The 2020 college football season wasn’t even certain to happen. Yet, it ended up being an opportunity years in the making.
Prior to September, UTSA free safety Antonio Parks last started a football game in the fall of 2014 at East St. John High School in Louisiana. What could have been the final go-around is just the start of Parks’ promising football career.
After a successful 2020 as the Roadrunners’ starting safety, Parks will opt in for the extra year of eligibility granted to all NCAA fall athletes and return to the program for a second senior season.
“The culture and the program is shifting and making a change and I definitely want to be a part of that,” Parks said. “The ceiling is very high of where we can be and I just want to be a part of it. For myself personally, my career is just getting off to a start and I think my ceiling is high.”
Perhaps the turning point in Parks’ football career — and for UTSA as a program — transpired the night of Oct. 24 at the Alamodome. Trailing division rival Louisiana Tech 26-13, Parks provided the monumental spark, ripping out the football from a Bulldog receiver in the late third quarter. The Roadrunners’ offense capitalized and eventually secured a 27-26 lead, but the defense required one more stop. To place a clamp on the game, the man of the hour struck again. Parks recorded the game-winning interception with 45 seconds left to bolster the Roadrunners to a statement win. UTSA carried the momentum to a 7-5 finish, marking its best overall standing since joining the C-USA in 2013.
“We knocked down a juggernaut — a team that we struggled against year in and year out,” Parks said about the win over Louisiana Tech. “To beat that opponent and in the fashion we did it in, I think our guys knew that we belong up there with the greater teams in the conference. Seeing that shift that game definitely was a look for everybody to see where this program can be and what we can do.”
After finishing 5-2 in conference play, the realization that UTSA can compete for a C-USA title impacted Parks’ decision to return to the Alamo City. Additionally, there is the desire to play one more collegiate season outside of the COVID-19 climate which dampened the sport in an otherwise triumphant year for the Roadrunners.
“Having fans up to full capacity is definitely something I want to experience again,” Parks said. “I want to get that experience of fans in attendance, and on third downs, the stadium getting super loud. All of those things went into it too because you only get so many opportunities to play the game of football.”
It’s been a long, arduous journey for Parks to even arrive at this point. He graduated high school in the spring of 2015 and committed to Arizona, but the young defensive back wasn’t suiting up on gamedays immediately. After taking a grayshirt in his first year on campus and a redshirt in the fall of 2016, Parks finally played a full season with the Wildcats in 2017. He spent two years in Tucson as a reserve cornerback and safety before transferring to UTSA to move closer to home.
“My career as a whole got off to a late start,” Parks said. “Last year was my first starting experience since high school. I’ve been a supersub at Arizona. I was a supersub (at UTSA in 2019) but I got my first career start last year and played significant snaps. For myself to have that fifth year of football experience is going to be a huge deal for me, building on some of the things I did last year and developing more.”
By returning, Parks will receive the opportunity to do something he has never done in college. He will play his second season under a single coaching regime. From 2017-20, the safety played under four different head coaches — Rich Rodriguez, Kevin Sumlin, Frank Wilson, and Jeff Traylor — and their respective staffs. Traylor injected new life into UTSA in his first year at the helm, and Parks — as a veteran member of the team — looks forward to thriving under the young head coach once again.
“I get to be the older guy to help younger guys in the locker room and help elevate the culture and instill the culture into the younger guys that will be joining the team. Now we have a platform, now we have a base on what we want to do,” Parks said. “Having the same staff and being comfortable with the coach gives me the knowledge to go out there and do the work. I know what he wants and what he expects out of me, so I know how to approach day-to-day life and I know how to go out there and perform for my coach.”
Along with a returning coach, UTSA returns similar cast members on defense. Most notably, Parks will continue to create a dangerous safety tandem with First Team All-C-USA strong safety Rashad Wisdom. Parks and Wisdom combined for 145 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and five interceptions in 2020 to construct one of the more formidable safety tandems in the country.
“We both were nickels and we rotated behind each other the season before,” Parks said of Wisdom. “I’m getting that spot beside him now. With the way he comes down and the energy he plays with, we both match. We’re both undersized defensive backs but we’re two guys who are gonna bring it every practice, every game. To have another year playing beside him is only gonna make the team better and it will make me better as well.”
From completing a graduate degree in business to garnering an All-C-USA selection, Parks is aiming to accomplish lofty goals in his additional year at UTSA. But at the end of the tunnel lies a potential crash course with the NFL. With a 5’9” build and Southeastern Louisiana roots, Parks shares many similarities to Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu. Parks models his game after the three-time All-Pro selection, hoping to one day join the ranks of the “Honey Badger” at the professional level.
“We’re both undersized DBs but can play at a defensive coordinator’s disposal,” Parks said. “Moving all around on the defense, being undersized, but having that ability to play very big — me and Tyrann Mathieu have a lot of things in common. I love the way he plays, I love the way he attacks the game, I love his intensity and I think I bring some of those same things to a team.”
To attain that dream, Parks will look to create a bigger name for himself while donning the blue and orange for one last journey. Versatility is the name of his game, and his ability to line up and execute anywhere — from free safety to middle linebacker to blitzing out of dime packages on third down — makes him a valuable asset on any defense.
“I can change the game within a play. I can go out and get interceptions, I can force fumbles, I can come down and get TFLs, I can cover slot receivers” Parks said to explain his play. “As I continue that on, I think a lot more eyes will be on me.”
But for 2021, Parks is focused on returning to San Antonio to lead UTSA to heights the program has never reached before. After winding up a game away from competing in the school’s first conference championship and coming within one possession of its first bowl win, Parks knows UTSA is capable of attaining a plethora of firsts during the 2021 season.
“We have guys with experience coming back that can really elevate their game and elevate the guys around them,” Parks said. “The sky is the limit for this team. We can make history, and that’s what we’ll be chasing.”