Ol’ Spaghetti Legs
The 1950s was a great decade for football here in Canada with the addition of some outstanding American talent. The most versatile of all Americans coming north was Jackie Parker, who had rewritten the offensive record book at Mississippi State University before being drafted by the New York Giants as their 325th overall pick in the 27th round in 1953. All these years later, many of his college records still stand today.
Nicknamed “Ol’ Spaghetti Legs,” Parker crossed the border to play quarterback, halfback, and receiver positions on offense, plus defensive back in the two-way era. And that’s not all. He could place-kick. He could punt. And he did everything very well. In his CFL career, spent with three different teams, he threw 96 TD passes, rushed for 68 more, and caught another 19. He passed for 16,376 yards, ran for 5,208 yards, and caught passes for 2,547 yards. He was Edmonton Eskimos main punter for three seasons, and their main place-kicker for three other seasons. And he returned kickoffs for them for two seasons, too.
Born New Year’s Day 1932 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Parker was fortunate to play any sports at all, let alone survive childhood. Growing up, he almost died from a ruptured appendix and he caught a flesh-eating disease that nearly cost him his leg. Doctors wanted to amputate, but Parker’s mother refused the medical procedure. At Mississippi State, he was also an excellent shortstop, good enough for an offer by the major league Cincinnati Reds. But Parker wisely chose football, and he chose the Eskimos, despite a better offer from the New York Giants. One of the reasons for accepting Edmonton was that his MSU quarterback coach in 1952, Darrell Royal, was the Eskimos head coach, although he returned to MSU as their head coach for 1954.
In his inaugural 1954 CFL season, sixty years ago, the six-foot-one, 190-pound Parker rushed for 925 yards and 10 TDs, caught two TDs and passed for two more. Parker then made the headlines on one particular play in the Grey Cup that November played at Varsity Stadium, Toronto before 27,300 fans, the first Grey Cup to be televised. With three minutes left on the clock--the heavily-favored Montreal Alouettes up by 25-20 and on the Edmonton 20-yard line--were going in for a TD to nail down the game. On the next play quarterback Sam Etcheverry handed off to Chuck Hunsinger, who was hit hard by Ted Tully. Parker, in the right place at the right time, picked the fumbled ball up and raced 90 yards for a touchdown, with Johnny Bright riding shotgun by his side, giving the Esks an upset 26-25 victory. The 90-yard fumble return is still a Grey Cup record today. Check it out on www.youtube.com.
After the runback, Jackie Parker became a household name in Canada and a folk hero of sorts. In the off season, he was then approached by the Giants who upped the ante even further if he’d go to New York. This time, Parker’s wife, Peggy Jo, stepped in and said she liked Edmonton better and wanted to stay put. Parker went on to become one of the biggest stars--if not the biggest--in the history of the Canadian Football League.
Parker was a huge part of the Eskimo dynasty that won three straight Grey Cups from 1954-1956 (as well as another Grey Cup appearance in 1960) with the revolutionary Split-T formation that had first been introduced to Edmonton in 1953 by out-going coach Darrell Royal. Inbound coach Pop Ivy tweaked the formation by showcasing it with a dual-fullback system featuring runners Johnny Bright and Canadian Normie Kwong, two players let go earlier by the Calgary Stampeders. Parker won Western All-Star selections as a running back in 1954, 1957, and 1959; and as quarterback in 1955, 1956, 1958, 1960, and 1961. He won six straight Jeff Nicklin Trophies as the West’s MVP from 1956-1961, and another in 1954. He also won the Schenley Award as Canada’s most outstanding player in 1957, 1958, 1960, and was runner-up in 1956 and 1961.
After the 1962 season, Parker was traded to the Toronto Argonauts for five players and $15,000 cash. He retired after three seasons, seeing the Argos finish dead last every year. As an assistant coach with the BC Lions in 1968, he appeared briefly as a player in eight games when injuries hit the other quarterbacks. Turning to head coaching, he ran the BC Lions for part of 1969, all of 1970, then became their GM from 1971-1975. Elected to the CFL Hall of Fame in 1971, he coached his old alma mater, the Edmonton Eskimos, from 1983 until two games into 1987, without a losing season. He died 6 November 2006 in Edmonton at age 74. That same month, he was voted Number 3 in TSN’s Top 50 CFL players of the modern era.
Pop Ivy, Parker’s coach for his first four seasons in Edmonton, who later coached in the NFL and AFL, and scouted in the NFL, knew how valuable Parker was to the Eskimos and the CFL as a whole. “I always felt Jackie was the best all-around football player I’ve ever seen,” Ivy said, a few years after he retired from the game for good in 1984. “I spent 50 years in football and that covers a lot of people.”
As a huge sports fan since the early 1960s, I remember how big the name “Jackie Parker” was. Although his skills had started to slip a notch or two by then, his trade to Toronto was still a blockbuster. Perhaps even a shock. The first time Parker came to my hometown of Regina as an Argonaut to play the Roughriders, I was there with a couple friends. According to the schedule I found on the internet, that day had to be 6 October 1964. It was easy to determine the date because during the 1960s the western teams and eastern teams met each other team only once each year during the interlocking schedule and they would alternate the home field. Actually, it was the only time Parker played a regular season game at Taylor Field in his three years as an Argo.
Anyway, I can distinctly recall that I had cut out a black-and-white photo of Parker measuring around four-by-five from the local Regina Leader-Post newspaper beforehand and taped it to the back of a piece of cardboard, then took it to Taylor Field for the game. While my friends and I waited patiently outside the locker rooms, I saw Parker and asked him to sign my photo. Although the Argos had lost 31-12 that day, the cordial Parker took my photo in his palm and carefully autographed it without so much as his ballpoint pen puncturing my thin newspaper photo.
Just one of those great memories you never forget when an icon such as Jackie Parker takes the time to sign an autograph for a wide-eyed, snotty-nosed, 12-year-old kid.