Parker, James Thomas (“Jim”)
Parker, James Thomas (“Jim”)
(b. 3 April 1934 in Macon, Georgia; d. 18 July 2005 in Columbia, Maryland), professional football player who was the prototype of the modern offensive lineman; big, fast, and aggressive, Parker was All-Pro at both tackle and guard and became the first exclusively offensive lineman to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1973.
Parker spent his childhood working on his parents’ Georgia farm, helping to pick cotton and harvest peaches. At age thirteen he weighed only 105 pounds, and even though he gained weight during high school, his coach did not think he was talented enough to play. He had grown up close to his cousins the Lewises, and when they moved to Toledo, Ohio, they took him along for his senior year. At Scott High School, the football coach Artie Brighten saw Parker, who was then six feet, three inches tall and weighed 205 pounds, in the halls and urged him to try out. Parker played on both the offensive and defensive lines and was named to the All-City team. He later credited Brighten with setting his life on the course that would lead to athletic success.
Parker’s play had not excited the interest of college coaches except for Ohio State University’s Woody Hayes, who surprised Parker by offering him a scholarship after his high school graduation. Few African Americans were living on the university’s campus in 1953, so Hayes gave Parker a room in his home. Parker was a voracious eater who continued to gain weight, eventually reaching 250 pounds while in college. A standout as a defensive lineman, he helped Ohio State win a national championship in 1954, with the Buckeyes holding opponents to an average of 7.5 points that year. Hayes then moved Parker to the offensive line, where he began to transform the way offensive linemen played by displaying remarkable quickness. In 1956 he received the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation’s best college lineman.
In 1957 Parker was selected eighth in the first round of the National Football League draft by the Baltimore Colts, as the head coach Weeb Ewbank was looking for an offensive lineman who could protect the star quarterback Johnny Unitas’s left side. Thus, Ewbank made Parker the left offensive tackle. Eventually, Parker surpassed 275 pounds, making him an especially large lineman for his era, presaging the big yet agile linemen who would come to be preferred in modern football. Ewbank was a stickler for good technique, as had been Hayes, and with their help Parker learned to better obstruct opposing defensive ends, who tended to be quick footed. Although Parker found keeping up with such men to be a challenge, he succeeded by virtue of his mastery of footwork and blocking technique.
Indeed, Parker’s approach to playing on the offensive line was similar to the way defensive linemen played. Instead of deflecting defenders to one side or the other to make space for a running back to break through, he attacked his opposition, charging forward and knocking opponents backward perhaps several feet; he then continued to charge forward, looking for more opponents to overrun. Parker established himself as the game’s premier offensive lineman during the 1958 playoffs. First, the Colts rallied from a 27–7 halftime deficit to defeat the San Francisco 49ers 35–27, with Parker’s explosive blocking and Unitas’s passing wearing out the 49ers’ defense. Parker’s blocking was then crucial in an overtime championship victory against the New York Giants, as he both protected Unitas, whose passing led to two late scores, and opened holes for the running backs, who flanked his right hip and followed him through the line.
In the middle of the 1962 season Parker was moved to offensive left guard, and although he professed to prefer playing tackle, he later recalled the pleasure of blasting through to the defenders’ backfield and running over defensive backs. In fact, Parker found left guard to be more wearing on his legs than had been left tackle, and he was obliged to learn a new set of techniques for the new position. On the other hand, the opposing defensive tackles proved larger and slower than the defensive ends he had previously faced, making them easy targets for his aggressive style of play. Once again, instead of waiting for and simply obstructing the opposing defensive linemen, as offensive guards often did, Parker hammered chest to chest into them, driving them backward and off balance.
The left side of the offensive line was especially crucial for the Colts because Unitas was a right-handed thrower, making his left side his blind side; during Parker’s first professional training camp, Ewbank and teammates told him that he would become the team’s most unpopular player if he ever allowed Unitas to be injured. Parker understood that if he broke his own arm, he could still soon return to play, whereas if Unitas broke an arm, the entire team would long suffer. Thus, Parker made a point of ever placing himself in harm’s way to ensure that Unitas was untouched. He did so with such skill that he was named to the Western Conference Pro Bowl team eight years in a row, beginning with his second season and ending when arthritis began to limit his movement.
From 1957 to 1966 Parker did not miss a game. Then, in 1967 his knees were injured, and by midseason he was not playing in accord with the high standards he set for himself. Even though the Colts were undefeated at the time, Parker retired, saying that he believed he would hurt his team’s chances if he continued to play. Don Shula, who was then the Colts head coach, said Parker’s retirement was “maybe the most unselfish act in sports history.” In 1973, in his first year of eligibility, Parker became the first full-time offensive lineman enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1974 Parker opened a packaged-goods store at the corner of Garrison Boulevard and Liberty Heights Avenue in Baltimore. That part of the city was crime ridden, and Parker occasionally left his store to catch a mugger or thief. He was a true pillar of the community, widely noted for his honesty, compassion, and friendliness. In 1999 he suffered a stroke, leaving him so disabled as to be forced to sell his store, and in the last years of his life he was troubled by heart and kidney disease. In 2005 he died of congestive heart failure at the Lorien Nursing Home in Columbia, Maryland. He was survived by his wife, Esther (Hester) Parker, and thirteen children and is interred in King Memorial Park, in Baltimore.
Many football historians rank Parker as both the best offensive tackle and the best offensive guard in history, as he set the precedent for the play of modern offensive linemen. Those who played with and against him remember that he was not only a diligent worker but also a selfless player and a compassionate man who was kind and open-hearted toward others and ever ready to help on and off the field.
A chapter devoted to Parker’s remarkable effect on his team’s performance is in Vince Bagli and Norman L. Macht, Sundays at 2:00 with the Baltimore Colts (1995). For perspective on how Parker helped shape modern football, see George Herbert Allen and Ben Olan, Pro Football’s One Hundred Greatest Players (1982); and Ron Smith, The Sporting News Selects Football’s 100 Greatest Players: A Celebration of the 20th Century’s Best (1999). An obituary is in the Baltimore Sun (19 July 2005).
Kirk H. Beetz