Legend Jackie Parker dies
Jackie Parker remembered as ‘greatest leader there's ever been in the CFL’
A GREAT STORY
The magic Jackie Parker brought to Edmonton and turned into legend came to a rest early this morning.
Voted the Canadian Football League's greatest player of the 1950-to-1975 era — regarded by many as the greatest of all time — Parker died today at the age of 74.
“The city has lost a great citizen,? Hugh Campbell, the Eskimos’ retiring CEO, said in a prepared statement. “The Eskimo family mourns the loss of Jack and our thoughts are with Jack’s immediate family.?
During his playing career, Parker played running back, quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back. If that wasn't enough, he also punted and kicked converts and field goals.
"If you put him at guard he would have been great," Frankie Morris, former Eskimo guard and then director of player personnel, once said.
No doubt it would have been true. The man was an orchestra, playing strings, woodwinds and percussion. Moreover, he was also the conductor.
"He was the greatest leader there's ever been in the CFL," said Morris. "It was an amazing feeling. We would go into the dressing room at halftime, down 14 points, with no question that we were going to win. In the other dressing room they were just wondering when he was going to do it."
Bob Dean thought the same.
"If we were in trouble we didn't even worry," the former Eskimo tackle once marvelled. "We were convinced it was only a matter of time before Jackie was going to pull us out. And 99 per cent of the time he did."
Three times the CFL's most outstanding player, Parker was also named the Western Conference most outstanding player seven of the nine years he played in Edmonton.
In 2000, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix ran a poll to select the top 50 players in league history. Parker was first; Doug Flutie second.
"He could do so many more things than Flutie," said former CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur, one of the voters, who, in one way or another, spent his life in football.
The legend began for Edmonton fans when the 22-year-old Parker and his skinny legs came to the Eskimos from Mississippi State in 1954. At that time the Eskimos were still a struggling franchise, only once advancing to the Grey Cup game and never having won it.
Parker immediately led them to a 11-5 record, a win over Winnipeg in the best two-out-of three Western final, a win over Kitchener-Waterloo in the Grey Cup semifinal and, finally, a berth in the Grey Cup game that year in Toronto against the heavily favoured Montreal Alouettes.
With just over three minutes left in the game, the situation appeared as bleak as the curdled November Toronto sky for Parker and the Esks. On their way to putting up a record 656 yards of total offence, the Alouettes were not only leading, they once again had the ball deep in Eskimos territory.
The Eskimos' Rollie Miles had finally cried uncle from the searing pain of ribs that had separated on the opening kickoff. Miles sat on the bench beside Eagle Keys who played three quarters of the game on a broken leg. On the field, Ray Willsey continued with a broken arm. Parker played with a chipped instep bone in his right ankle, which needed a dulling shot of novocaine at halftime, and a twisted, sprained left knee.
Then Parker waved his wand. Chuck Hunsinger fumbled; Parker scooped it up, returning it 84 yards for the winning touchdown in a shocking 26-25 win.
Parker led the Eskimos back to the Grey Cup in Vancouver in 1955 as well, once again against Montreal. Sam Etcheverry, the Alouettes' strong-armed quarterback, threw for a record 508 yards. It wasn't enough.
Playing quarterback, Parker only completed eight of 16 passes for 128 yards. But he also ran for 69 yards, took the kickoff and intercepted one of Etcheverry's passes. Other than that, a quiet afternoon in a 34-19 triumph.
In 1956, Montreal and Edmonton were back at it at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. Miffed at once again being the underdogs, the Eskimos won 50-27. With Don Getty now playing quarterback, Parker set a Grey Cup record scoring 19 points. Averaging 6.8 yards per carry, he rushed for 129 yards, kicked a convert and scored three touchdowns to match the three touchdown passes he caught in the Western final.
"The biggest advantage I had was that I had Parker at halfback," Getty once said. "Parker couldn't have Parker at halfback."
Dan Kelly, a former broadcaster in St. Louis, once told a story of six St. Louis Cardinal football coaches arguing late into the night. One of the questions put up for discussion was: Who would you want on the field if it was fourth down at the five yard line and you had to get the ball into the end zone?
One coach said Jim Brown, whose name was immediately seconded. A third said Joe Namath. The other three all said Jackie Parker.
Perhaps the best option quarterback anywhere, anytime, Parker scored 750 points. He ran for 88 touchdowns, threw another 88 touchdowns passes, kicked 40 field goals — five in one game — and added 103 converts. He rushed for 5,210 yards — running for an average of 6.1 yards — passed for 16,476 yards and caught passes for 2,308 more yards.
About the only thing he didn't do was snap the ball to himself.
"He'd give ya the old swivel-hip job and you'd end up flat on your face," Hall of Fame lineman Don Luzzi was quoted as saying. "There was something mystical about him."
Mystical and magical. Houdini with cleats, he really was magic. If you turned your head, averted your eyes for just a second, he would seem to disappear. Then, just like that, he would appear someplace else: either out of the grasp of a defender or in that perfect position to take a pass, haul in an interception or pick up a fumble.
And now, the way all great magicians leave us when the show is over, the drapes drawn and all the rabbits back in their hats, we are still left in awe, still wondering how in the world he ever did it.
Parker smoked too much; he drank too much.
His gait looked like a chimpanzee falling out of a tree, those two chopsticks for legs seeming to go in six directions all at once.
His passes lurched like drunks spilling out of a bar at closing time, a fact Parker never tried to hide.
"I always said the thing they did to the CFL ball that really bothered me the most was put the stripe on it," Parker once said. "After they did that everybody could see how bad it wobbled when I threw it."
Parker was born on New Year's Day, 1932, in a little red shack atop Cherry Ridge in Knoxville, Tenn., with the name John Dickerson Flanagan. His mother remarried, taking the name of her new husband, Carroll Parker.
Parker never even played much football until his senior high school year and went to Mississippi State on a baseball scholarship, getting a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds.
Yet with the Bulldogs, Parker was twice the Southeastern Conference's outstanding player. In 1952 he led all NCAA Division 1 players scoring 120 points. That year, Mississippi State got into the red zone — inside the opposition's 25-yard line — 27 times. They scored touchdowns 26 times.
Still surprised three St. Louis Cardinal coaches named Parker as the player they wanted on the field with the game on the line? Or, surprised all six didn't pick Parker?
When Parker came to Edmonton, weighing 175 pounds, he figured it would only be for one year. Then he'd go back to Tennessee and get a real job.
Instead, Ol' Spaghetti Legs set record after record and became one of the greatest of them all, doing it all with an ah-shucks, Southern smile and a simple “ah-it-was-nothing? wave of his hand. He never sought out attention; nobody remembers hearing him complain.
But he sure knew how to have fun.
After winning the 1954 Grey Cup, old-teammate Dean remembered being in the dining room of Toronto's Royal York Hotel "ordering the biggest meal on the menu.?
"I'm sitting there enjoying it when Parker stops in the middle of a mouthful and says it's a shame to be sitting here eating like this when others not so fortunate as ourselves are starving.
"All of a sudden Jack gets up and disappears. A few minutes later he comes back and he's dragged a dozen derelicts in off the street. They ate like kings."
And when it was time to pay for the bill, Parker signed Eskimo general manager Al Anderson's name.
When he first came to Edmonton, he got nicknames like the Fast Freight from Mississippi State and the Mississippi Gambler. The latter was accurate not only for the chances he took on the field — Parker liked to have a few dollars riding on golf and gin rummy.
And if there wasn't any golf or gin rummy, he and teammate Normie Kwong — now Alberta's Lieutenant Governor — would invariably find something to wager on, whether it was which elevator would stop first or which bag would arrive first at the airport.
"I remember one day it was so miserable outside that there just wasn't anything to do," Getty, who remained a close friend, recalled a few years ago.
"Normie and Jackie just sat there and stared out of the window. All of a sudden one of them says, 'Ten dollars on the raindrops and I got this one.' "
Parker's first contract with Edmonton paid him $9,500 plus a $500 bonus. At the end of his first season, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara personally came calling with an $18,000 contract.
But, for $3,000 less, Parker chose to stay in Edmonton. Why? Because Peggy, the girl he married in high school and with whom they would have three children — Jackie Jr., Peggy Mae and Jerri-Jo — said she liked Edmonton better.
Rewriting the record books through his nine years in Edmonton, Parker was traded to the Toronto Argonauts in February of 1963. The Wayne Gretzky deal of its time, Parker was traded for five players — halfbacks Joe Hernandez and Mike Wicklum, kicker Bill Mitchell, guard Zeke Smith, defensive back Jon Rechner — and $15,000.
"If there is such a thing as a good trade for Jackie Parker, I think we made it," said Joe Ryan, Edmonton's general manager.
"Any quarterback coming in (to Edmonton) I suppose is like trying to coach in Green Bay after Vince Lombardi."
Parker's three years in Toronto were disappointing. His knees were shot, filled with binder twine and glue. He retired in 1966. The following year he became head coach of the Toronto Rifles of the Continental League, where Tom Wilkinson was his quarterback.
The Continental League wasn't for Parker. When told they would fly to all their games only to have a bus waiting to take them to their first game, Parker resigned. The next year he went to B.C. as the Lions' assistant coach.
"The first time I saw him was in 1967 when he came to coach the Toronto Rifles of the Continental League," said Wilkinson, later a quarterback for the Eskimos. "I heard he was the greatest CFL player of all time. Heard all the stories. And then I saw him and those skinny legs of his, smoking a cigarette and shuffling along. I said, 'This guy was great? Come on.'
"Then I saw him play."
Forced to dress as a backup when Pete Ohler was hurt midway through the 1968 season, Parker, three years out of football and 36 years old, was pressed into service when the regular backup, Paul Brothers, also got injured.
Watching on television, Wilkinson said his eyes grew wide as pie plates as Parker stepped behind the porous offensive line of a brutal Lions team.
On Parker's first play, he completed a long pass for a first down. He was just warming up.
"Three years without throwing a football, and you can imagine how little training he probably did, he took a snap and started running to the left," said Wilkinson. "Then he went right. Then left. Then right again. Then he ran down the sidelines. I swear every defender missed him at least twice.
"At the end of the game, a TV announcer asked him how it felt to be playing again. Jackie couldn't get a word out — he was gasping too hard.
"When I saw that, I knew this guy had to be absolutely unbelievable when he was in his prime."
In 1969, Parker became the Lions head coach replacing Jim Champion. Two years later he was the club's general manager. But things went sour in 1975. After the Lions lost 34-10 to Edmonton, Parker and his head coach Eagle Keys were both fired.
Parker moved back to Edmonton and took a public relations job working for Interprovincial Pipe and Steel Co. He also kept his hand in football, doing radio colour commentary with Bryan Hall.
In 1983 it was the Eskimos that were in trouble. Just after Labour Day, Edmonton fired head coach Pete Kettela and brought in Parker.
"Jackie and I have a contract that if it doesn't work I kill him," joked executive manager Norm Kimball.
Soon after Parker's hiring, CHED radio morning man Wes Montgomery started playing a parody of an old '60s tune that went "Hey la, hey laaaaa, Jackie's back."
In Parker's first game as head coach, the Eskimos won 50-21.
The legend had come home.
But in 1987 he couldn't go on. The Eskimos were 2-0, but Parker's health kept getting worse. At various times it was his stomach, his knees, gout, pleurisy and eventually ulcers.
Parker forced himself to resign.
"Certainly I'll miss being away from it, not being on the field, not being around the other coaches and the players," said Parker.
Now it's our turn.
The man we will miss.
The legend goes on forever.
Jackie Parker’s Awards and Honours:
Grey Cup Victories – 1954, 1955, 1956
Schenley for CFL’s Most Outstanding Player – 1957, 1958, 1960
CFL All-Star – 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961
Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy (West Division’s Most Outstanding Player) – 1954, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961
Dave Dryburgh Memorial Trophy (Top Scorer in West Division) – 1959, 1961
CFL Hall of Fame – 1971
Edmonton Eskimo Wall of Honour – 1983
Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame - 1987
Mississippi State University Hall of Fame – 1972
Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame – 1972
College Football Hall of Fame – 1976