In 1957, when he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts, Jim Parker was one of the country's most sought-after football players. He lived up to the hype, earning All-Pro honors eight consecutive seasons and getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
At 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, he was agile for a big guy.
But just as the Liberty-Garrison neighborhood where he ran a liquor store for 35 years has lost some of its vitality, so has the man nicknamed "Unitas' Protector" for the pass protection he provided quarterback Johnny Unitas.
Today, Parker, 65, takes several seconds to rise from a chair. He is diabetic. He has had at least one stroke. And he uses the blue wheelchair in front of his Columbia home to travel to the steps at the edge of his driveway. He closed his liquor store two weeks ago, but instead of relaxing, he struggles with do's and don'ts.
Although he's not supposed to smoke, he seemed happiest during a recent interview when he lighted his pipe.
Drinking also is taboo. He insists the Hennessey, Smirnoff and other spirits at the bar in his home are for friends. Yet, after pausing for a moment, Parker acknowledges drinking a 22-ounce Heineken "every now and then."
His favorite food is ribs, and although doctors forbid him from eating them, he acknowledges devouring some once a week, much the way he brags about how he used to eat up Deacon Jones, one of his toughest opponents.
Long removed from the game but not the glory, he fondly recalls the battles that made him a household name.
As he prepared to leave the game, he worked briefly for a liquor distributor and had such success his boss helped him buy his business in 1964 when the neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore was thriving.
Predominantly Jewish in the 1950s, the neighborhood boasted a Union Trust Co., Silber's Bakery, Shure's Pharmacy and The Forest Theater, among other businesses.
But as has been evidenced in many areas of Baltimore, the population was pushed to the suburbs by encroaching crime and drugs, and businesses began to fade.
So did Parker's health, forcing him into retirement.
'He gets evasive'
His children are glad he gave up the store, as is Colts great Lenny Moore. Moore said it wasn't hard to recognize during phone calls and visits last year that something was wrong with his former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer.
"He looked kind of out of it," Moore said. "I'd say, 'Hey, man, what's wrong with you?' Then he'd say 'Oh, I'm all right.' "
Moore knew Parker was being macho. After all, Parker had played football in the '50s and '60s, when the game had no official disabled player lists.
"I know he gets evasive," Moore said. "With Parker, he may just say something to get you off the subject. I know him. That's why I know exactly what to say and how to say it."
Moore talked to Parker's son, David. Then, without giving their father a chance to brush them off, 11 of his 12 children showed up at the store one day last year and drove him to a hospital.
Doctors told Parker he had recently suffered a stroke and needed to take it easy. He was released after three months and returned to the store that had become his life. But he knew he had to get out of the business.
Plans have been under way for several months to close about a dozen businesses on Liberty Heights Avenue. A Walgreens will replace those businesses, which include a laundromat, pizza parlor and hardware store. The corner where Parker's business sits will be converted to parking spaces, said LeRoy Adams, director of the business assistance group with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
Walgreens is a sign that the neighborhood is on the mend, Adams said.
"We have to try to form a functional business association, one which actively advocates for the small businesses that are in the district," Adams said yesterday. He added that officials are trying to determine the best use for an abandoned fire station across the street from Parker's business.
With Walgreens coming, some of the displaced businesses are moving to other locations. But Parker is out altogether.
None of his children or grandchildren wanted to carry on the business.
And Parker, although stubborn at times, has accepted his limitations.
"When I came back from the hospital last year, it was real hard," Parker said. "Getting in and out of the truck was hard. Waiting on the people behind the counter was tiring me out. I didn't get up and wait on them. I asked them to come behind the counter and get what they wanted and they'd bring it over to me and I'd ring it up. Most of them had gotten used to doing that. I just didn't feel up to it."
Instead of getting up at 6 a.m. to shower, dress and rush to the liquor store for a 14-hour workday, Parker sleeps until 10 a.m., a luxury. And he tries to work out for at least 30 minutes a day.
"I just ride the bicycle, and I do arm presses and neck presses," he said.
In Baltimore, sports fans haven't let go of their beloved Colts, now in Indianapolis, though the city has the Ravens. Likewise, Parker can't seem to get the liquor store out of his system.
He went to the store yesterday to wait on the last of the trucks that are coming to haul away his liquor. And he sat outside the store in his Jeep Cherokee for several minutes before realizing the men aren't due there until today.
But he didn't sit there in vain.
"I was down there [yesterday] morning, and I bet you 200 people came over to the truck and told me they were going to miss me and they hated to see me go," he said.