By Ed Miller
and Jim Ducibella
© November 7, 2013
Ace Parker, arguably the greatest athlete from Hampton Roads and one of the last American sports heroes of the Depression era, died Wednesday at 101.
He played pro football when helmets were leather, and he rarely came off the field - playing quarterback and defensive back and punting and placekicking his way to NFL MVP honors in 1940. He also played major league baseball for legendary manager Connie Mack, and his career overlapped with Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby, among other greats. He hit a home run in his first big-league at-bat in 1937.
Parker golfed alongside Sam Snead and Chandler Harper, golfing greats who said he had the goods to compete on the pro tour.
"For some reason, I don't know how to tell you, it just came natural," Parker said of his athletic career in a 2008 interview, when he was 96 and had been chosen by a panel of experts as the greatest athlete in South Hampton Roads' history.
Clarence McKay Parker was the oldest former NFL player and the oldest-ever Hall of Famer. He was inducted in 1972. He was the second-oldest former major league baseball player at his death.
A Wilson High graduate, he was a civic treasure in his hometown of Portsmouth for some 80 years.
Parker stiff-armed "Father Time" for decades, golfing well into his 90s and often stopping in for lunch at Elizabeth Manor Golf and Country Club, where he lived off the 15th fairway.
Humor and humility helped Parker deflect a lifetime of adulation. A member of many halls of fame, he had little use for plaques and trophies.
"Ace never kept anything; he gave everything away," said Eddie Webb, president of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. "We've got a huge painting of Ace here in the Hall of Fame that Ace was going to throw away. He brought it down here, and said, 'You want this?' "
The hall also has Parker's Pro Football Hall of Fame bust. It was gathering dust in a closet at a local high school, Webb said.
Football was never Parker's favorite sport. His first love was baseball. Selected by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the second NFL draft in 1937, he kept the team waiting until after baseball season. They sent a plane to Norfolk to pick him up. Parker started at quarterback a few days later.
Parker's major league baseball career lasted just two seasons, but he continued to play in the minor leagues during the football offseason. He was leading the International League in batting in 1940 at Syracuse when he broke his left leg. When the season was over, he went back to the football Dodgers and edged out Washington's Sammy Baugh that year for league MVP, despite playing the first three games with a 10-pound brace on his leg.
Just 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds, he once played 656 minutes of the 660 minutes in a football season.
"He could do everything," the late Bob Carroll, executive director of the Pro Football Researchers Association, said in a 2005 interview. "He was a good passer, but no Sammy Baugh. He was a good runner, but no Cliff Battles. He was a good play-caller, a decent punter, and certainly a very good choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
Parker's chance discovery was the stuff of fiction. He grew up in Norfolk County and initially attended Churchland High School. But when Churchland canceled its football program, he dropped out of school and went to work for Belt Line Railroad.
While on the old City Park Golf Course in Portsmouth, he was approached by two Wilson High coaches who persuaded him to attend their school by promising to waive the fee Parker's family would have had to pay because he lived outside Wilson's attendance area.
Parker was a five-sport wonder at Wilson. He quarterbacked the football team, played forward on the basketball team and led the baseball team to the Tidewater championship in 1933 as a shortstop and pitcher.
In track, he won the state high-jump title. In 1932, he beat Snead in a long-driving contest at the Virginia high school tournament in Roanoke, averaging 303-1/2 yards on three shots. He was the No. 2 player on a state champion golf squad that featured Harper, a future PGA champion and lifelong friend.
Parker played football, baseball and basketball at Duke. He led the Blue Devils to a 24-5 record in his three seasons at quarterback and was twice named an All-American. His 105-yard kickoff return during the 1936 season stands as the school record.
Parker didn't receive his nickname until his junior year at Duke when a sportswriter noted, "Whether they need five, ten or 15 yards, Clarence Parker is Duke's Ace in the hole." He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1955.
Parker's NFL career was interrupted by World War II. He served three years in the Navy as a lieutenant.
After retiring from pro football in 1946, he returned to Duke as an assistant football coach and stayed until 1965. Parker also served as player-manager of the Durham Bulls and coached the Duke baseball team from 1953 to 1966. The school's most-recent college world series appearance came under his direction in 1961.
Parker later served as an NFL scout.
In retirement, Parker was a fixture at Elizabeth Manor, where the clubhouse doubles as a shrine to him. Until a few years ago, he would occasionally hit balls there, or ride along in a golf cart and watch friends play.
Parker's wife of 67 years, Thelma, died in 2009. Parker had been hospitalized since late October with pulmonary problems. He will be buried Monday, and a graveside service will be held at 2 p.m. at Olive Branch Cemetery in Portsmouth. Visitation is 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The family will greet visitors that day from 2-4 p.m. at Foster Funeral Home in Portsmouth.
In a 1989 interview, Harper said of Parker: "In my lifetime, I've met a lot of giants in their endeavor: Henry Ford, Bing Crosby, Ty Cobb, Eddie Arcaro, Rocky Marciano, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Joe DiMaggio.
"But the first giant I met was Ace Parker."
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