Davis: James ‘Quick’ Parker was a once-in-a-generation player

My favourite memory of James “Quick” Parker occurred in his Vancouver restaurant, surrounded by friends and professional athletes, about four years after his Canadian Football Hall of Fame playing career had ended.

Although he was a once-in-a-generation player, coaching never seemed to be a perfect fit for Parker. After trying it for two seasons (1992-93) as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ defensive line coach under legendary head coach Don Matthews, Parker returned to Vancouver and opened a restaurant on Beatty Street, right across from B.C. Place Stadium. I don’t know if Parker was the sole owner or a partner — and I’ve even forgotten the place’s name — but during one of our visits he told us he had always wanted to own a quaint little blues club, with great music and better food.

Parker had a built-in clientele among CFL players, coaches and media because he was a popular guy, a charismatic man whose smile and friendly demeanour put everyone at ease. Those are some of the off-field qualities everyone is recalling in the wake of Parker’s death Tuesday at the age of 60.

Of course Parker wasn’t that congenial when he played linebacker and undersized defensive end (5-foot-10, 215 pounds) for the Edmonton Eskimos, B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts. His burst off the line of scrimmage was unparalleled; he was the prototypical pass-rusher who redefined the position and convinced the CFL to start recording quarterback sacks as an official statistic. Parker set a league record with 26.5 sacks during a 16-game season in 1984 and finished his 12-year career with 139.5, totally justifying his nickname, “Quick.” And somewhere along the line he casually picked up a bird’s feather, tucked it between his facemask and helmet, and made it into a personal trademark during practices and games.

After finishing his college career at Wake Forest, then being cut and re-signed by the Eskimos in 1980, Parker contributed to the final three of the franchise’s unmatched five straight Grey Cups victories. Matthews, an Eskimos assistant coach during that time, joined B.C. as the Lions’ head coach and somehow arranged a trade for Parker. Another Grey Cup followed in 1985.

Three times Parker was named the CFL’s outstanding defensive player, six times he was a divisional all-star before finishing his career in 1991 with Toronto. Matthews liked giving former players an opportunity to transition into coaching, so Parker instructed a Roughriders defensive line that included Hall of Fame end Bobby Jurasin, dominant nose tackle Jearld Baylis and spindly Lance Cook, who had one noteworthy season under Parker’s expert tutelage.

Visiting with Parker during those two years was always a treat. He would be laughing, telling stories about the characters he knew and the quarterbacks he had sacked. Unhurriedly, he never seemed to want to head into meetings or film rooms, the essence of being a coach. He preferred being surrounded by people who were enjoying themselves, which is how I remember him in that (unfortunately short-lived) Vancouver restaurant — sitting at a table while laughing and hugging and talking to the huge group of Roughriders who absolutely had to spend time with one of their favourite people and perhaps the best pass-rusher to ever play in the CFL.

Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.