by Jessica Miller
“We didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t have cameras in the living rooms. We didn’t have Twitter or any other social media. What I did have was me and a buddy from college playing video games in my parents’ home in Nebraska, while my father, who was a Chief of Military Police, answered the land line phone with a sharp, ‘What team is this?!?’”
Athletic Director Ryan Miller and CLHSA Director of Communications Jessica Miller recently spoke with Coach Parrella, who joined the Lutheran West staff as Head Football Coach and Director of Community Outreach earlier this school year. As the eyes of our football-loving nation have been fixed upon Cleveland during the past several days, Coach Parrella recalls his own draft experience and reflects upon how much has changed since then – in his own life, in the game of football, and in our society and culture.
Parrella, who came out of Grand Island Central Catholic High School and subsequently the University of Nebraska, was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1993 NFL Draft as the 55th pick overall. He says that in the midst of the excitement of being “promoted” to the next and highest level of the sport he loves, it was difficult to leave the amateur days behind. Parrella, who was already married to wife Leigh in his senior year at Nebraska, recalls that “going to that professional level felt so different – suddenly I was playing football as a career, as a means to put food on the table and roof over our heads.” At the same time, though, he was amazed at the blessing he had been given – he says, “I couldn’t believe they wanted to pay me to play football. I probably would’ve played for free.”
On the day of the draft in 1993, Parrella returned from college with a friend to spend the day at his parents’ home in Grand Island, NE. He recalls that in contrast to the wealth of information available at everyone's’ fingertips now, he had very little insight as to when and where he would be drafted. Aside from a few teams that had expressed interest, primarily the Cincinnati Bengals, he and his family were uncertain about what the outcome of the draft might be. “The Bengals had told me,” Parella recalls, “that if I was still there in the 3rd round, they’d take me.”
When the call did come, however, it was too early in the draft for the Bengals to have their shot – Parrella was drafted in the 2nd round to the Buffalo Bills.
He recalls that the first year in the NFL is the hardest – not only for him, but for most players. “Guys are coming out of a situation in which they’re the superstar on their team and in their league...they’re showered with attention and praise through the draft process, but they don’t realize that the hardest work of their life is just beginning. They’re about to jump into a team and a league of the very best of the best – all guys just as good or better than themselves.”
Parrella describes that at the professional level, it takes true dedication – even obsession – with working one’s hardest and doing everything possible to gain an edge. If there is one thing Parrella is not, it’s lazy. He has the ideal combination of infallible work ethic and the humility necessary to know that he must put in the work in order to remain on top.
Like many players, and like many young adults who are entering the “real world” for the first time in their lives, Parrella learned this lesson the hard way. After his first year in the NFL with the Bills, he was released – “I was running too hard, not taking it as seriously as I should have, and it showed. I quickly realized that if I was going to make it, I had to treat it as what it was – a job. Nothing is going to be handed to you and there’s always going to be someone younger, faster, or stronger ready to take your place. I was fortunate enough to learn that early in life and be able to change my approach.”
Parrella says at this point in his young career, he began taking workouts more seriously than ever before. He started paying close attention to his nutrition. He once again started going to church on a regular basis. And then came the next blessing: the San Diego Chargers took notice. The coaching staff knew Parrella from Nebraska, and soon he was on the roster in California. He played from 1994-2001 with the Chargers.
In recalling the intensity of his dedication to extending the longevity of his professional football career, Parrella anecdotally shares the story of a family vacation to Hawaii in the late 1990s. The Parrellas, who by then had 4 children, travelled to Hawaii with a few other NFL families. The wives, who planned the trip, planned for everyone to stay together at the Ritz Carlton. When Parrella looked into the somewhat small, inadequate onsite workout center at the Ritz, he quickly decided that his family would stay at a different hotel down the road that happened to be directly across from a large, well-equipped gym. Parrella ensured that he’d get his workouts in before taking the rest of the day to join their family friends poolside at the Ritz. He says, “At the time, I was 300 pounds, could run a 4.86 40-yard dash, and could bench 500 pounds. That ‘fitness center’ at the Ritz wasn’t going to cut it.’”
Parrella feels blessed to have had the opportunity to pursue the sport he loves at the highest level. He knows that while God gave him abilities, it was completely up to him to make the most of those abilities – and he hopes to convey that sentiment to Lutheran West’s football players. No matter whether in athletics or in any other capacity in one’s life, we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to our Lord to make every effort to make the most of the gifts and abilities He has given each of us.
Parrella’s hope for Lutheran West student-athletes, and all young people – especially those young men who were just drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft to begin their professional football careers – is that they come to the realization early in their lives that remaining at the top of their game is possible, as long as they’re willing to put in the hard work. He says that staying hungry for self-improvement is the key to longevity and success in any of life’s pursuits: “The young guys in the draft may not realize that every team is going to try to out-draft themselves next year, and the year after that, and so on. The teams are always going to be on the lookout to replace players on their rosters with the newest best of the best. To stay in the game, they’re going to have to work harder than they ever have before – and then work harder.”
Parrella says, “Getting drafted is a goal for many players – it may seem like a finish line. But it’s not; it’s just the beginning. You’re either going to face adversity and run, or you’re going to face adversity and rise.”