Philadelphia-raised step-brothers to square off in New Mexico Bowl
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- For Will Parks, the Gildan New Mexico Bowl will carry more than just the emotions of playing in his final collegiate football game. The standout senior defensive back for the University of Arizona will face his step-brother, a sophomore wide receiver for the University of New Mexico. Which would be quite the coincidence, even if the two hadn't grown up in faraway Philadelphia before finding themselves in the desert Southwest.
"How cool is that?," Parks told the Journal. "We're very, very close. You couldn't take us apart. We've done so many things together all our lives. Not we get to do this together."
Parks and the Wildcats (6-6) are looking for their second New Mexico Bowl title in four years, having beaten Nevada 49-48 in 2012 in one of the wildest finishes in bowl game history.
Delane Hart-Johnson and the Lobos (7-5) are looking for the school's second N.M. Bowl title, as well, but that came a while back. The Lobos, and then-coach Rocky Long, defeated Nevada 23-0 in the 2007 version of the game. This is the first time New Mexico has been to any bowl since, and the first time it's had a winning record since.
"Oh, yeah," the guys' father, John McLeod, said with a laugh when asked whether there would be some smack-talking between the brothers on Saturday. "It started as soon as the game was announced and hasn't stopped yet."
While Parks and Hart-Johnson are actually stepbrothers, McLeod said they have never used that term "and are as close as any two brothers could be."
They both excelled in sports while growing up in the same house in Philadelphia. Parks quickly took a liking to the defensive side of the football and Hart-Johnson to the offensive side.
"Growing up, they were very good kids," said McLeod, who said he is flying to Albuquerque today for the game. "Will was more athletic and Delane had a bigger body, even though he was younger. They had some great competitions against each other -- Delane always as a receiver and Will as a D-back."
They played on the same youth teams together, playing football and basketball, but then went to different high schools.
As far as football, Parks said: "We're both really even. Sometimes he gets the best of me. Sometimes I get the best of him."
As far as hoops, however, "That's not a contest," Parks said with a laugh. "I look like LeBron James going against him."
One of the brothers' favorite athletic activities was their twist on football.
"We'd always play street football to stay active," said the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Hart-Johnson. "We'd always play rumble fumble, that's just like every man for himself with the football. Just throw the football up, somebody would catch it, rumble fumble. You go end zone to end zone, if you get tired you just throw the ball over. But when a lot of players come out, a lot of my friends come out, we'd team up and play. We were always on the same team. So it was just like we had the connection already."
Parks played prep ball for Germantown High -- the same school as his father -- where he was a two-way standout. He verbally committed to Pittsburgh as a junior, but never became a Panther.
"There was a coaching change at Pitt," Parks said. "Some of the coaches ended up at Arizona and some at Arizona State. I almost went to ASU, but then when I took my visit to Tucson, I loved every second I was there and knew that was the place for me. I went to a swim meet and loved that.
"I had never been out West before, and I haven't regretted it one bit."
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said he would be surprised if Parks isn't selected in the NFL draft, and he's certain Parks will, at the least, end up in an NFL training camp.
The 6-1, 194-pound Parks has made 72 tackles this year from his position as a safety.
"He's one of our captains and is just a great young man who has played all four years since he's been here," Rodriguez said. "He's made a lot of plays for us. He really is a joy to coach; he loves football, has an infectious attitude and is a great teammate."
Hart-Johnson is in his first year at UNM. He played junior college ball last season in Los Angeles and transferred to Loboland, primarily, because of a connection with New Mexico running backs coach Apollo Wright -- who is also from Philadelphia.
Hart-Johnson had 10 receptions this season for 235 yards and one touchdown. He averages a team-best 23.5 yards a catch.
Hart-Johnson said facing his brother -- most likely in some head-to-head matchups on the field -- is "real unique to me, because we both know each other's weakness, so we're just gonna try to exploit each other's weakness and everything. We work out with each other back home a lot. He would teach me some things; I would teach him on some things to be more physical and stuff with the receivers, because I'm a physical guy. So it's just like we're gonna see what our weakness is, and I'm gonna try to go at his weakness, and I know he's gonna try to come at my weakness.
"I go home Sunday morning, but after the game he said he was gonna try to get a professional guy to take a picture of us holding different jerseys. So we're gonna try to make that one of the best moments of his life, because this is his last college football game."
Parks said he thinks it will be just that.
"It will be different, but that's the path that God put us on," he said. "We will both do what we have to do; it's football.
"It's my last college game. It's crazy how fast the years go past. I'm so grateful for my career and will always be proud to have played for Arizona. I'm even happier with my brother being on the same field. It probably won't hit me until it's over, but this is really something."
This article was written by Mark Smith from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.