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."
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.