This is the trouble with living too long. You die too late.
If he'd gone 30 years ago, everyone would've been talking about Clarence "Ace" Parker, the former running back for — you ready for this? — the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1937. That defunct team is old enough to have merged with a team, the Boston Yanks, that's also defunct. Parker's career, then, is interred beneath layers of obscurity, themselves buried beneath the sheer weight of decades. He died today, at 101 years old. You'd have to be about 80 to have any memory of seeing him play.
Here's what we can tell you. He was an all-America tailback at Duke. He played for Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics* for two years, and hit one of his two Major League home runs in his first at-bat. But what made him special, even for the two-way days of the early NFL, was his ability to do all the things that anyone does in football. NBC Sports summarized his versatility thusly:
He played with the Dodgers for five seasons, and calling him a two-way player doesn’t quite do justice to everything he could do on the football field: Parker played offense, defense and special teams, and in 1938 he was reported to have played 656 minutes of the 660 minutes of that 11-game season.
Parker was a good enough passer that he led the league in passing yards in 1938, he was a good enough defensive back that he led the league in interceptions in 1940, and he was a good enough kicker that he led the league in extra points in 1940. He was also a punter and both a kickoff and punt returner. In 1940 he was voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
Now, this is an absurdity, and must've been even in its day. Who the hell leads the league in both interceptions and passing yards during his career? He entered the Navy during the second world war and played another couple of seasons upon his return, giving him certainly one of the shorter careers among Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees. A guy like that, you would've been able to see it in him. In size, or speed, or shiftiness, or instinct, or accuracy, something. Even 70 years ago, when 200 pounds was large for a man, and the helmets were leather cushions, and tailbacks' noses wandered all over their faces, for all the facemaskless collisions they absorbed, you could tell an remarkable athlete when one happened onto the field.
Here's what we can show you. YouTube, primarily a conveyance of cat antics and barely covered breasts in motion, turns up this archival footage of Parker at Duke running a punt back 70 yards for a touchdown. Turn your sound up; the video's silent, but for the pop and hiss of the old film. And in it you can see a young man who just died as an old man who outlived his fame by at least a generation. He looks like Devin Hester gashing the N.C. State defense, but with more shoulders. It's a thing of bygone beauty.
Andy Barall over at the New York Times found the same video when he wrote about Parker last year, the year the Hall of Famer (inducted 1972) turned 100. I recommend Barall's entire story, but want to note these paragraphs in particular:
In 1938, in Week 6, Parker rushed for 103 yards on 15 carries, including a 77-yard touchdown run in a 17-7 victory over the Pirates. Pittsburgh’s rookie tailback Byron White ran for 116 yards on 16 carries. It marked the first time in N.F.L. history that a player from each team rushed for over 100 yards in the same game. In those days White was known as Whizzer. Many years later he was Mr. Justice White of the United States Supreme Court.
On Oct. 22, 1939, Parker participated in the first professional football game ever televised. The Dodgers defeated the Eagles that day at Ebbets Field, 23-14. Parker completed 8 of 19 passes for 116 yards and 1 touchdown, a 47-yarder to Perry Schwartz. NBC paid the Dodgers $1,100 to televise the game and showed it on experimental station W2XBS in New York City. They also presented it at the RCA Pavilion at the World’s Fair. In interviews through the years, none of the players ever expressed any knowledge that the game was being televised.
It was so long ago. (I wish I had a better source than Wikipedia for this, but you're old enough to take this with the appropriate amount of salt: He was apparently the last living person to have played on the same field as Rogers Hornsby.) Guys like Parker put the NFL on its path to sustainability, from whence it rose to popularity and later, as we know it, to dominance. Sammy Baugh, of all hosses, once called Parker the best he ever saw. Now you, too, saw him.
HOF RB Ace Parker dead at 101 [National Football Post]
Photo credit: AP