A.J. Parker hopped in his car and set off with no real destination in mind.
The Detroit Lions had just finished organized team activities, and before Parker headed back to his native Oklahoma for the summer, the undrafted rookie cornerback wanted to explore the city he hoped to be calling home.
Parker made his way around Dearborn, where players stayed at The Henry Hotel, and Allen Park, home to the Lions’ practice facility. He drove through Detroit, and at various points saw signs of homelessness and blight that made him realize he was exactly where he needed to be.
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“Seeing Detroit, I feel like God put it on my heart that this is where I was supposed to be and this is where I’m meant to be,” Parker said. “And I’m here not just to play football but to make a difference in the community.”
Parker’s father, Arlando Parker Sr., has been a community activist in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for decades.
Parker Sr. was a deacon at Greater First Baptist Church — the church Parker attended as a child — and more than a decade ago founded a series of businesses under the Nehemiah Community Development Corp. umbrella dedicated to serving the underprivileged in and around Bartlesville.
Together, the Parkers refurbished houses during A.J.’s youth that Parker Sr. dedicated to help offenders re-entering society. Parker Sr. designed a series of recidivism prevention programs, offering and in some cases teaching classes on anger management, financial peace and fatherhood. And when Parker was playing at Kansas State, his father began developing a community of tiny homes open to single mothers with young children, seniors 62 and older and people at risk of homelessness.
In August, with Parker well on his way to winning the Lions’ slot cornerback job, he sat down with his parents for dinner at The Henry one night and told his dad about his long-held but loosely conceived idea to bring Nehemiah to Detroit, with a youth component.
“He was like, ‘Man, I’ve already been looking. I already had the same idea,’” Parker said.
Unbeknownst to Parker, Arlando and his wife, Teresa, set off on a drive similar to the one Parker made in the spring, days before the Lions’ home preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
As they drove down West Grand Boulevard, past Henry Ford Hospital and through some of the surrounding communities, by abandoned churches and run-down buildings and people in need, it struck Arlando that everything he was doing in Bartlesville could also be done in Detroit.
Back at the Henry, the Parkers called up maps on their cell phones and compared notes about their drives. Nothing was imminent, then or now, but father and son had planted seeds of doing good that continue to grow.
“He’s always wanted to help people, so I know that’s one of his dreams and one of his goals to help as many people as he can,” Parker said of his father. “That’s the route he chose to take and I’m so proud of him for it, seeing the work that he’s been able to put in and what it means to the city, and the people he’s helping. It’s an incredible thing he’s doing and I’m really proud of him.”
‘Love the process’
Parker was a sports fanatic growing up, the kind of kid who watched college football on Saturdays and NFL games on Sundays when most of his friends were giggling at cartoons.
His mother filled his crib with Nerf balls as a baby, and he and his father threw a football to each other every morning on their walk to school.
Parker started playing Mighty Mite Youth Football in second grade and was a high-level basketball player on the AAU circuit. He set his high school’s high jump record and placed third in the Oklahoma state meet in the event as a sophomore.
After school, Parker often spent time at the Boys and Girls Club in west Bartlesville, not far from the family’s church. And if he wasn’t there or at practice for whatever sport was in season, his father kept him busy with chores in and around his home.
“He was very hard on me growing up,” Parker said. “He was one of those fathers where you’re going to earn everything, and there’s no sitting around at the house. So if you’re at the house, I’m going to find you something to do. So it was one of those, he showed me what it was like to be a man and what it took to be successful in this world.”
Truth be told, Parker didn’t always like it.
He had to make his bed first thing in the morning when he woke up. His curfew was never past 10:30 p.m. in high school. And his father put him to work summers in the Oklahoma heat, tearing up walls and ripping out insulation for a few dollars an hour as Nehemiah started to grow.
Looking back at his upbringing now, Parker said the discipline he learned as a child is “definitely a huge reason why I’m here.” As an undrafted free agent, he impressed coaches with his toughness, attention to detail and head-down approach he took to get better.
“Learning hard work, learning dedication and learning what it takes to be good at something and be successful and watching his work ethic and how he worked and him telling me that you’ve got to fall in love with the process,” Parker said. “At a very young age, he told me you’ve got to fall in love with the process. Whatever you want to be good at, you’ve got to fall in love with that process. Not being successful, the process to get to the point where you want to be. So the work and the commitment, that’s part of it. That’s the part that you’ve got to love.”
‘Help my father’
While the work ethic he learned as a boy fueled his rise to NFL starter — through five games, Parker is fifth on the Lions with 18 tackles and has played more snaps than every other Lions rookie except first-round pick Penei Sewell and fourth-rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown — t’s the selflessness he gained that has given him purpose.
Parker joined his grandmother and other family members on occasion feeding Bartlesville’s homeless at the local Salvation Army as a youth. He helped his father and other men from the congregation shovel snow for the infirmed during one particularly harsh winter. And he was in middle school when Parker Sr. launched the first Nehemiah home.
A general contractor at the time, Parker Sr. was on his lunch break playing basketball at the local community center with Dr. Timothy Jackson, then the pastor at Greater First Baptist, when the two struck up a conversation with a group of men there with their children.
One of the men confided that he was just out of jail and looking for a job, and was having a hard time reassimilating to society.
Soon after, Parker Sr. acquired a dilapidated property, one with broken windows and holes in the wall, through a tax sale and hired Parker and his friends to help fix it up.
He spent the next few years researching and launching his nonprofit and currently has about 24 units in his housing agency. Several of the dwellings are transitional homes dedicated to offender reentry, while the rest are part of an ongoing 20-unit development, The Cottages on 6th Street. The tiny homes in that development range from 544 to 1,080 square feet and sit on about a 2-acre parcel of land not far from the Boys and Girls Club where A.J. used to play.
Parker said he went to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first building he helped refurbish and was amazed at the transformation.
“It showed me what hard work and dedication and commitment, and staying at something that you truly believe in and keep working at it, what it can do,” Parker said. “So I feel like seeing that end product really motivated me.”
While his focus now is on helping the Lions dig out of their 0-5 start, beginning with today’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Parker said he is motivated to get involved with youth initiatives in Detroit and to have the same sort of impact he saw his father make back home.
“Help my father, that’s the plan,” Parker said. “I just know I want to help him carry on his dream, cause we were talking about bringing Nehemiah here to Detroit.”