Gail Parker left his mark

Published 8:36 am Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gail Parker’s reprieve lasted 38 years, 6 months.

You see, Parker began his brief association with Marshall University in 1970 when he landed a job as graduate assistant coach where he’d direct the freshman football team. His boss was varsity coach Rick Tolley. Parker, 27 at the time, had just completed a two-year stint, his first in coaching, at John Yeates High School in Suffolk. It was time to move up to the next level, along with me, his quarterback at John Yeates, since I’d signed with Marshall. In addition, Parker would earn a master’s degree.

Parker’s physical ties to Marshall and Thundering Herd football ended May 2 when he passed away at his beautiful home in Courtland. He was 66 and, according to what I learned at his visitation and funeral, bad health was not an issue (he competed in 49 triathlons and swam and rode a bike daily). Though Parker didn’t stay long in Huntington, he will be forever linked to the school for what happened on Nov. 14, 1970. That night, the chartered jet bringing the Herd back from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard died.

On road trips, football teams often travel by bus. Marshall did something special for the Thundering Herd on that trip, putting them on a plane for a quick ride down, and what they envisioned, a quick flight home to celebrate a victory. Parker flew down with the team. He didn’t fly back. Thanks to a change in travel plans, Parker and varsity assistant Red Dawson piled into a car for the long drive home. They’d do some recruiting along the way.

Somewhere near Greensboro, N.C., the two coaches heard the news about the crash. Marshall elected to continue football and Parker joined new coach Jack Lengyel and the Young Thundering Herd for spring practice in 1971. After the spring, Lengyel elected not to retain Parker. He returned to Virginia and served as an agency manager for Farm Bureau Insurance in Courtland, which allowed him time to coach football — ­mostly as a volunteer — ­at Franklin, Oscar Smith, Southampton Academy, Lakeland, Manchester and Deep Creek high schools in Virginia as well as a stint at Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C.

From that dark, dark moment until his death, Parker often wondered why his life was spared and instead became a central figure in a unique story. If he gets on the plane, he leaves young wife Jean and two children behind, he doesn’t get to spoil three grandchildren, he doesn’t become a successful insurance agent, he doesn’t get to start a Sunday school ministry at Courtland Baptist Church and he doesn’t get to continue coaching and teaching (guidance counselor). The two trips he made back to Marshall — ­2000 and 2006 for the premiere of “We Are Marshall” — would not happen. Actor Matthew Fox, who stars in the TV series “Lost,” played Dawson in the movie. Parker is not mentioned in the film.

I got a call from Rufus Creekmore, a former teammate at John Yeates who also attended Marshall, and he relayed the news about Parker’s death. I made a quick trip home to pay my respects to a most deserving man. The visitation on Tuesday night and funeral Wednesday, both at Wright Funeral Home in Franklin, showed I wasn’t alone. Visitation lasted well past two hours. Some 40 minutes before the start of the 2 p.m. funeral service, it was standing-room only in the chapel. The first flowers visitors saw when entering the funeral home were green and white and sent by the Young Thundering Herd. The players may have scattered since their careers ended, but their memory of Parker — ­their first college coach — ­remains vivid. “He was a good man, a humble man,” Rick Meckstroth, a Young Herd linebacker, said.

In his funeral sermon, the Rev. Thomas Speight speculated on why Parker wasn’t on the plane. “God wasn’t through with him,” he said. Later any football players who had ever had Parker as a coach were asked to stand. “That kind of shows you what he meant to people,” Jim Jervey, an insurance co-worker with Parker who played under him at Franklin and later coached with him, told Jeffrey Zeigler of The Tidewater News.

In 2006, Parker talked with Virginian-Pilot columnist Tom Robinson for a story prior to the release of “We Are Marshall.” In it, Parker offered his thoughts about the crash and why he wasn’t on the plane. “We’re here for a purpose, and I believe when my purpose is fulfilled, I’m out of here,” he told Robinson.

If that meant being a positive influence on people in athletics, business and religion for 38 years and 6 months, Parker fulfilled that mission. He did so for a brief time in Huntington and Young Herd football supporters who got to know him and his moving story would be as proud of him as all the people who gathered at the funeral home or graveside to say farewell.

“Gail can go home now,” Speight said in closing. “His work is done.”