Doing it all in a simpler era

Nov. 07, 2013 @ 07:45 PM

The minimalist leather helmet in the old black-and-white photos pretty much says it all.

Clarence McKay “Ace” Parker played sports in a simpler time.

It was, as The Herald-Sun’s Steve Wiseman made clear in an obituary for Mr. Parker Thursday, a time when a strapping young athlete could play literally in many arenas.

Mr. Parker was a football star at Duke – indeed, many of his records lasted long after he had gone on to a career in professional football and, ultimately, as a coach back at his alma mater.

But he didn’t stop at football. He played baseball at Duke – and later, professionally, hitting a home-run in his first big-league at bat with Philadelphia A’s. He also played basketball at Duke.

Even at that, he was scaling back a bit. In high school in Norfolk County, Va., he also played on a state-championship golf team and won the state high jump championship.

Football was the sport in which he stood out.  At his death, he was the oldest living member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.

He was, incidentally, the second-oldest living baseball player -- Connie Marrero, who played for the Washington Senators in the 1950s, turned 102 in April.

After his playing days ended, Mr. Parker joined Duke’s football coaching staff from 1947 until 1965, and coached baseball from 1953 to 1966. Even players’ recollections of his coaching style seem to evoke a different era. Jerry McGee, who played football at Duke from 1958-1960, told The Herald-Sun last year, “I remember him saying, ‘this is the way you do it, gentlemen.”

Finally, it’s hard to imagine a coach in this era of no-holds-barred recruiting risking the technique the legendary Wallace Wade rolled out to lure Mr. Parker from his intention to play football for Virginia Tech.

Wade, so the legend goes, told the young athlete that he should go ahead and go to Virginia Tech because he wasn’t good enough to play for Duke.

Mr. Parker showed him -- which, we suspect, was exactly what Wade expected.

Those days of lower-key recruiting, multiple sports careers, and yes, leather helmets are long gone, of course, light years away from today’s high-pressure, multimillion-dollar, keenly specialized major-college athletics. 

Burgeoning fan interest, lucrative television deals and stratospheric coaching salaries all have transformed the game – as have bigger, stronger, ever-more-athletic players.  It’s tempting to bask in nostalgia, but we suspect that would evoke the old Will Rogers line that things aren’t like they used to be, and they never were.

Those leather helmets provided far less protection than today’s high-tech headgear. And Mr. Parker and his contemporaries played in facilities and with equipment far more Spartan than today’s.

It’s highly likely that had Mr. Parker been born 80 years later, he would be a fierce competitor in today’s more complicated games. “He could do it all,” a contemporary recalled years later.

And that seems like a wonderful epitaph for a life lived to the fullest.