One of the greatest

A Jackie Parker trading card leans against a football helmet from Parker's playing era as part of...

A Jackie Parker trading card leans against a football helmet from Parker's playing era as part of an Eskimo locker display decorated with memorobilia from Parker's playing days following his death in Edmonton on Tuesday. (Edmonton Sun/Brendon Dlouhy)

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Jackie Parker was great. Generation after generation of Canadian football fans have known that. But how great?

That's one of the toughest things about dealing with the death of the Edmonton Eskimos' legend, says Don Getty. Today's fans don't realize how great.

"You look at the best players in the NFL today, the best players in the game over all the years. Jackie Parker was better.

"He was a great quarterback. He was a great halfback. He played both quarterback and safety in a Grey Cup. Imagine Tom Brady or Brett Favre trying to do that? He was just the best," said Getty, Parker's former back-up who went on to be premier of the province.

"You talk to people now, 52 years after he picked up Chuck Hunsinger's fumble and ran it all the way back to win the 1954 Grey Cup, and they don't want to believe you when you tell them that he was the best, the best ever, the greatest who ever played the game, they can't really comprehend that."

Others had said it before.

Ray Willsey, an Eskimo who went on to coach in the NFL for more than a quarter century. Every year he made it to the Super Bowl - and he made it there fairly frequently as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders - Willsey would tell reporters that nobody on the property was as great as a guy he used to play with in Canada. He'd tell them that Jackie Parker was the greatest player he had ever watched.

SIMPLY THE BEST

"I've seen some pretty good ball players," Willsey said. "I've watched Jimmy Brown, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Y.A. Tittle, Otto Graham and Joe Namath. And without reservation, I'm telling you that Jackie Parker was the best football player I've ever seen.

"That's one hell of a strong statement. But if my career depended on one play and I had the choice of any player I'd ever watched, I'd have a better chance if I gave the ball to Jackie Parker than anyone. He'd find a way."

Dan Kelly, the late great St. Louis-based hockey broadcaster, once told an Edmonton audience of a discussion involving the St. Louis Cardinals coaching staff.

"When the Cardinals were flying high in the early '70s, six of their coaches were playing cards and drinking beer one night and they started arguing about who they'd like to have on their side if it was fourth down at the five yard line and they had to get the ball into the end zone," Kelly recalled.

"One said Jim Brown. Another agreed. A third said Joe Namath. The other three said Jackie Parker. One of the coaches picking Parker was Don Coryell, the man who would become famous as head coach of Air Coryell - the San Diego Chargers. Another was Jim Champion, who had been head coach of the B.C. Lions. And the other was Ray Willsey."

Coach Pop Ivy of the three-in-a-row '54-'55-'56 Grey Cup team would go on to coach and scout in the NFL for decades.

He stuck to the same story.

"I always felt Jackie was the best all-around football player I've ever seen," said Ivy. "I spent 50 years in football and that covers a lot of people. But Jackie had that ability to win. When the chips were down, he'd come in and win a game for you somehow."

WILL TO WIN

Frank Morris said Parker's talents were trump. But it was nothing compared to his will to win.

"He was the greatest leader there ever was in the CFL," said Morris. "It was an amazing feeling. We'd go into a dressing room at half time, down 14 points, and have no question that somehow, some way, we were going to win. And in the other dressing room, I suspect, it was the same. They were probably wondering when he was going to do it."

They all have stories.

"One day in Ottawa Jackie was in great shape to play quarterback but no shape to play halfback," Getty spun the story when we talked after he'd visited Parker in hospital a few weeks ago.

"It was 99 degrees and the humidity was 99% and we were down by 20 points, so we were alternating the two of us at quarterback. Boy, did we have a colourful backfield that day. I had Johnny and Rollie, who were black, and Normie, who was Chinese, and Jackie, who was beat red. I was the only white guy in the backfield.

"I remember Jack made a brilliant one-handed grab at the two-yard line. He was laying there on the field when I came over to him and he started to talk.

"'Donnnnnnald,' he drawled. 'Donnnnnald, I'm getting off here. Give the ball to Johnnnnnny. Or give the ball to Norrrrrrmie. But I'm getting off here.'

"I did give the ball to Johnny Bright or Normie Kwong, I can't remember which, and scored the touchdown. When we got back to the bench, we couldn't find Jackie. He was under the scorers' table. It was the only shade he could find in the place."

He wasn't just great. He was colourful.


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