KJ Parker opted to take the modest route when his IC Catholic Prep coach’s effusive praise was relayed to him.
Elite receivers are made, not born.
Parker is that. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior is among the handful of top wide receivers in the state, holding scholarship offers from Iowa, Wisconsin and Iowa State. There might not be another player like him with the ball in all of Class 3A. Of the 33 passes he’s caught from fellow junior Dennis Mandala this season, 15 have gone for touchdowns. All eyes will be on Parker this Friday in Champaign, when the Knights play Williamsville for the Class 3A title.
When asked about Parker this week, IC Catholic coach Bill Krefft checked off his ability to create separation, his ball skills, his ability to high point the ball, and said Parker is probably “faster than we think.” But one phrase stood out.
“He has the best hands I have ever seen,” Krefft said.
Parker, for his part, evaluates that his hands have gone from “decent” last season to “great” this year. It’s not by accident. He worked on tracking balls all offseason, to perfect his craft at every turn. Parker worked with tennis balls to sharpen his hand-eye coordination. He would squeeze a bucket of rice to strengthen his hands, a trick Parker learned watching an Odell Beckham Jr. YouTube video.
“When you squeeze a bucket of rice you’re training your forearms to squeeze, building forearm strength,” Parker said. “That helps with receiving, and it helps with blocking. With strong forearms you are able to control the player you are blocking, or the ball in your hands.”
Parker could make his own YouTube videos with his highlights just from this season.
There are the three touchdowns he had in the first half against then-unbeaten Wheaton Academy. Or the TDs of 65 and 84 yards he had against Montini. Parker offers the 221 yards of receiving he had in the Knights’ only loss, by one point to Joliet Catholic Week 2.
“Sometimes I surprise myself when I’m able to do something like that,” he said. “That was a tough loss but at the same time a good one to remember. It definitely showed who IC is. We are looked at by some people as the underdogs, a smaller school, 3A. That game was definitely a statement game.”
Parker has talent that could play at any classification, and he almost did play up.
A Bellwood resident, his initial choice was to attend Mount Carmel. He took two months of summer school before freshman year at Mount Carmel, but his mother was concerned about the distance. He gave IC Catholic a chance, and never looked back.
“The type of brotherhood we have here is so special and so amazing,” Parker said. “Yes, it’s a small school, but that’s what’s good about it. Everybody knows everybody. You get extra help when you need it. And even being a small school, we’re able to dominate big schools. We don’t back down from anybody, 1A to 8A we love to compete.”
Parker at IC Catholic found a perfect partner in Mandala.
The two All-Staters actually played for rival teams in Pee Wee football, yet always held a strong bond. When they came to the same school, they clicked. Both Mandala and Parker were starters on IC Catholic Prep’s varsity from day one as freshman.
This season, Mandala has thrown for 2,451 yards and 33 TDs with just four interceptions. Parker has caught 33 balls, 15 for TDs, for 996 yards, a downright ridiculous 30.2 yards per catch.
“Since the beginning, our connection has been so special and we have bonded to another level,” Parker said. “Dennis is truly great at what he does. He is amazing when it comes to reading the defenses and making the play calls.”
Krefft said he has a group of guys that are just special football players, with their ability to do so many things. And Parker fits right in that list.
“One of the biggest things about KJ is his ability to do everything,” Krefft said. “He can play free safety, cornerback, punt return, kick return, inside receiver, outside receiver. That is why he is so special. He is a matchup problem, wherever he is on the field.”
IC Catholic as a program is no stranger to the state championships. Krefft’s Knights won three straight titles from 2016-2018.
But none of these current players were a part of that. This will be Parker’s first time at state, and he burns to add his own chapter to the IC Catholic championship legacy.
“Everybody has the mindset that the job is not finished,” Parker said. “We are happy to be here, but we have to remain focused on the main goal. We need to execute and produce like we have all season.”