Colts great 'blocked out the sun' and rushers, too

After retirement, Jim Parker tended to his package goods store in West Baltimore until a stroke in 1999 made him close it.
After retirement, Jim Parker tended to his package goods store in West Baltimore until a stroke in 1999 made him close it. (Sun staff)
His crushing blocks launched Lenny Moore's runs and saved John Unitas' skin.

Jim Parker, the Hall of Famer who anchored the Baltimore Colts' offensive line during the club's glory years, died yesterday of congestive heart failure and kidney disease at the Lorien Nursing Home in Columbia. He was 71.

A mainstay on the Colts' National Football League championship teams of 1958 and 1959, Parker was a superb blocker. He carved out paths for runners and guarded Unitas, his stoop-shouldered quarterback, with the ferocity of an embassy Marine.

"As Johnny's protector, Jim was second to none," said Moore, the Hall of Famer who ran amok in Parker's wake. "If Jim got through the line, I'd be right on his hip because I knew he'd clear out the area."

A first-round draft pick in 1957 from Ohio State, Parker played 11 years with the Colts. He made All-Pro eight straight times - four at guard and four at tackle.

"Anyplace he played on that line, Jim kicked tail," John Mackey, the Colts' Hall of Fame tight end, recalled several years ago. "John [Unitas] never worried about his blind side; Parker was good enough to annihilate the best defensive end."

At 6 feet 3 and 273 pounds, Parker was, at the time, the biggest player ever drafted by Baltimore. "He blocked out the sun," said Ernie Accorsi, former Colts general manager.

A two-time All-American, Parker led Ohio State to a Rose Bowl victory in 1954. His senior year, he won the Outland Award as the nation's premier college lineman, a trophy he cherished to the end in his home in Columbia.

"When I'm gone, I'd like to be known as the best offensive lineman that ever lived," Parker told The Sun in a 2000 interview. "I set that goal as a college freshman, but I didn't get bodacious about it until later.

"You don't broadcast goals 'til it's all over."

Born James Thomas Parker in 1934, he grew up in Macon, Ga., picking peaches and cotton on the family farm. At 13, he took up football. Parker weighed all of 105 pounds at the time.

"I got the living hell beat out of me the first day of practice," he recalled later. "So my daddy bought a case of oatmeal and a case of grits and had me eat it three times a day."

Four years later, Parker had gained nearly 100 pounds and a college football scholarship. At Ohio State, where few blacks lived on campus, he stayed at the home of the late Woody Hayes, the Buckeyes' head coach, who would introduce Parker at his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1973.

"Physically, Jim was in a class by himself," Hayes said at that ceremony. "Attitude-wise, he was even greater. You only had to tell him once."

Colts fans embraced Parker, who wore No. 77, from the outset.

"He was a legitimate starter from the first day of training camp," said Buzz Nutter, the team's center. "About twice a game, Parker would absolutely 'pancake' a linebacker, running over him like a big elephant. The guy would disappear like he'd been driven right into the ground."

Parker plugged a vital hole in the Colts' front line, said Raymond Berry, the club's star receiver who played alongside him and was inducted with him in the Hall of Fame in 1973.

"Before Jim came, we couldn't handle [pass rushers] like Chicago's Doug Atkins, a tremendous athlete who'd charge from Unitas' blind side," said Berry. "Once Jim came, we never heard from Doug anymore. In fact, we never heard from anyone on that side anymore."

Atkins, the Bears' Hall of Fame defensive end, called Parker "the best tackle I ever faced. You had to hit Jim full speed, and sometimes that still didn't budge him."

Atkins took credit for instructing Parker in the more subtle nuances of the game.

"I taught him how to cuss," he said. "When we lined up, I'd call him an ugly name and he'd say something back and I'd say, 'Jim, those two words don't even go together.' "

Parker's signature performance came early on, in the 1958 championship dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played." In the Colts' 23-17, sudden-death victory over New York, Parker dominated the Giants' heralded pass rusher, Andy Robustelli.

"I thought about him [Robustelli] all night before the game," Parker recalled. "Just pronouncing his name scared the hell out of me. Well, he beat me a couple of times that day, but that was it."

After the game, sitting at his locker, it was Robustelli's turn to praise: "He [Parker] is the best I've played against."

Parker could be a pain on game day, teammates said.

"He got really worked up in the locker room; you had to stay out of his way," said Jim Mutscheller, the Colts' tight end. "Jim would move around without seeing people and just run into them without realizing it. I'd be black-and-blue before the game started."

Parker's appetite was legend. He routinely struggled to make weight, no thanks to players like Nutter and guard George Preas, who roomed opposite him in training camp at McDaniel (then Western Maryland) College.

"Every night after practice, George and I would bring back two hamburgers and lay them on our desk, to bait Jim," Nutter said. "Sure enough, Parker would find some excuse to come into the room and stomp around awhile - and when he left, the burgers were gone. He'd scarfed them right up."

An iron horse, Parker played in 139 consecutive Colts games before injuring his knee in 1967. Rather than slow the team, he retired during the season, a move that coach Don Shula called "maybe the most unselfish act in sports history." The Colts were 10-0-2 at the time.

Much of the rest of his life, Parker spent receiving accolades and tending his package goods store in West Baltimore. The store, at Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard, closed in 1999 after Parker suffered a stroke.

"Jim ran a business in a pretty difficult neighborhood, but he did it with real class," said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "The biggest problem was combating the growing drug trafficking in that community, but he made it clear he wouldn't tolerate it inside his establishment."

Schmoke said it wasn't uncommon for Parker to storm out of his store in pursuit of a suspect in a purse-snatching or mugging.

Parker was the first full-time offensive lineman elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame - one of five sports shrines to honor him (the others were Ohio State University, the state of Georgia, the Colts and the College Football Hall of Fame).

He was a unanimous choice for the NFL's 75th anniversary team. And when the New York Daily News commissioned a poll to select the 50 top pro football players of the century, Parker finished No. 20, just ahead of quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Dan Marino.

"I thank God for giving me the strength and courage and knowledge to play this game," Parker told The Sun. "It didn't just happen. Someone was looking over my shoulder."

Parker is survived by his wife, the former Esther Hester, and 13 children: Jimi of Reisterstown, David of Owings Mills, Pam, Sheri and Diane of Woodlawn, Brian of Randallstown, Ernest and Tina of Baltimore City, Miasha and Anwar of Catonsville, Christian of Columbia, Candace of New Jersey and Deborah of Dumfries, Va.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

Sun staff writer Rasheim T. Freeman contributed to this article.