EDMONTON - Greatest Edmonton Eskimo ever?
Jack Dickerson Flanagan!
Ever heard of him? I hadn't either.
It was in New Orleans, in an almost deserted Super Bowl press room when a man who looked vaguely familiar offered his hand.
"Fred Parker,'' he said. "United Press International."
This was the fun-loving newspapering brother I'd heard the greatest Eskimo ever, Jackie Parker, talk about.
Born on New Year's Day 1932 in a little red shack high atop Cherry Ridge in Knoxville, Tenn., Jackie Parker went on to became a famed name in Canadian sport. But as we walked out of the media room in search of their daddy, Carroll A. Parker, Fred Parker told me the story.
He said it had never been written before.
"He was born Jack Dickerson Flanagan."
Fred explained that their mom left Jackie's "real'' father and obtained a court order prohibiting him from seeing the boys. She met and married Carroll A. Parker not long after Jackie was born. Jackie would one day take Parker as his last name.
Call him Flanagan, call him Parker, call him the Mississippi Magic Man or Ol' Spaghetti Legs, generation after generation of Canadian football fans knew Jackie Parker was great. But 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. He was just the best,'' said Don Getty, Parker's former backup who went on to be premier of the province.
"You talk to people now, more than a half a century 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,'' said Getty, when Parker died in 2006.
Others had said it before.
Ray Willsey, an Eskimo who went on to coach in the NFL for more than a quarter century, said it 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.
"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.''
It's no contest.
Jack Dickerson Flanagan.