The NFL was picking its 75th-anniversary team this winter, and the 15-man board of selectors was having a problem. Jim Parker was a unanimous choice, one of only a handful of players so honored, but it was hard to know where to put him.
He had been a guard at Ohio State and was drafted by Weeb Ewbank's Baltimore Colts in 1957. He played left tackle his first five years, and in his sixth he was a swingman, playing guard and tackle. Then he was the left guard for four years, and finally, in his 11th season, he was a troubleshooter, lining up against the opponent's most feared defensive lineman. He made All-Pro eight times—four at tackle, three at guard and one at both positions.
The NFL board of selectors decided to put him at guard. Does it really matter? A case could be made for him as one of the game's greatest left tackles—certainly the best of his era—or its greatest left guard. The whole thing amuses him greatly. "Guard was fun," Parker says. "It was trapping and pulling, decision-making on the go, seeing those defensive backs sitting out there, not being able to get out of the way. It was a train hitting a Volkswagen. You'd mow them down.
"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."
September 4, 1994
He pauses and takes a puff on his pipe. He is on his second marriage now, his second family. He has an eight-year-old daughter, Chrissy, to go with four grown children (and six grandchildren) from his first marriage. His son Jim works with him in the liquor store in Baltimore, on the corner of Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard, that he bought 29 years ago.
In October he was working the counter when he felt a sudden dizziness. "I went home, and I just fell out," he says. "They took me to the hospital. I'd had a stroke."
It is possible to notice an occasional slowness of speech, but other than that he suffers no ill effects. At 285 pounds, Parker looks bulky but not sloppy. "I'm at my playing weight," he says. "Lost 87 pounds after the stroke. My rehab's gone well. Got an exercise bench at home, a Universal machine, two bicycles. I do it all, an hour a day. I feel sluggish if I miss a workout. Right now I'm in better shape than I've been in the last 15 or 20 years."
Weight training was practically unknown in the NFL when Parker played. For most of his career he did most of his lifting with a fork. "I wish I had known about weights then," he says. "I tried a little of it my last couple of years—I wanted stronger deltoids—but I didn't really feel different. I was just brainwashed against it. I didn't want to be a Mr. America playing football, like one of those pictures you see in the back of comic books."
Wrestling at Ohio State had helped Parker develop his strength. The rest of his conditioning involved running. That was the way it worked in those days. The Colts drafted him in the first round in '57, and he signed a two-year, no-cut contract for $12,500 a season and received a $1,500 bonus, which was paid in $1 bills.
"My wife and I were in G.M. Don Kellett's office negotiating," Parker says. "I wouldn't sign. We broke for lunch, and he sent someone to the bank to get 1,500 ones. When we came back they were all stacked on the desk. 'That's yours,' he told me. My wife pinched the hell out of my leg. It still hurts. 'Sign it,' she said. So I signed.
"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...."
Parker had played both ways in college, and the Colts drafted him as a guard and a linebacker. Ewbank had other ideas. "First time I met [Ewbank]," Parker says, "he told me, 'Look, if you really want to help this team you'll be my left tackle. Just remember one thing. The quickest way to make yourself unpopular is to let that guy, number 19, get hurt." That guy was John Unitas."
Offensive linemen were an anonymous lot in the '50s. You would see the same names on the Pro Bowl rosters—Harley Sewell, Lou Creekmur—then you would forget about them until the next year. The little acclaim that did come their way was for run blocking. Roosevelt Brown, for example, the New York Giants' left tackle, earned some notice for his speed at pulling to lead sweeps. But Ewbank had apprenticed under Paul Brown in Cleveland, and one of Brown's principal contributions to the game was his scheme of cup blocking to protect quarterback Otto Graham. Every time the old Browns broke their huddle, the linemen would chant, "Nobody touches Graham." The value of a great pass protector was not lost on Ewbank.
An often overlooked sidelight to the famous Giant-Colt sudden-death championship game in 1958 was the job that Parker did on defensive end Andy Robustelli, one of football's premier pass rushers. Parker, in only his second year in the league, already had established himself as a superb drive-blocker, but his domination of Robustelli was something different, a performance so smooth, so complete, that it was used as a textbook case for many years: He takes an outside rush, you run him around the corner; he goes inside, you collapse him into the pile. Parker calls it "the most perfect game I ever played," and even the game announcers were drawn to this unusual display of line technique that had never been highlighted before.
Two years before that Parker had been raising dust in Woody Hayes's three-yard attack. "This was Woody's offense," Parker says. "All-Big Ten tackles, an All-Big Ten fullback, a Hopalong Cassady to break the occasional big one, and every eight plays you throw the ball as far as you can down the center of the field to show you've got a passing attack."
Given that foundation, how had Parker launched a career that would earn him a reputation as possibly the greatest pass-blocking tackle in history? "Big Daddy," he says. "Our great defensive tackle, Big Daddy Lipscomb. He adopted me, took me under his wing. He said, 'I'm going to make you the best tackle in the game.'
"In the off-season he'd be at my house every morning at 5:30. We'd go out to the park at Sparrow's Point and work on technique. 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.
"Big Daddy was what I call a football fanatic, because he knew every aspect of the game. He would have made a great coach. He told me about all the personnel: 'O.K., now here's [Chicago Bear] Doug Atkins, 6'8" tall with those long arms. Likes to grip you outside. You can't knock his arms off from underneath. He's too strong. You have to come down on them from on top. Or punch him in the belly.' One time I did, and Doug complained to the referee: 'Look, here's the bruise.'
"Big Daddy even taught me about guys on my own team, like Don Joyce, our right end. 'Don't ever turn your back on him,' he said. 'He's a mean one.'
"I started keeping my own book. I developed my own film library on all the defensive ends in the league, then all the ends and tackles. Do guys do that today? If I were an offensive line coach I'd insist on my guys giving a report on each defensive lineman they were about to face.
"I developed my own techniques, too. I'd get my hands up quickly, to grab or steer the guy, just like they do now, and then get them down quickly, so the ref couldn't see. I made sure I never set the same way twice, never gave the guy the same look. I watch guys now, and they'll get beat, and instead of figuring, O.K., I've got to give him a different look now, a different technique, they'll do the exact same thing and get beaten exactly the same way. I see linemen tipping off run or pass by the weight on their hands. That's one thing you never want to do."
How about the modern era speed rushers: Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills, with that lightning quick inside move; Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs, coming around the corner in high gear; former Giant Lawrence Taylor, setting you up with speed and then bull-rushing you into the cheap seats? How would Jim Parker do against those folks?
"Bruce Smith?" he says. "I'd take away one of his options by narrowing my split. Make him go only one way, and then make him earn every inch. Thomas? Well, what we did to speed demons was to beat them into the ground with running plays, take some of the zip out of them. As for Taylor, he'd present real problems.
"I've watched him a lot through the years, trying to find fault with him. But I couldn't, and do you know why? What I saw there was a student, a player who spent a lot of time learning his job. I saw the obvious effort that he put into it. He was smart. He didn't do the same thing every time. He'd make you study.
"What's interesting about defensive ends now is that they look smaller. Then you see on the program that they weigh 280 or something. I guess it's all that weight training that makes them look sleek. But in my day a big guy looked like a big guy."
He looked like Jim Parker.