Parker, James Thomas ("Jim")

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PARKER, James Thomas ("Jim")

(b. 3 April 1934 in Macon, Georgia), football player who was the prototype of the modern offensive lineman and who was All-Pro at both offensive tackle and offensive guard, becoming the first exclusively offensive lineman to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1973).

Parker was a good high school football player, but he was not regarded as a great one. He played for three years in Macon, but played his senior year at Scott High School in Toledo, Ohio. The move was fortuitous, because in Ohio he caught the eye of Woody Hayes, the fabled coach for Ohio State University. Parker remembered being very surprised when he was offered a scholarship to attend Ohio State in Columbus. Hayes saw something special in Parker and made a point of helping the young man. During Parker's freshman year, he lived in Hayes's home.

In college Parker played on both the offensive line and the defensive line. He came to national attention in 1955, when his ferocious blocking opened big lanes for his team's running backs in a 17–0 victory over the heavily favored University of Michigan. Already 250 pounds, Parker added speed and high intelligence to his play, overwhelming the defensive linemen who faced him. In 1956 journalists paid attention to him, and he became an All-American at offensive guard. That year he won the Outland Trophy, an award given to the nation's outstanding college football lineman.

In 1957 he was drafted in the first round, the eighth pick overall, by the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League (NFL). Hayes told the Colts that he thought Parker was stronger on defense than offense, but the Colts' head coach Weeb Ewbank put Parker in as offensive tackle from the start. At 275 pounds and six feet, three inches tall, Parker was a big lineman for his era, presaging the big, agile linemen who came to be preferred in modern football. In his first exhibition game, playing against the Chicago Bears, he faced the veteran Doug Atkins, who at 275 pounds and six feet, eight inches tall was every bit as intimidating as Parker. Atkins swatted Parker around that day, beginning a hard-fought rivalry that lasted for the next eleven seasons. For Parker, that first exhibition game was a lesson in the standard he had to meet in order to succeed in the NFL.

During the regular season, placing Parker at left offensive tackle began paying off for the Colts right away. The position was crucial for the Colts, to protect their great right-handed quarterback, Johnny Unitas. For a right-handed passer, the area to his left is a blind spot, which means a defender can approach him from the left side, hitting him while he is entirely unaware of what is happening. Parker was told that a sure way to have everyone in his clubhouse hate him was to let a defender hit Unitas from that blind side. It was a sign of Ewbank's confidence in him that Parker was stationed at left tackle.

Both Hayes and Ewbank were sticklers for good technique, and with their help Parker mastered the footwork required to move in front of opposing defensive ends. The defensive ends tended to be smaller than Parker, as did most players, but they were quick footed; as a big man, Parker found it challenging to keep up with such men, but he did because of his mastery of footwork and blocking technique. Parker's skills began to reshape coaches' ideas of the sort of athlete best suited to being an offensive line-man. Parker was a big slab of determined muscle, quickly meeting the moves of pass rushers. Even more innovatively, he was aggressive; sometimes he did not just get in the way of rushers, he knocked them down.

It is no wonder Hayes thought Parker might fit into the NFL as a defensive lineman; by the techniques of the day, he played offense as if he were on defense when running plays were called. Blockers in the 1950s typically were expected to shove opposing linemen to one side or the other, depending on where the runner was supposed to go, but Parker charged his opponents, often blasting them back several feet and taking out a linebacker or two for good measure. When in 1958 the Colts came back from a 27–7 halftime deficit to defeat the San Francisco 49ers, 35–27, Parker's explosive blocking, as well as Unitas's passing, helped to wear out San Francisco's defense and open the way for victory. Veterans of that Colts team insisted that the game against the 49ers was greater than the championship game they then played at Yankee Stadium against the New York Giants, even though the later game has been called the greatest game in professional football history. In that game Parker shone, first protecting Unitas as the quarterback passed for two late scores, and then opening holes for the running backs who finished off the Giants in the NFL's first overtime game, 23–17.

Parker was an All-Pro tackle, playing in the Pro Bowl from 1958 to 1961. In the middle of the 1962 season, he was switched from left offensive tackle to left offensive guard. He liked that position, although it wore out his legs because of all the pulling off the line. The defensive tackles he faced were bigger and slower than defensive ends, making them good targets for his aggressive style of play. Alertness and quickness were essential at offensive guard, and Parker had both. Instead of waiting for the defensive tackle to make his move, Parker would hammer chest-to-chest into him, driving him backward and off balance. From 1962 to 1965 Parker was an All-Pro guard, playing in the Pro Bowl. From 1957 to 1966 he did not miss a game. Then in 1967 he was injured, and by midseason he was not playing up to his own standards. Even though the Colts were undefeated at the time, Parker retired in December 1967, saying he believed he would hurt his team's chances if he continued to play.

In 1973, in his first year of eligibility, "Big Jim" Parker became the first full-time offensive lineman to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was praised at the time as a selfless player and a compassionate man, and he is remembered for his legacy, having set the pattern for numerous offensive tackles and guards to follow.

It is hard to find good studies of Parker's football career, but one good place to start is Vince Bagli and Norman L. Macht, Sundays at 2:00 with the Baltimore Colts (1995); they devote a chapter to Parker's remarkable effect on his team's performance. George Allen with Ben Olan, Pro Football's 100 Greatest Players: Rating the Stars of Past and Present (1982), and Ron Smith, The Sporting News Selects Football's 100 Greatest Players: A Celebration of the Twentieth Century's Best, ed. Carl Moritz and John Rawlings (1999), offer perspectives on how Parker helped to shape modern football.

Kirk H. Beetzm

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Parker, James Thomas ("Jim")

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