Charles Edward Parker died of a stroke on a Monday in the middle of winter 20 years ago. His only son, Steven, recalls it as the worst day of his life. On Parker's tombstone in his hometown of Spencer, Okla., are inscribed five words that resonate to this day with Steven:
"The man that everybody loved."
He also was a man few realized had helped alter the course of college athletics. Perhaps they will learn now because of the grandson he never met, Steven Parker II, who accepted an Oklahoma football scholarship this month.
Charles Parker was a pioneer, one of four black football players to walk on to coach Bud Wilkinson's powerful Sooners team in September 1955, from segregated Dunjee High School on the east side of Oklahoma City.
A 5-foot-11, 200-pound lineman built of "raw muscle" -- according to Maurice Parker, the lone survivor of Charles' five siblings -- Charles suffered a head injury that November from a collision with the steel frame of a blocking sled. Parker and the others -- George Farmer Jr., Frank Wilson Jr. and Sylvester Norwood -- lasted in Wilkinson's program less than four months.
None appeared in a game.
Their story marks an important, yet largely unheralded, milestone in college football history. A year later, running back Prentice Gautt of Oklahoma City's Douglass High School debuted at OU on the freshman squad. He eventually received a scholarship, the first for a black player at Oklahoma, and twice earned all-conference honors.
Gautt is credited with integrating college football in the South. Wilkinson, who won three national championships and 14 conference titles in 17 years at Oklahoma, considered it the most significant accomplishment of his coaching career, according to the coach's son, Jay Wilkinson, who included a chapter on Gautt in a 1994 biography of the coach.
No doubt, the little-known path blazed by those from Dunjee High School assisted in Gautt's achievement. But Parker, who endured racism and abuse during his short stay in Norman, according to family and recorded accounts, never sought acclaim for his role in history. In fact, his son, Steven, who played safety at Oklahoma State some 25 years later, learned almost nothing about the OU stint from Charles, who had worked as a florist and at Continental Airlines.
"He never talked about it," Steven Parker said. "That's the way he lived his life. He was just a proper individual. Nobody would ever say anything bad about my dad."
Charles Parker's football legacy is set to live on at OU through his grandson, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound safety out of Jenks (Okla.) High School ranked No. 139 in the final ESPN 300 for the Class of 2014. Steven Parker II, the state's player of the year by the Tulsa World, starred in the 6A state championship game in December, leading Jenks to a 14-0 finish and second consecutive crown. In his final high school game, he caught five passes for 164 yards and intercepted a pass.
Steven Parker II picked the Sooners over Texas A&M and Auburn, and his decision refocuses light on his grandfather.
"Once he broke the chain, there were so many who followed," said Steven Parker II, born 22 months after Charles died at age 56. "All African-Americans should thank people like my grandpa. He opened doors for a lot of people."
John Ederer, a 1955 teammate at OU, said in a 2007 Sooner Magazine article that Parker could have started for any school in the then-Big Seven Conference.
"Charles could have made it any place," Maurice Parker said.
Maurice, eight years younger than Charles, invited him to play in annual alumni game at Dunjee High School, several years after Charles' football career ended at Central State, where he had transferred after one semester at OU.
They lined up opposite each other.
"I thought I was tougher than he was," Maurice said. "I told him, 'Hold your jockstrap, because I'm going to knock it off.' The next thing I remember were stars. They were picking me up and helping me find my helmet."
That was Charles -- gentle and laid-back, but fierce in competition.
"He was a different breed from the get-go," Maurice said. "I never heard him use a curse word. He didn't smoke. He didn't drink. He was the kind of guy who would knock your head off your shoulders, then pick you up and dust you off."
Maurice Parker said Charles failed to recognize the significance of his time with the Sooners.
"He did not understand it," Maurice said. "He didn't think he had any place in history, blazing trails or anything. He was just all about playing football."
But the bigotry of the era during his college years stung.
"I think he was bitter about how things happened," Steven Parker said, "but you would never know it by his personality ... "
"I found out more about my dad, from a football standpoint, after he died. He didn't live it. That was his past. He was all about being a dad."
Steven Parker II settled on Oklahoma, but not because of his grandfather. In fact, he said, he first dreamed of leaving the state.
"I wanted to make my own path," Steven II said.
But OU coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops won over young Steven and his family through relentless effort, despite the elder Parker's initial dislike of the Stoopses.
"They did one helluva job and then some," Steven Parker said.
Hard to imagine that two generations ago, another Parker of perhaps equal athletic prowess did all within his power to play for Bud Wilkinson's Sooners but survived only a few months.
Steven Parker said his late father shares so many traits with Steven II.
"He has my dad's personality," Steven Parker said. "It's really bizarre. I'm the violent, rugged, tough guy. Steven, like my dad, is just a laid-back dude until you piss him off. In that way, he and my dad could be identical twins."
And after six decades, one Parker is set to finish the job started by another.