raved about DeVante’s competitiveness, his love for the game, his passion, his dedication for it.”
Parker will be in the Davie area for the next six weeks, as the Dolphins hold rookie practices, offseason conditioning and then their mandatory minicamp before breaking for the summer.
Young Nylah will join him when she’s old enough. Raneca Parker will probably move to South Florida at some point. And the rest of the family will be there for every Dolphins home game.
“DeVante is going to be someone to reckon with,” Yvonne Parker said. “He is awesome. I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was this good.”
Parker, with a typical understatement, corrected his grandmother: “I ain’t done nothing yet.”