Professional football player
Jim Parker of the Baltimore Colts was among the first offensive linemen to become a professional football star, and his ability was a key factor in making Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas into a legend of the game. Until Parker came along in the late 1950s, guards and tackles were anonymous obstacles, but he attracted the attention of television commentators with his combination of power and technique. He played both guard and tackle over his 11-year career with the Colts, and his explanation of the differences between the two positions showed something of his intellectual as well as his physical dedication to the game. "Guard was fun…," he told Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated. " But left tackle was my home, the only job in 60 years that I really mastered. It broke up my marriage. Instead of spending time with my family, I was putting time in down in the basement, looking at films of defensive ends."
Born April 3, 1934, in Macon, Georgia, James Parker grew up on a farm, picking peaches and cotton. He took up football at age 13 but did not seem to be a promising candidate—he weighed only 105 pounds. "I got the living hell beat out of me the first day of practice," he was quoted as saying in the Baltimore Sun. "So my daddy bought a case of oatmeal and a case of grits and had me eat it three times a day." The family moved north to Toledo, Ohio, during Parker's teenage years. And by the time Parker was a senior in high school he had added a hundred pounds on his way to an eventual playing weight of 275 pounds. He had also won a football scholarship to Ohio State University, which had one of the most feared college football programs of the day: that of Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes.
Few African-American students attended Ohio State University at the time, and Parker ended up living in Hayes's home for a while. The coach was an important mentor for Parker, for Ohio State's yardage-crunching, three-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust offense taught Parker the importance of power and speed at close quarters. Another mentor was Ohio State defensive tackle Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, who gave Parker his legendary emphasis on knowing his opposition. "In the off-season he'd be at my house every morning at 5:30…," Parker recalled to Zimmerman. "He'd pull out this big sheet and say, ‘O.K., here are the defensive ends you're going to be playing against in this league.’ He taught me which ones go inside, which go outside, which ones like to take that half a step cheat-step to the right; he taught me about the speed rushers and bull rushers, how to set up and keep my back straight against the guys who try to bowl you over." To build strength for his football game, Parker also wrestled for Ohio State.
A two-time All-American at Ohio State, Parker was part of the team that won the 1954 Rose Bowl. Graduating with a degree in physical education, Parker was the first player drafted by the Colts in 1957. General manager Don Kellett bamboozled the young player by offering him a two-year contract for $12,500 a year and a $1,500 signing bonus—stacked on Kellett's desk in one-dollar bills. "My wife pinched the hell out of my leg. It still hurts. ‘Sign it,’ she said. So I signed," Parker told Zimmerman. "When we got back to the hotel room I put all those one-dollar bills in the bathtub. ‘Let's take a bath in money,’ I said. Hell, that wasn't any damn money…."
The 275-pound Parker was the biggest player ever drafted by the Colts up to that time. "He blocked out the sun," former Colts executive Ernie Accorsi told the Sun's Mike Klingaman. Parker played left tackle for five years, alternated between tackle and guard in his sixth, and then moved to left guard for three years, playing various positions in his 11th and final year. The Colts' coach's instructions to the new tackle were simple but effective. "'It didn't take me long to learn the one big rule. Just keep them away from John [Unitas]" Parker was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "I remember Coach Weeb Ewbank telling me my first summer in camp, ‘You can be the most unpopular man on the team if the quarterback gets hurt.’ How could I ever forget that?"
Parker's intensity showed in the research he devoted to the defensive linemen he faced and also in his single-minded ferocity in the locker room before the game—he would charge around, sometimes bumping into other players without even realizing it. All his work paid off in his second season, when the Colts won the National Football League (NFL) title in 1958 in a sudden-death ending to the championship game against the New York Giants. A key factor in the win was Parker's brilliant performance against Giants Hall of Fame defensive end Andy Robustelli, who was quoted as saying in the Times that "I used to think there wasn't a big tackle I could outmaneuver, but Parker could move with me. He was just too strong and too good and too smart."
The Colts repeated as NFL champions in 1959, with Parker's No. 77 jersey consistently in the thick of the action. Through the early and middle 1960s Unitas remained one of the major stars of the game, but the talents of the player who cleared the way for him were recognized increasingly often, and Parker was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, 1973. Toward the end of his career, Parker helped train another great of the Baltimore Colts line, defensive end Bubba Smith. "I thought I was quick," Smith was quoted as saying in the Times, "but that old man put me down bing-bing-bing."
Parker, suffering from knee problems, retired near the end of the 1967 season. He wasn't incapacitated, and many players would have stayed on the field to squeeze out a few more years of pro salary. But Parker felt that he could no longer perform up to par. His retirement, Colts coach Don Shula was quoted as saying by Klingaman, was "maybe the most unselfish act in sports history."
Parker married three times and fathered a total of 13 children (five sons and eight daughters); at his death he had 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. In his later years he lived in suburban Columbia, Maryland, but owned and operated a liquor store in the troubled Liberty-Garrison neighborhood of northwest Baltimore. Sometimes he would be seen emerging from the store to chase down a mugger or purse-snatcher. Parker suffered a stroke in 1999 but worked his way back into good condition through a combination of rehabilitation and daily gym workouts. He died of chronic kidney disease and congestive heart failure in Columbia on July 18, 2005.
At a Glance …
Born on April 3, 1934, in Macon, GA; died on July 18, 2005, in Columbia, MD. married Esther Hester (third marriage); children: Jimi, David, Pam, Sheri, Diane, Brian, Ernest, Tina, Miasha, Anwar, Christian, Candace, Deborah. Education: Graduated from high school in Toledo, OH; Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, BS, physical education, 1957.
Career: Baltimore Colts, professional football team, left tackle, 1957-62; left tackle and left guard, 1963; left guard, 1964-66; various positions, 1967; owner-operator of liquor store in northwest Baltimore, 1964-99.
Awards: Pro Football Hall of Fame, inductee, 1973; Outland Award, for best college lineman, 1954.
Baltimore Sun, November 23, 1999; July 19, 2005.
New York Times, July 21, 2005, p. A26.
Sports Illustrated, September 5, 1994, p. 66; August 1, 2005, p. 22.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), July 19, 2005, p. 50.
"All-Pro Colt Jim Parker Dies," Black Press USA, http://www.blackpressusa.com/news/Article.asp?SID=4&Title=Departments&NewsID=4504 (November 13, 2007).
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