Posts Tagged ‘Boston Patriots’

Farewell to The “Sweet Kentucky Babe”

July 16, 2017

Vito “Babe” Parilli, the first of the truly great quarterbacks to play professional football for the Boston/New England Patriots,  lost his battle with cancer and passed away on July 14, 2017 at the age of 87.  The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Babe as its Man of the Year in 2006.  I was Master of Ceremonies and program editor for the Man of the Year Dinner. Before the dinner, I spent some time with Babe and learned the story of his life in football, which is appears below.  If you’re a fan of football, especially of Patriots football, you’ll enjoy getting to know Babe. He was one of a kind. 

By Tom Burke

Vito “Babe” Parilli, Boston Patriots’ quarterback

Back when he was in college, lunch hour was always a singular experience for Vito Parilli.

Rather than sipping sarsaparilla and munching burgoo with fellow students on the campus green at Lexington, Kentucky, Vito would report to the office of the university’s head football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. They would sit across from each other and engage in a nerve-wracking board game of the Bear’s personal design, a daily test that made organic chemistry look like basket weaving.

“It was a simulated football game. He’d say ‘I’ll give you a down and distance. What play do you call?’ Then after I answered, he’d say, ‘Okay, you gained three yards. Now what do you call?’” explained Babe recently.

“Sometimes I’d even stay over to his house and play it. The Bear programmed me.  He never sent in the plays, but I always knew what he wanted. In every situation. In four years there, I don’t think I ever got a delay of game penalty either,” he adds proudly.

 

Babe led the Wildcats to the most successful three-year stretch in the school’s football history.  They rolled up a 28-8 record and appeared in the 1950 Orange Bowl, the 1951 Cotton Bowl, and the 1952 Sugar Bowl. In the Wildcats’ 13-7 Cotton Bowl upset of mighty Oklahoma, Babe completed nine of 12 passes for 105 yards and was named the game’s top offensive player. In the Sugar Bowl his senior year, Babe had two TD passes and was MVP in a 20-7 win over TCU.

The Rochester Rifle

Babe in action at Kentucky

Parilli’s father August emigrated to America early in the 20th century, just in time to don an American army uniform and head back to Europe to fight the Kaiser. He was wounded in the Argonne Forest but made it home and went to work for the Phoenix Glass Company in Rochester, Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh.

Vito was the youngest of three kids in the Parilli family. There was no television in those days, and every high school boy lived for Friday nights and football. Vito was a fullback in a single-wing backfield. Bryant did not recruit him, but he had always wanted to be a Wildcat. He tagged along on a couple of campus visits to Kentucky with a high school friend who eventually enrolled in a Big Ten school.

After seeing Parilli in a high school all-star game, though, the Kentucky coaches got interested and invited him back down to Lexington for a workout.  They decided that he could become the quarterback to follow George Blanda.

Babe worked out all summer long in Lexington before enrolling, taking in strategy sessions in the morning, field drills in the afternoon, and practicing faking and ball handling in front of a mirror at night. By the time sophomore year rolled around, he was more than ready.

Babe as a Kentucky Wildcat

Known as the “Rochester Rifle” after his home steel country, Parilli set four NCAA passing records – for touchdown passes in a season and a career, and most passes competed and passing yards in three varsity seasons. He was twice a first team All-America selection and finished third and fourth in Heisman Trophy balloting.

Bryant called Parilli the best fake-and-throw passer he’d ever seen, with hand strength so formidable that he could pump three times before releasing the ball.  One sportswriter said “Parilli could take an elephant out on the field and, told it was a football, hide it.”  Another opined, “He handled the ball with the skill of a trans-Atlantic card shark, and can dot a receiver’s eye (right or left as the occasion demands) at 80 yards.”

Parilli was in Army ROTC at college, but he did not have to go into the service upon graduation. Drafted by Green Bay and its new coach Vince Lombardi, he split the quarterbacking with Tobin Rote for two years. Then came the call to military duty.

“I think we were called up because of Senator Joe McCarthy. One of the things kept saying was that the country was not going to give any special privileges to professional athletes,” said Parilli.

Babe spent an uneventful two years in Rabat, Morocco as a traffic controller at an air defense command center. He was able to cross the Mediterranean while on leave and see his grandmother for the first time at her little village near Naples. One poignant memory of that visit was a sign that simply read “October 17,” commemorating a day late in World War II when Nazis bent on retribution stormed into the village and killed all the young men they could find.

Babe returned to pro football in 1956, but his full brilliance as a passer and field general did not emerge until 1962, the third year of the American Football League and Babe’s second campaign with the Boston Patriots. It was a lengthy and sometimes painful route to stardom for the kid from Beaver County.

The first stop was Cleveland, who had traded for his rights when Babe was in the service, hoping that Parilli would take the mantle of the retiring Otto Graham. Five games into the 1955 season, however, Colts’ defensive end Gino Marchetti blindsided Parilli and battered his throwing shoulder so badly that Babe could hardly move the arm.  Six months of convalescence and little response followed.

“I went to a doctor in Kentucky who gave me a cortisone shot and just said to go out there and throw as hard as I could.  That was the way to break it up,” said Parilli.

The straightforward remedy worked, and 1957 found Parilli back in Green Bay. He shared the quarterback job with Bart Starr for two years. The 1959 season rolled around, and Parilli got word that he’d been traded to Philadelphia to be Norm van Brocklin’s understudy. Sick of playing second fiddle, Babe went to Canada instead where he put in a season with the Ottawa Roughriders.

In 1960, the American Football League was born, and Parilli went to Oakland where he and Tom Flores divided the qb duties. Traded from Oakland to Boston after the 1960 season along with Billy Lott for Dick Christy and Hal Smith, Babe shared the quarterbacking duties with Butch Songin in 1961.

Holovak Puts Babe in Charge – at Last

Babe in action as a Boston Patriot

The Pats sent Butch to the New York Titans for 1962, and Babe took over the number one slot. Ably backed up by Tom Yewcic, Babe at last had a team he could call entirely his own.

“It was really the first time in my career that I didn’t have to split the top job with someone.  Mike Holovak was the first coach who gave me that opportunity, and I’ll always be grateful to Mike for that,” said Babe recently.

For the next six seasons, Parilli’s schooling under Bryant paid back all the accrued dividends that Babe’s previous coaches in Green Bay, Cleveland, Oakland, and Ottawa might have collected for their respective teams.  With a talented receiving corps that included Gino Cappelletti, Jim Colclough, Artie Graham, Tony Romeo, and Larry Garron out of the backfield, Babe directed an exciting offensive show in virtually every game.

Parilli set every passing record in the young club’s history during over seven seasons, and his stats have endured in the Pats’ record books where he is now fourth all-time behind Drew Bledsoe, Steve Grogan, and Tom Brady. Babe threw 2,410 times as a Patriot and completed 1,140 passes for 16,747 yards and 132 touchdowns.  His 31 TD tosses in 1964 was the team’s single-season record until Tom Brady surpassed it with 50 in 2007.

The Patriots had a winning record in five of Parilli’s seven seasons and posted an overall mark of went 50-39-9. Babe was a three-time league all-star and the comeback player of they year in 1966 when he led the team to a record of 8-4-2 after a 4-8-2 campaign the previous season.

“He was just a very smart quarterback. Not a scrambler. It was the way he conducted himself out there, and way he called the games,” said Gerry Philbin, a defensive tackle and member of the AFL all-time team who played against Parilli as a member of the New York Jets. The two became teammates for 1968 and 1969, the final two years of Babe’s career when he served as backup and mentor to the Jets’ young quarterback, another Bear Bryant protégé from Pennsylvania named Joe Namath.

“Babe was a tremendous athlete. He ought to be in the Hall of Fame. He was a good punter, and he was the holder for Don Maynard, our kicker. It was very comforting to us, knowing that Babe was there if we needed him,” said Philbin.

The Jets, of course, made football history by upsetting the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in the 1969 AFL-NFL championship game, the first such contest to be dubbed “Super Bowl.” Namath’s brash guarantee of an upset was the most memorable episode of Joe Willie’s entire career. But the prediction and outcome of the game did not surprise Parilli.

“We were lucky to beat Oakland [27-23] in the AFL championship game. But I remember watching films of the Colts along with Joe. We turned to each other and agreed, “Hey, the Raiders are better than these guys. We can beat ‘em,’” recalls Babe.

One other title game in Parilli’s career is not such a good memory for long-time Pats’ fans. The San Diego Chargers won the 1963 AFL West division outright. The Pats and Bills tied atop the East and had a playoff game in snowy Buffalo. The Patriots won 26-8, but then had only three days to prepare and fly cross-country to meet a well-rested foe. San Diego had had two close wins over Boston, 17-13 and 7-6, during the season. It should have been a good match up, but the Patriots were at a hopeless disadvantage and lost 51-10.

Babe and Gridiron Club of Greater Boston president Dave O’Brien in 2006

After his playing days ended, Parilli remained with his beloved game as a coach and front office executive. Babe tutored Terry Bradshaw for three years as a member of the Steelers’ staff.  He also put in three years at Denver and one with the Patriots before casting his lot with the World Football League.

Gridiron Club historian Ned Cully points out that Parilli is the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first coach of the Charlotte Hornets?” The Hornets were a reincarnation of the New York Stars of the short-lived WFL. Babe was coach of the Boston Bulls, Stars, Hornets, and Chicago Fire of that league. Later on, he got into arena football in venues that included New England, Denver, Las Vegas, Anaheim, and Palm Beach.  He has also worked in real estate, public relations, and as owner of a golf course. He now resides in Denver.

“I really liked working with the arena ball players. They’d play for $500 a game, and they were looking to make their mark. It was just like us, back in the old days,” he smiles.