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November 7, 2006

Jackie Parker: 1932-2006

By Lisa Arrowsmith,
The Canadian Press

EDMONTON – Ole Spaghetti Legs didn’t make much of an impression on his teammates the first time he walked into a CFL locker-room.

All that changed the moment he hit the field. Skinny legs and all Jackie Parker would become one of the greatest CFL players of all time, leaving behind a legion of friends and fans who remembered him fondly Tuesday after his death at age 74 from throat cancer.

“(He was) the kid from Mississippi with the big ears and the big feet,” Alberta Lt.-Gov. Norman Kwong recalled. “(Parker) wasn’t very imposing when we first met – really skinny legs. But he could really run and do everything else. He made an impression on us the very first time he took the field. It was a big surprise when we saw him perform.”

Kwong, a former star CFL running back known as the China Clipper, played alongside Parker on the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1950s.

Parker seemed destined for greatness, although it was baseball he excelled in back home in Knoxville, Tenn. He went to Mississippi State on a baseball scholarship, but soon turned to football.

After he joined the CFL in 1954, he spent the next 13 years starring on both sides of the ball as a quarterback, halfback and defensive back.

He became fast friends with a star Eskimos quarterback by the name of Don Getty, who later went on to be Alberta’s premier.

At a news conference Tuesday at Commonwealth Stadium, Getty stood in front of a locker bearing Parker’s name and with his CFL trading card from the 1950s propped up against a beaten old football helmet.

Getty recalled their days as teammates and roommates during that time, when their bond off the field cemented a lifelong friendship.

“When I first came to the Eskimos, I didn’t drink,” Getty said. “Then, when I roomed with Jackie, I thought ‘Hell, I’m gonna have to learn,”‘ he said with a laugh, reminiscing about years spent at backyard barbecues, and on hunting trips.

“He was the best (player) I’ve ever seen,” Getty said.

Parker stayed with the Eskimos until 1962. He then played with the Toronto Argonauts from 1963 to 1965 before moving to the B.C. Lions in 1966 for three years. He played on three Grey Cup winners with Edmonton, was named the CFL’s top player three times and was an all-star for eight straight years. Parker, who eventually joined the coaching ranks, passed for 16,476 yards and scored 88 touchdowns, kicked 103 converts, 40 field goals and 19 singles for 750 points.

“At one time, many people thought he was the best player in the world,” said Hugh Campbell, who retired as Eskimos general manager, president and CEO at the end of this year’s regular season. “People in the NFL knew all about Jack Parker. In those days, the salaries were similar one place to the other. Jack found a home in Edmonton and elected to stay here when others would have left with that kind of talent.”

Former Eskimo Henry (Gizmo) Williams laughed as he recalled Parker’s even-tempered treatment of his players as a coach in the mid 1980s.

Williams, who had spent the night carousing before a game in Ottawa, said he tried to sneak back into the hotel early in the morning, only to be caught by an unfazed Parker, who beckoned him over while sitting in the lobby.

“I thought, ‘Oh, God I’m in trouble now,” said Williams.

But instead of tearing a strip off Williams, Parker told him just to be ready for the game in the morning.

“I walked out of there and I thought, ‘That’s my kind of coach,”‘ said Williams.

Jackie Parker Jr., 48, remembered his dad as a kind-hearted man, with a great sense of humour – but whose illness robbed him of that in his final weeks.

“The people at the hospital didn’t get to know him as himself, because over the last few months he wasn’t in very good shape and was pretty miserable,” he said of his dad, who also had two daughters.

“I feel sorry that they didn’t get to know him as a kind-hearted man, with a great sense of humour and who was extremely humble,” Parker said.

CFL commissioner Tom Wright said Parker ranked among the best of the CFL’s greats.

“He passed and ran with style, and in many ways was the prototypical versatile quarterback who is the hallmark of our league.”

Despite his impressive stats, Parker may be remembered most for one play – a fumble recovery in the 1954 Grey Cup when he scooped up the ball that Chuck Hunsinger had dropped and rambled close to 90 yards for a touchdown to tie the game and set up the winning convert.

Always a cool customer, Parker was also known as the Mississippi Gambler for his sleight of hand with the football on rollouts.

And he may also have been the player who was responsible for the long-standing Labour Day rivalry between the Eskimos and the Calgary Stampeders.

On that holiday in 1960, Parker ran for a touchdown to tie the game with just 25 seconds left and then kicked his own convert to give his Eskimos a 29-28 victory over the Stampeders.

Parker kicked a last-play field goal the following year to again give Edmonton the win. A tradition was born, a rivalry bred, and for many Albertans, Labour Day came to mean just one thing – football.

Parker may not have been the most technically perfect player. He once joked about how the circles on the tips of the CFL ball only drew attention to his wobbly spirals.

“He didn’t throw the prettiest pass, he didn’t kick the finest field goals,” said Kwong, who remembers a game against Calgary when Parker bounced a three-pointer off the crossbar and through the uprights.

“But he always got the job done somehow. He always did it with drama.”

The Saskatoon StarPhoenix ran a poll in 2000 to pick the top 50 players in CFL history. Parker came in first.

After his playing days were over, Parker took up coaching and passed on his wisdom to the willing young legs, arms and minds of quarterbacks such as Matt Dunigan.

The coach would pace back and forth on the sidelines, mostly keeping to himself, letting younger assistant coaches communicate with the players.

His first coaching experience in the CFL came in 1969 when he was an assistant with the Lions before replacing the fired Jim Champion at mid-season.

Parker got the Lions into the playoffs, but by 1971 he was moved into the front office as general manager.

The Lions jettisoned Parker during the 1975 season and he returned to Edmonton to work in public relations and sales for a steel company.

Getty recalled that his friend was upset at his split with the Lions and he called Parker to urge him to come back to Edmonton.

“We went duck hunting together, just to get his mind off it, because it bothered him, being let go,” said Getty.

When good friend, former Edmonton general manager Norm Kimball, was in desperate need of a coach in September 1983, Parker agreed to replace Pete Kettela.

He left the team in mid-1987 due to illness with a coaching record of 48-32-1.

One thing Parker could never do as a coach, though, was win another Grey Cup. The Eskimos lost to Hamilton in 1986 in Edmonton’s only appearance in the championship game under his leadership. Kwong remembers long hours socializing, hanging out and playing poker with his former teammate.

“I’ll remember him mostly as a card-player – and always beating me. Although we didn’t keep in constant touch, we were always close as teammates. It was meeting your brother when you did run into each other.”

The Lions also remembered Parker fondly Tuesday.

“He had a very good eye for personnel and putting players in positions that would make them successful,” said Lions president Bob Ackles. “He was a smart coach on the field. He knew the game so very well. He knew what would work in certain situations.”

Parker died in an Edmonton hospital after ailing for some time. Funeral arrangement were not immediately available.

Some quotes:

The death of CFL legend Jackie Parker on Tuesday prompted an outpouring of praise and fond memories from across the country. A sample:

“He could really run and do everything else. When he ran, when he passed, when he did things, they weren’t always the pretty picture that you’d want to show kids, but he always got the job done.” – Alberta Lt.-Gov. Norman Kwong, an Edmonton Eskimo teammate in the 1950s.

“He passed and ran with style and in many ways was the prototypical versatile quarterback who is the hallmark of our league.” CFL commissioner Tom Wright.

“Jackie Parker is a name which will be forever carved into CFL history. His impact on this league will never be forgotten and he will be missed.” – Saskatchewan Roughriders president Jim Hopson.

“He had a very good eye for personnel and putting players in positions that would make them successful. He was a smart coach on the field. He knew the game so very well. He knew what would work in certain situations.” – B.C. Lions president Bob Ackles.

“He would run toward one sideline and then he would turn and run toward the other, gaining yardage as he went, but going back and forth. And there were some players on the other team that missed him, got up and missed him again, and got up and missed him again.” – Former Eskimos quarterback Tom Wilkinson recalling a game he watched.

“At the end of his speech he would always say, ‘We did some good things, we did some bad things, let’s get ready for next week’s practice.’ He never was the kind of coach that got upset about a lot of stuff.” – Former Eskimos player Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams.

“He was the absolute best (player) I’ve ever seen. All the NFL, CFL, anybody that I’ve watched on television or seen in real life, he’s still the best, by far.” – Former Eskimos quarterback and former Alberta premier, Don Getty.

“The people at the hospital, they didn’t get to know him as himself because over the last few months he wasn’t in very good shape and was pretty miserable. I feel sorry that they didn’t get to know him as a really kind-hearted man with a great sense of humour and who was very humble.” – Jack Parker Jr.

“At one time many people thought he was the best player in the world. People in the NFL knew all about Jack Parker. In those days, the salaries were similar one place to the other. Jack found a home in Edmonton and elected to stay here when others would have left with that kind of talent.” – Hugh Campbell, CEO Edmonton Eskimos.

“I don’t know if there is any individual who contributed more to the league with his remarkable ability on the field and it’s distressing to hear of his demise. Even his nickname, crazy legs, was intended to really express in some crude way what everybody felt about him.” – Jake Gaudaur, former CFL commissioner.