Saturday, April 2, 2016

The quiet man

The first time I saw Eugene Parker he was punking my high school.

There were eight, seven, six seconds left in this sectional basketball game at Memorial Coliseum (yes, children, they used to play sectional games in the Coliseum), and Eugene, the best basketball player in Fort Wayne that year and still one of the best ever to come out of this city, was bringing the ball up the floor.

And now the seconds were down to five, four, three, and he was still bringing the ball up the floor. And now the seconds were down to two.

Suddenly a whistle blew.

Whistle, and a foul, because if my high school, New Haven, didn't foul Eugene, he was going to score. Everyone in the Coliseum knew it. And so Eugene, who was a junior at Concordia that year,  stepped to the line. People all around me in the New Haven student section were screaming at him to miss. And I was shaking my head.

"He's not gonna miss these," I said.

And of course he didn't.

And of course Concordia beat New Haven 56-55, or maybe 56-54.

And Eugene -- I'll never forget this -- scored 36 of Concordia's 56.

"You pretty much beat us by yourself," I always told Eugene later on, when he had become the player representative who included Rod Woodson, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders and any number of others among his clients, and who changed the entire landscape of the NFL with some of the deals he struck for those clients.

He died Thursday night, at the age of 60, of kidney cancer. That it came as such a shock to so many of us outside his inner circle was a measure of just how private a man he was, how nothing was ever about him nor ever should be about him.

Whenever I'd bring up that sectional game, for instance, Eugene wouldn't say anything. He'd just kind of chuckle.

"I knew you weren't gonna miss those free throws," I'd sometimes also tell him.

And Eugene would chuckle again, and then he would say something that was absolutely, positively Eugene.

"Well, you were more confident than I was, then," he'd say.

There was, see, never any chest-pounding artifice to Eugene, never any self-aggrandizement or public acknowledgment of his status, which was considerable. He might have been the most influential man in Fort Wayne, given everything, but you'd never know it. His dodging of the spotlight was both reflexive and a measure of the humility that informed everything he did, and that in a great sense was the secret to his success.

He moved in a world, after all, driven by ego. And yet he sublimated his to a startling degree. Some player representatives relish being the front man for those they represent. Eugene decided it was those he represented who should be the front men. He concentrated on doing what was best for them, and being scrupulously honest about it.

It's why he ran his empire out of a little town in Indiana instead of New York or L.A. It's why even the owners with whom he negotiated so toughly respected him. And it's why he had so many high-end clients, and why one of them, Sanders, thought so much of him he had Eugene introduce him at his Hall of Fame induction.

It's also why, speaking as a media guy, he was notoriously frustrating to deal with sometimes. The man just didn't want to talk about himself, because none of this was about him. And so he didn't want to be quoted. He didn't want to be out there in the public eye. That red light on the TV camera, the tape recorder aimed in his direction: Those were his Kryptonite.

The last time I saw him might have been the night Fort Wayne honored Rod Woodson at Parkview Field for his Hall of Fame induction. Eugene was there, but you might not have known it. I didn't run into him on the field with all the other dignitaries, after all.  I ran into him up on the concourse, far from the center of attention.

Looking on, as he always did, from the shadows. Ceding the sunlit moment, literally, to those he deemed more worthy.

And yet we know the truth, today. We know the truth so many people whose lives he touched and  made better have known forever, and that stands revealed to the rest of us only now that Eugene Parker is gone.

No one was more worthy.


  1. Thanks for this. Mr. Parker was a giant and a great role model for us all.

  2. Indeed. One of the most decent men it was ever my privilege to meet.