Ace Parker, NFL Hall of Famer, dies at 101

November 7, 2013

Ace Parker, an All-American football star at Duke University in the 1930s who was named the National Football League’s most valuable player in 1940, died Nov. 6 in Portsmouth, Va. At 101, he was the oldest living NFL player and the first member of the of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to reach the age of 100.

His death was announced by the NFL and Duke University. The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported that he had been hospitalized for a pulmonary ailment.

Sporting a name that seemed to burst straight from the pages of comic books, Mr. Parker was a natural athlete who excelled in almost every sport he tried. He played major-league baseball for two seasons in the late 1930s and was also an outstanding basketball player, golfer and high jumper.

But it was on the gridiron that Mr. Parker found his greatest moments of glory, playing in the “leatherhead” days of football, wearing heavy, high-topped shoes and flimsy leather helmets with no face masks.

In 1941, syndicated sports columnist Bob Considine called Mr. Parker “the best all-around football player” he had ever seen.


Ace Parker was named the NFL’s most valuable player after the 1940 season, when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. (AP)

After temporarily dropping out of high school to work for the railroad, Mr. Parker entered Duke when he was 21. From 1934 through 1936, he was the sparkplug of the team’s single-wing offense, a baffling, fast-shifting formation that required the tailback — Mr. Parker — to be a skilled runner, passer, ball handler and punter.

He was not big, at 5-10 and about 170 pounds, but he was evasive and determined. He earned his nickname at Duke, when a sportswriter pronounced him his team’s “ace in the hole.”

On Nov. 16, 1935, before a crowd of 47,000 — the largest ever to see a football game in the South at the time — Mr. Parker led Duke to a 25-0 victory over previously unbeaten North Carolina. He raced 30 yards for the game’s final touchdown.

A week later, against North Carolina State, he scored the game’s only touchdown on a 40-yard run to lead Duke to the Southern Conference championship.

In November 1936, when he was a senior, Mr. Parker led the Blue Devils to a 9-1 season. They clinched a second straight conference title with a 13-0 victory over N.C. State, in which Mr. Parker scored all 13 points. He capped his career in the fourth quarter by catching a punt at his own 30-yard line. He sprinted 70 yards through the Wolfpack, carrying tacklers with him across the goal line.

“The crowd of 18,000, biggest ever to see Duke and State play,” an Associated Press report noted, “rose and applauded as he left the game late in the last quarter.”

He was a consensus All-American and finished sixth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.

For all his girdiron exploits, Mr. Parker said his favorite sport was baseball. Soon after leaving Duke, he was in the major leagues in April 1937, playing for the Philadelphia Athletics under Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack. In his first at-bat, Mr. Parker hit a pinch-hit home run.

But as the season wore on, he had trouble hitting the curveball and “kind of got to know that my chances of being a good baseball player were pretty marginal,” he said in the 1984 book of football oral history, “What a Game They Played.”

Late in 1937, he began playing with the woeful Brooklyn Dodgers, then a franchise in the NFL. The next year, he led the league in passing and total offense.

From 1938 through 1940, Mr. Parker was a first-team all-pro at a time when the NFL had such top-flight quarterbacks as Washington’s Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears, Cecil Isbell in Green Bay and Davey O’Brien of the Philadelphia Eagles.

During the first three games of his MVP season in 1940, Mr. Parker wore a heavy brace on his left leg after breaking his ankle while playing baseball. He led Brooklyn to an 8-3 record, tied for the league lead in interceptions with six and was his team’s punter and kicker. He won the MVP award over three other Hall of Famers: Baugh, Luckman and Green Bay receiver Don Hutson.

“I’ll tell you the best I ever saw: Ace Parker,” Baugh, often called the leading quarterback of his era, said in 1994. “He could punt, he could pass, he could run, he could play defense. I mean, he could do it all.”

Clarence McKay Parker was born in Portsmouth on May 17, 1912. He began working for the railroad after his high school dropped football, but coaches from Portsmouth’s Wilson High School asked him to attend their school.

Mr. Parker lettered in five sports — football, basketball, baseball, track and golf. He won the state championship in the high jump and was on a state-champion golf team. At a high school golf tournament, Mr. Parker once beat his fellow Virginian, Hall of Fame golfer Sam Snead, in a long-driving contest.

In 1942, Mr. Parker entered the Navy and served throughout World War II. He didn’t return to football until 1945. He played his final season in 1946 for the New York Yankees of the upstart All-American Football Conference.

After his football career, Mr. Parker continued to play and manage baseball in the minor leagues until 1952, when he was 40. He was head baseball coach at Duke until 1966 and also served as an assistant football coach. One of his football proteges at Duke was Sonny Jurgensen, the Hall of Fame quarterback with the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles.

Mr. Parker later served as a scout for NFL teams before retiring to Portsmouth.

His wife of 67 years, the former Thelma Sykes, died in 2009. Survivors include a sister.

Mr. Parker was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1955 and to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.

At his 1972 induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, he said, “I never expected to be selected for this, but since I have been selected, I’m sure glad it happened while I’m still around.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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