The last time Parker Houston walked into Mackay Stadium it was personal.
But when he does so again Saturday it will feel different. It will feel like a celebration.
The Reed High alum and San Diego State tight end will play in his hometown for the final time Saturday when the Aztecs take on Nevada at Mackay Stadium, the place he grew up watching games.
It wasn’t, however, Houston’s destiny to call Mackay Stadium home. Despite a standout career at Reed – Houston caught 82 balls for 902 yards and 16 touchdowns as a Raider – the Wolf Pack did not deem Houston worthy of a scholarship. Nevada was run at the time by head coach Brian Polian, who was publicly complimentary of Houston but did not feel he had the physical profile to play for the Wolf Pack.
“Coach Polian told me I was too short to play tight end for them,” the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Houston said. “It’s something in the back of my head and it’s kind of driven me to become bigger and stronger to offset that.”
Houston did fit the profile of four colleges that offered him scholarships in SDSU (ex-Nevada head coach Jeff Horton was on the Aztecs staff), Louisville (ex-Nevada coordinator Chris Klenakis was on the Cardinals staff), Toledo (Reed High alum Derek Sage was on the Rockets staff) and Idaho. But the Wolf Pack didn’t have the same belief in Houston as those other schools, which rubbed him raw for his 2016 game at Mackay Stadium.
Jovial by nature, Houston took that anger out on Nevada two seasons ago, laying out Wolf Pack linebacker Alex Bertrando on a bone-crushing hit to spring a 17-yard scoring pass to David Wells in the Aztecs’ 46-16 romp. In SDSU’s 2017 game against Nevada, Houston caught two passes (and was flagged for taunting) in a 42-23 win.
The anger of not being recruited by Nevada has subsided. For starters, the Wolf Pack coaching staff that overlooked him was fired after the 2016 season. Houston also said being offered by SDSU was a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to grow away from home, join an elite program, help Donnel Pumphrey become the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher and win a Mountain West championship as a freshman.
“Having an offer was just a blessing in itself, let alone having it from the best team in the Mountain West Conference,” Houston said. “Some guys have to go to (junior college), some guys have to walk-on. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship offer. But the coaches at Nevada got to see me play in person, they watched me for several years. It was kind of a bummer not to get an offer, but it’s something I take on the field and let it fuel me. Not necessarily in a revenge state, but it’s just something I have in the back of my mind.”
The feeling as Houston returns to Northern Nevada this time around is one of appreciation he’ll get to play in front of friends and family. He expects a couple hundred supporters in attendance. Houston’s parents, both sets of grandparents and all of his aunts and uncles live in town. One uncle, Jason, volunteers on the Wolf Pack stat crew and will be in the press box for his nephew’s homecoming.
“To be able to come home and play in front of my friends and family, it’s always been circled on my calendar,” Houston said. “Last time I was there, I remember being able to play on the field that I watched from the stands for so long and play in front of all of my friends and family and play at a high level. It was something special for me.
"I went to quite a few games there. I loved watching (Colin) Kaepernick play. It was just something we did as a family. We all went out to games, we tailgated, we had fun, we hung out with friends every game. The one thing I really remember is the Boise State game. I was there when UNR upset Boise State (in 2010), and that’s something I’ll always remember.”
Houston said he’s fortunate he didn't have to procure too many tickets for friends and family this week. Many of them remain Wolf Pack season-ticket holders and some of his fellow Reed grads are students at the school. As such, they can get into the game for free. Houston expects a nice chunk of SDSU supporters.
“I’m assuming there will be some red and block in the student section,” Houston said.
While primarily a blocking tight end, Houston did reel in the 29-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 6 minutes, 10 seconds left in SDSU’s 21-17 win over Air Force earlier this month. Houston has set career highs in catches (eighth), yards (109) and touchdowns (two) while starting all seven games during his junior season.
Houston is one of five SDSU players to start every game on offense for the Aztecs. He’s joined on that list by offensive tackle Tyler Roemer, a preseason All-MW pick and Fernley native who also got away from the Wolf Pack.
“The kid’s a stud,” Houston said Roemer.
While he hasn’t been a featured offensive player for SDSU – the Aztecs throw the ball only 30 percent of the time – Houston said he enjoys his role, paving the way for SDSU’s backs and helping in pass protection. The Aztecs pride themselves on being the MW’s most physical team, with Houston and Roemer being important cogs in making that goal a reality
“If we’re winning and I’m not getting the ball, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Houston said. “Coach Horton is a great offensive coordinator. He knows where each player specifically fits in his offense. When he recruited me, he had in mind a tough, physical guy who can go do the dirty work. I’ve accepted that role and I’ve made it a part of who I am, and it’s what I go focus my game on.”
Houston has two more games left against Nevada – the Aztecs host the Wolf Pack in 2019, his senior season – but Saturday marks the last time the Sparks native will play in Reno. Houston said he doesn’t know if he would have picked the Wolf Pack over SDSU if Nevada did offer him a scholarship, a decision he never had to make. But he's 100 percent certain he wants to walk out of Mackay on Saturday with a second win in the stadium he once wanted to call home.
“It would mean a lot to me,” Houston said of beating Nevada. “Last time it was a personal game for me because the coaching staff that was there. Now, it’s a game where I can come home and play in front of friends and family and I get to see people I don’t get to see a lot and I get to play in my hometown. It's going to be fun.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.