Growing up in Shaw, Johnny Parker (BA 69) badly wanted to play football, but with only 100 pounds on his 5-foot-11.5-inch frame, he was far too skinny for the sport he loved.
“I was so thin you could read a newspaper through me,” Parker recalls with a laugh.
Though there weren’t many athletes lifting weights in the late 1950s and early ’60s, a coach, Richard Hamberlin (MEd 63), who lived near the school, let local boys lift on a set in his backyard. At first, the skinny ninth-grade Parker couldn’t raise the 45-pound barbell without help. It was, after all, almost half his body weight.
Not long after he started working out, Parker’s parents bought him his own set of weights for Christmas. Through dedication to the instructions that came with the weights, he added size and strength and grew into a 175-pound offensive and defensive tackle for Shaw High School. He also threw the discus on the track team.
His experience with weights at a young age began his lifelong interest in lifting and strength training. Today, he’s known as a legend among professional football strength coaches, having been on four Super Bowl teams, which he helped become bigger, stronger and faster.
“[Lifting] was the only way I was able to play high school football,” Parker says. “Then, when I first started in education, most males in Mississippi who taught also had to coach. If weights had helped me that much, I knew it would help our players. As I realized there was a lot more to weight training for sports, I started traveling to learn about my responsibilities for football. I traveled all over the South and Southwest.”
Parker enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1964 but didn’t play football. He graduated in 1969 with a degree in history and was hired at Indianola Academy, where he worked for one season as girls basketball coach and five seasons as linebackers coach.
Parker describes his early coaching career as mediocre. While he was coaching in Indianola, a seventh-grade basketball player came to see him, in tears, and told him she wanted to be good, but he wasn’t working with her enough to help her get better. That changed his perspective, and he vowed to always give his pupils his best effort.
“I just had kind of a revelation,” Parker says. “If you aren’t doing the best you can, you’re cheating your kids. That changed my life entirely. Before you can demand anything from them, you have to give them your best.”
He learned about the teachings of Alvin Roy, who pioneered weight training as a championship high school football coach in Baton Rouge and later became the strength coach at Louisiana State University under coach Paul Dietzel.
“Weight training was becoming more popular, but it was not widespread,” Parker says. “We had some success in football, and the players really believed in it, and so [did] the parents. As a result of all this traveling to learn [more about weight training], I started getting offers to coach in college.”
Famous Coaches Come Calling
Parker declined an offer to be a part-time graduate assistant coach under legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, to accept a full-time job with Dietzel, who had moved to South Carolina. He worked with Dietzel for three seasons before moving to Indiana University in 1977, becoming the first strength coach in the Big Ten Conference.
At Indiana, he was responsible for strength and conditioning for both the football and basketball teams, which meant he answered to head football coach Lee Corso, who is now one of the hosts of ESPN’s “College GameDay,” and Bob Knight, the Hoosiers’ legendary basketball coach.
“They were both very supportive and so nice to me,” Parker says. “But you had to remember who you were going in to see because they were so different from each other.”
Knight taught Parker the value of having a “no excuses” atmosphere on a team, which included all coaches and players being accountable, no matter the circumstance.
Making a Name for Himself
After two seasons at Indiana, Parker was hired as head strength and conditioning coach at LSU during the 1980 season. He later had an opportunity to return to Ole Miss and helped head coach Billy Brewer’s Rebels earn a trip to the Independence Bowl in 1983 – the school’s first bowl game since 1971.
The 1980s were a busy and interesting period in Parker’s life. He earned a master’s degree from Delta State University and went to Russia to learn from weightlifting coaches who had helped their pupils win Olympic gold medals. He told the Clarion-Ledger in 2003 that the light came on while he was there.
“Think about it,” Parker says. “Offensive linemen? What do they do? They basically run 2-yard sprints. Everything they do is in quick bursts. So that’s the kind of weight training we try to do with them: explosive movements like power cleans, squats and jerks.”
A Giant of a Coach
The NFL came calling in 1984. Parker’s former boss at Indiana, Knight, had recommended him to New York Giants coach Bill Parcells for the team’s strength and conditioning coach job.
Parcells had a new $200,000 weight room built for the team, a rarity at the time, when many coaches remained skeptical of the benefits. Parcells was committed to the program Parker wanted to build and fostered an atmosphere of cohesion on his teams.
“We were completely unified in our overall attack,” Parker says.
The team’s commitment to Parker’s off-season regimen is illustrated in comments Giants receiver Phil McConkey made to the Washington Post in 1987. He and quarterback Phil Simms were recording a training video in California but were invited to fly to Las Vegas for Sugar Ray Leonard’s epic prizefight against Marvin Hagler. The two passed on the invite and instead spent that night in the weight room working on what Parker had taught them.
“We could’ve flown on a private jet,” McConkey says. “We had offers for a private this or private that, front-row seats and everything. But we didn’t go. The fight was going on, and we were lifting weights at Mesa (Arizona) Junior College. In fact, we had to break into the (weight) room just to get in. Phil and I took turns calling SportsPhone to get the round-by-round results.”
‘The Wisest Man’
With the legendary Giants team, Parker worked with some of the biggest sports personalities of the 1980s, including Hall of Fame linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson and greats Leonard Marshall and Phil Simms. He also worked with future NFL head coaches Tom Coughlin, Bill Belichick, Al Groh and Romeo Crennel.
None of those personalities was larger than the Giants’ head man, Parcells, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Parker calls Parcells, affectionately known as the “Big Tuna,” the wisest man he knows.
“I could tell you all the pearls of wisdom that I got from him, and it would take me days,” Parker says. “To sum him up, he might not be the smartest man I’ve ever known, but he’s definitely the wisest. What a great experience working for him for 11 years was. You couldn’t be around that towering personality for more than 15 minutes without being influenced.”
The experience greatly affected Parker.
“A lot of the things I believe about working with young people, about motivating them, I don’t know if it was originally my idea or Coach Parcells’,” he says. “That’s how influential he is. You learn to believe in his way so much that eventually it becomes your way. I learned more from him than anybody I’ve worked with.”
Part of Patriots Resurgence
After winning two Super Bowls with the Giants, Parker followed Parcells to the New England Patriots, where he played a role in that team’s emergence as an NFL power.
The 1994 Patriots made the franchise’s first postseason game in almost a decade. That year, Parker received the Super Bowl Achievement Award from the Professional Football Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society.
In 1996, the Patriots went 11-5 during the regular season and the next year made the Super Bowl. They lost to the Brett Favre-led Green Bay Packers, but the team had won its division two years straight and made the playoffs three straight times during Parker’s tenure. As in New York, his expertise in the weight room was touted as a major reason for the success.
A Fourth Super Bowl
Parker was hired by Jon Gruden as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head strength coach in 2002, and the team won the franchise’s first Super Bowl to close the 2003 season.
After leaving the NFL for the 2004 season, Parker was hired by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005. There, the players respected him for his approach to training and also his fairness. Lineman Anthony Adams said in a news report, “Parker is always the same guy. You know exactly what to expect from him. He didn’t have any favorites, and he was consistently hard on everybody. That’s why I love Johnny Parker.”
After taking three different teams to four Super Bowls during his 35-years-plus coaching career, Parker retired in 2008.
‘Fruitcake’ and ‘Tuna’
Parker and his wife, Jane, live in Safety Harbor, Fla., near Tampa. He likes to travel and continues to work out. Though he made a career of whipping massive NFL players into shape, his two beloved miniature schnauzers arguably control him. Fruitcake and Tuna, named in tribute to Parcells, are a handful.
When asked whether he thinks about all of his professional success, starting when he picked up a set of weights as a scrawny teenager, Parker says he does but tries to remain humble.
“One thing I can’t stand is self-promoters,” Parker says. “As soon as anybody says ‘I did this,’ or ‘I did that,’ I tune out real quickly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that football is the ultimate team game. There is nothing you can do by yourself. We had some physically strong teams, but if they didn’t have a champion’s heart and compete every day in practice, being strong wouldn’t make much of a difference.”
By Michael Newsom.
This story was reprinted with permission from the Ole Miss Alumni Review. The Alumni Review is published quarterly for members of the Ole Miss Alumni Association. Join or renew your membership with the Alumni Association today, and don’t miss a single issue.
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