DURHAM -- A large part of Duke University and Duke Athletics died on Wednesday morning in Portsmouth, Va. A genuine legend, Clarence McKay Parker passed away at 101 years old.
You might know him better as “Ace” Parker and calling him a legend doesn’t bring justice to the word. “The Ace of Them All” was much more than a legend -- he was an immortal in the world of athletics.
He was one of the greatest athletes of all-time. Period. All-time. I was taught by a professor in college to be judicial with my adjectives. Great, doesn’t even come close to describing Ace Parker.
Ace was a true athlete. He was an incredible football player at the college and pro level, a fantastic college and pro baseball player and a golfer of truly implausible natural ability.
When you write a story about “Ace” Parker, you can quickly run out of adjectives.
Duke has its share of legends in college athletics - Wallace Wade, Bill Murray, Eddie Cameron, Jack Coombs and Ace Parker.
For those of you who only believe great athletes appear on television, you are wrong. Ace is arguably the greatest athlete to ever don a Duke uniform.
As a football player at Duke his play was the thing made up of fairy tales.
A two-time All-America, Parker was part of teams that ran up a 24-5 record from 1934-36. He helped Duke to two Southern Conference titles. But what he will be best known for was being part of a Duke football team in 1935 that kept North Carolina from appearing in the Rose Bowl.
Yep. Ace and his teammates made sure that Duke is the only team from the state of North Carolina to play in the Rose Bowl. Not the Tar Heels. It was something he was very proud of.
Duke was a decided underdog when they hosted the Tar Heels on November 16, 1935. The Blue Devils entered that game with a 6-2 record with wins over South Carolina, Clemson and Tennessee. The losses were 6-0 to Georgia Tech and 7-0 to Auburn.
North Carolina, on the other hand, came into the game with a 7-0 mark, having outscored its opponents, 209-19, with five shutouts. Jim Sumner reported on this website in 2010 -- The Durham Morning Herald wrote that Duke "had little chance to stop Carolina's flying rush toward national honors."
The oddsmakers made the Tar Heels 4-1 favorites, while the Rose Bowl had UNC at the top of its wish list.
A crowd of 46,880 filled Duke Stadium in a chilly rain. Ace Parker was a junior that year. I asked Coach Wade one day when I was visiting him at his home what made Ace such a great player. He said nothing, he wasn’t great at anything, but he was good at everything. That day against Carolina he proved that description as he was a solid, runner, defender and punter.
In the world of college football in the late 1930s, punting was key and Parker hit one 68-yarder from the Duke one, then dropped a punt at the Carolina two yard line setting up a Blue Devil interception and touchdown.
The Duke defense kept forcing turnovers. Parker stopped one third-period drive by recovering a fumble. Parker added a fourth touchdown for the Blue Devils when he scored for 30 yards out. The final score was 25-0.
The Tar Heels did not get invited to Pasadena.
The next season, Parker would set a Duke school record with a 105-yard kickoff return against the Tar Heels, a record that still stands in the Blue Devil record books today, in a 27-7 victory. Duke finished with a 9-1 record and a national ranking of No.11.
As a college baseball player, Parker batted .336 in 1935 and .337 in 1937 as the Blue Devils registered a two-year record of 42-10. He also lettered one season, in 1936, as a member of the Duke basketball squad.
Parker would leave Duke and go on to be a second round pick of the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937, leading the league in passing in 1938 and earning MVP honors in 1940. He also played two seasons of Major League baseball with the Philadelphia Athletics and became the third player to hit a home run in his first major league plate appearance.
In “The Complete Story of the National Football League”, Sid Luckman, the Bears’ Hall of Fame quarterback, once said that Sammy Baugh “was the best player ever. No one will ever equal him.” Baugh responsed with characteristic humility: “It’s a wonderful thing for Sid to say, and I appreciate it immensely, but I don’t believe it. I’ll tell you the best I ever saw: Ace Parker… He could punt, he could pass, he could run, he could play defense. I mean, he could do it all.”
Coach Wade told me one day when I was working on a story on Parker that football and baseball weren’t even his best sports. He had a natural golf swing. He could walk out on the course at any time and shoot par. Wade even tried to talk Parker into becoming a professional golf, noting that he would have a longer golfing career than he would in football or baseball. But in the ‘30’s there wasn’t a lot of money in professional golf, so Parker not only played football and baseball professionally, but went on to a coaching career at Duke in both sports and was the manager of the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team.
The Virginian-Pilot newspaper noted that in 1932, Parker beat pro golfing great Sam Snead in a long-drive contest at the Virginia high school tournament in Roanoke, averaging 303½ yards on three shots. He was the No. 2 player on a state champion golf squad that featured future PGA Champion and lifelong friend Chandler Harper.
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.”
Parker was a founding member of Elizabeth Manor Golf Course in Portsmouth, Virginia where he played well into his 90’s and the road leading to the clubhouse is “Ace” Parker Drive.
The national media will recognize Parker as the oldest living member of the National Football Hall of Fame and as one of the legends of the NFL.
He is our legend. He is the “Ace of Them All” because he was a Duke athlete and a true gentleman.
Ace would be very proud of what this Duke football team has done this year. I hope all Duke fans take time to be proud of the Blue Devils and their legendary players like Ace Parker.
Parker’s passing is the final of a legacy of Duke people who set the foundation for what has become one of the nation’s most enviable athletic programs.