It’s a harsh reality that most people who dream of playing in the NFL never see those dreams come true.
That was almost the case with Bernie Parmalee.
After becoming the all-time leading rusher in Ball State history, Parmalee went undrafted in 1991.
He spent that year working two jobs, including unloading UPS trucks.
The following year, Parmalee was granted a request to try out for the Miami Dolphins in their 1992 training camp.
Dolphins standout RB Bernie Parmalee (92-98).Went from 3rd string to starter in 94-95, with 1959 yards & 18 TD .Was an asst. coach 02-04 pic.twitter.com/xQGGZLaktj
— Dolphins History (@DolphinsHistory) March 12, 2017
Against incredible odds, Parmalee made the team and spent nine seasons in the league, playing mostly special teams with the Dolphins and the New York Jets.
Since his retirement in 2002, Parmalee has spent the past two decades as a coach in the college and pro ranks.
This is the incredible story of Bernie Parmalee.
Bernard “Bernie” Parmalee was born on September 16, 1967 in Jersey City, New Jersey.
— Ball State Football (@BallStateFB) September 16, 2018
He loved sports as a kid and gravitated toward football and baseball as a student at Lincoln High School in Jersey City.
While playing for the Lions, Parmalee established himself as a talented receiver and defensive back as a letterman for the football team.
Parmalee also lettered three times for the Lincoln High baseball team.
Despite his obvious speed and elusiveness in the open field, Parmalee was not heavily recruited by colleges.
Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, showed interest and Parmalee accepted a scholarship to play for the Cardinals.
“I had a scholarship left over, and I decided to call my friend back [who told the coach about Parmalee],” coach Paul Schudel said. “I don’t always do that. Sometimes I just keep the extra scholarship to see what else comes up.”
Freshman Record Holder
When he arrived in Indiana, Schudel moved Parmalee to running back, a position the Cardinals desperately needed help.
The 5’11, 200 pound Parmalee started right away as a freshman in 1987 and rushed 215 times for 1,064 yards and eight touchdowns.
He also added 23 receptions for 241 yards and two more scores as the Cardinals went 4-7.
Parmalee’s rushing total led the team, set a Mid-American Conference (MAC) freshman record, and he was named the MAC Freshman of the Year.
His yardage also made Parmalee only the 23rd freshman in Division I history to top 1,000 yards.
In 1988 and 1989, Parmalee’s yardage dipped to 747 yards and five scores as a sophomore and 662 yards and three touchdowns as a junior.
It was during his junior year in ‘89 that Parmalee became Ball State’s all-time leading rusher.
As a senior in 1990, Parmalee busted loose for 1,010 yards (12th in the NCAA) on 240 carries and five scores with another touchdown receiving.
He led the team in rushing again that season and was named first-team All-MAC for the second time.
Parmalee wrapped his college career with 3,483 rushing yards, 26 rushing touchdowns, 96 receptions, 812 receiving yards, and three more scores.
Upon further research Ball State is in Muncie, Indiana. It's most famous alumni include David Letterman and former Dolphin Bernie Parmalee
— Jay Rao (@RaoJay2) January 6, 2014
Additionally, he ran for 100 yards or more 16 times.
For several years, Parmalee’s career rushing total remained the best in Ball State history.
Undrafted and Overlooked
Being the best running back in the MAC was not particularly impressive to coaches and scouts from the NFL.
Parmalee went unselected in the 1991 NFL Draft, though some clubs were interested in having him sign as a free agent.
The Miami Dolphins and New York Giants, specifically, wanted him to attend their training camps.
Oddly, Parmalee’s agent, Jack Mills, asked both teams for $12,000 as a signing bonus, unheard of for an undrafted free agent at the time.
Miami countered with $4,000 and the Giants offered $6,000.
Mills advised Parmalee to sit out the ‘91 season and he complied, not knowing that he was offered money.
When he found out, Parmalee fired Mills and contacted the Dolphins but the organization had already moved on.
With no other options, Parmalee stayed in Indiana with his wife and one year old daughter and barely made ends meet by working for UPS as a driver and truck unloader by day.
I know most will say the popular ones but I loved Bernie Parmalee. Dude went from a UPS driver to playing for his dream team. pic.twitter.com/uw3crBoMU6
— Travis Whiting TheTravesty (@SweetT13) April 14, 2021
At night, he worked as an employee at a bowling alley.
Then, in the spring of 1992, the New England Blitz of the Arena Football League offered Parmalee an opportunity.
Unfortunately, the franchise folded and he was back to square one.
“I was in their camp and everything was going well, but then a week before our first scrimmage, they folded,” he said. “So that was another blow. But the good thing I got out of that was I found out what I really had to do to make it. It exposed me to the pressures of performing each and every day, with the possibility of getting cut. If you look at it that way, you’ve got to give it your all every day.”
Opportunity of a Lifetime
Not wanting to give up on his pro football dreams, Parmalee’s new agent, Cliff Brady, reached out to the Dolphins and begged them for another opportunity.
“I had a lot of phone messages in front of me from other people who wanted a chance,” Miami’s director of player personnel Tom Heckert said.
The team agreed to give Parmalee a tryout.
Before leaving for South Florida, Parmalee knew his best shot in the pros was to play on special teams.
He watched film of a number of NFL special teams standouts, including the Buffalo Bills Steve Tasker, to get tips of the trade.
“I developed Steve’s philosophy on special teams: Making a big special teams play can be just as important as catching a big pass or making a big run in a game,” said Parmalee in 1994. “You’ve just got to love to do it.”
Apparently, Parmalee showed his love for dirty work so well during his tryout that he was signed to a contract and given a $1,000 signing bonus.
Bernie Parmalee https://t.co/FuiJUby0FH
— Situational Lefty (@hawkblimp) August 1, 2023
His NFL dreams had come true.
After signing, Parmalee returned to Muncie and gave both his employers two weeks notice.
“He was so nice to people when he was here, always smiling and getting along with everybody,” said Dave Oswalt, assistant manager at the Muncie Village Bowl. “People couldn’t help but like him, and I’ll tell you one reason why. Right after getting signed by the Dolphins and finding out he would be catching Dan Marino’s passes, he came back to work here for minimum wage. Can you believe that? He actually gave two weeks’ notice.”
No Rest for the Weary
“Everybody is motivated by something different,” said Jerald Ingram, Parmalee’s college running backs coach. “Bernie wants it so badly- for his family, his kids. He knew what pressure was before he ever got to Sundays. I told his wife: `As long as Bernie has a chance, don’t worry about Bernie. Get worried only if his will dies. And you know that’ll never happen.’”
Ingram’s words were spot on as Parmalee took advantage of his opportunity.
For the next two seasons, he rarely touched the ball as a running back, but he contributed in almost every aspect of special teams.
“He was a hard-nosed special-teams player,” Dolphins coach Don Shula said in 1994. “When you get a guy who makes plays on the special teams and he’s a hard worker, sooner or later he’s gonna start playing somewhere. Because the thing that makes a good special-teams player is also gonna make a good football player.”
Parmalee finally got the chance to be a good, every down, football player in 1994.
Week 17 great performances: December 25, 1994 RB Bernie Parmalee runs for 3 touchdowns as Dolphins beat Lions 27-20 & secure AFC East title. pic.twitter.com/sCPAKDEXMb
— Dolphins History (@DolphinsHistory) December 28, 2022
Despite a Miami roster that included more experienced athletes, Parmalee started 10 games at running back and was also named special teams captain by Shula.
Surprisingly, he led the team with 868 rushing yards (eighth in the AFC) and six touchdowns and added 249 receiving yards and another score.
During a Week 7 victory against the Los Angeles Raiders, Parmalee ran for 150 yards and recovered a fumble on special teams.
Week 7 great performances: October 16,1994 RB Bernie Parmalee rushes 150 yards on 30 carries in 20-17 OT win over Raiders. pic.twitter.com/6ylpjrweZg
— Dolphins History (@DolphinsHistory) October 19, 2018
For his effort that day, Shula gave two game balls to Parmalee (a first for the coach) for his offensive and special teams play.
“Bernie’s a throwback player,” fullback Keith Byars said. “He should have been playing in the 40’s, when they went both ways.”
The following week, Parmalee rumbled for 123 yards against the Patriots, setting a Miami record for combined rushing yards in consecutive games.
Parmalee Leads Miami Again in 1995
At the end of the Dolphins’ 10-6 season in 1994, the team advanced to the Divisional round before losing.
Parmalee was a household name by then, especially given his backstory and success in ‘94.
However, he didn’t let that go to his head.
“Things have changed a little, but I’m not taking anything for granted,” said Parmalee. “Coming from where I have, I don’t think I ever will.”
In 1995, Parmalee once again led Miami with career-highs in starts (12), rushing yards (878), rushing touchdowns (9), receptions (39), and receiving yards (345).
Random Football Card of the Day:
— Michael T. Adams (@michael_t_adams) April 14, 2022
He also had a touchdown as a receiver.
The Dolphins went 9-7 and lost to Buffalo in the Wild Card round.
Parmalee Leaves for New York
After the 1995 season, Shula retired after over 30 years as a head coach.
Former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson took his place and Parmalee returned to work primarily on special teams.
Over the next three years, he ran for a combined 159 yards, but he did get plenty of touches as a receiver.
Between 1996 and 1998, Parmalee had 70 receptions for 711 yards and one score.
— Steven Burkett (@Steve_Burkett) August 7, 2023
When the ‘98 season concluded, the Dolphins released Parmalee.
“I’m never bitter,” Parmalee said. “I don’t hold any grudges. I just move on. That’s life; everything’s not going to work out the way you want it all the time, so you just have to move on.”
Only days later, New York Jets coach Bill Parcells added him to the roster at the urging of linebacker Bryan Cox.
“Yesterday, I called Bryan up and told him, ‘Quit bugging me, I got the player,'” Parcells said.
Parmalee was ecstatic at the idea of heading to New York and playing near his family in New Jersey.
“It’s great,” said Parmalee, who is from New Jersey, as is Parcells. “I’ve got an opportunity to play for one of the greatest coaches that ever coached. When my career is done, I can say I had the opportunity to play for the Big Tuna. It’s good to know that.”
One Last Hurrah
As the Jets went 8-8 during Parcells’ last year in New York, Parmalee collected 133 yards on 27 carries and 113 yards on 15 receptions.
In 2000, under new head coach Al Groh, he played a big role in a Week 12 game against his former Dolphins team in Miami.
New York’s starting running back, Curtis Martin, sustained a back injury in the second half of a tight contest and Parmalee took his place.
November 19th, 2000: @nyjets 20 @MiamiDolphins 3. Jets move to 7-4 at Pro Player Stadium and move winning streak over Miami to 6 games. Former Dolphin Bernie Parmalee rushes for 2 TDs on 57 yards. Richie Anderson finishes with 5 rec/53 yards. #TakeFlight pic.twitter.com/D6y8bKrx0T
— Timeless Jets (@TimelessJets) November 19, 2019
The result was a two-touchdown performance (his first rushing scores since 1995) in a much needed 20-3 victory.
“That’s what they pay me for,” said Parmalee. “When (Martin) went down, I was the next guy in line, and I didn’t want to let the team down.”
After the 9-7 season, the Jets released Parmalee and the running back retired.
In his career, Parmalee had totals of 2,179 rushing yards, 17 rushing touchdowns, 168 receptions, 1,485 receiving yards, three receiving touchdowns, and 122 tackles on special teams.
Second Act as a Coach
Parmalee wasn’t retired for long when he returned to the NFL as a coach.
His first job with a whistle was with the Dolphins in 2002 before stints with Notre Dame, Kansas City, Oakland, Atlanta, and most recently with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Parmalee’s responsibilities as a coach have varied from working with running backs, tight ends, and special teams.
He is currently beginning his third season as the running backs coach for Jacksonville.
— J.P. Shadrick (@jpshadrick) July 31, 2023
Parmalee and his wife, Angela, have three children, Tré, Nakia Marie and Torian.