By Justin A. Rice
Keith Parker was 10 years old when he first saw Boston English High and Boston Latin School meet on the gridiron. The Reading native watched the broadcast on his black and white television, but the oldest continuing high school football rivalry sparked a fire in the coach that would color the rest of his life.
“In those days there were 30- 40,000 fans in the stands,” Boston English High’s 65-year-old coach recalled last week. “I said ‘Boy what a great venue.’ I didn’t know the word venue at the time but I thought ‘What a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving.
“Here I am so many years later, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of a great tradition for 33 years — three as an assistant and 30 as a head coach.”
After Boston English (3-7) and Boston Latin (2-7) meet on Thursday at 10 a.m. in Harvard Stadium for the 123rd time, Parker will call it quits — leaving on his own terms despite calls for his resignation that reverberated louder than whispers the last few seasons.
“I have mixed emotions,” said Parker (141-168-5), who retired as a physical education teacher at English last year. “It’s the end of a run. I enjoyed every minute of it but it’s time to move on and step aside and let somebody else take a shot at doing what they have to do to try to beat Boston Latin and everyone else on the schedule.”
Not beating Boston Latin was the biggest sticking point for Parker’s detractors. Parker has only defeated Latin twice during his tenure and the tipping point was last year when the Bulldogs lost 36-0 to a winless Wolfpack team.
Over the summer, the Boston Globe ran a seven-part series about the state of BPS athletics in which the fifth part highlighted inadequate coaching across the city, mostly focusing on Parker. Going 45-83 since winning a Super Bowl in 1997, Parker also won the Super Bowl in 1993 and has five Boston City League titles.
“Parker’s critics said he no longer exerts the energy, enthusiasm, and innovation to sustain a competitive program in an era when city coaches need to work harder than ever to overcome a multitude of challenges,” the Globe story says.
Boston athletic director Ken Still said his thoughts about Parker were taken out of context in the story. While headmasters in BPS have complete control over hiring and firing personnel, Still did not recommend Parker to be rehired after last season.
“What I said is it’s time for him to go and retire,” said Still, who used Parker as an assistant basketball coach when he led the Bulldogs hoops squad in the 1980s. “Sometimes when people want to make something out of an issue it’s easy to make a scapegoat and say ‘He lost his edge.’
“Out of my 300 coaches I have other coaches I don’t think do a good job but I don’t necessarily ever point that out [publicly]. That’s not right, it wasn’t right.”
Latin Coach John McDonough also said Parker was thrown under the bus.
“The fact is that back in the early 80s the dynamic was a little different,” he said. “Back then he had a lot more athletic football players than he does now. There were some close contests back then. His teams were ready to play, they were always physical.
“That article this summer was pure nonsense. Boston English’s football team should not be measured by how they do against Latin School, that’s an alumni thing.”
McDonough, who added that English should be measured against the teams in the City League, said on several occasions he’s seen Parker reach into his pocket to give players money to get home.
“He looked out after his kids and tried to teach them the right lessons,” McDonough said. “He taught his kids the right lessons.”
Parker notes that as a recently created pilot school, English doesn’t draw from as wide a range of students as it used to. Their current enrollment of 700 students is just over a third of what it was when the program won its last Super Bowl more than a decade ago.
“More than anything, even when the teams haven’t been so successful in the win and loss column, I’m just very proud of the great kids, the great experiences,” Parker said. “I hope I left a few positive things with all my players over the years. As I go off into the sunset I hope I left something behind where they say ‘Oh Coach Parker he listened, he had some great teams but its great players that make great teams not coaches.’
“I don’t categorize my kids as great players; I categorize them as great kids.”
Born in 1944, Parker played two seasons of quarterback at Reading high before his family moved to Lancaster, N.H. where he converted to a soccer goalkeeper, won a state championship and graduated in 1962. With less than stellar grades, however, none of the Eastern schools would take Parker, who ended up at Olivet College in Michigan.
While Parker switched back to football at Olivet, where he also played baseball, it was one of his old soccer teammates at Lancaster High — Charles Francis Dickey — who shaped his career path after Parker returned to Boston in 1966.
Dickey’s death in Vietnam caused Parker to dedicate himself to the education of youngsters.
“I was quite upset by that,” Parker said. “I was married and my wife was pregnant with our first daughter. I didn’t have to go to the service and I thought ‘What can I do to honor Lieutenant Charles Francis Dickey, I said let me go work with inner-city kids and honor him that way.
“I spent the next 40 years honoring my good childhood friend.”
Parker went to work at the Charlestown Boy’s and Girl’s Club as the athletic director and a couple years later also began to substitute teach at Charlestown High.
In 1970 he started teaching at Copley Square High, now called Snowden International, and started a basketball program there. After another stint at Charlestown High during the height of forced busing and racial upheaval, Parker landed at English High in1974 as a physical education teacher. He was an assistant on the back-to-back championship basketball teams and joined the football team as an assistant in 1977.
In 1980 he took over the program and won his first game against Latin the following year.
Parker would not beat the Wolfpack again until his best season in 1997 when the Bulldogs capped a undefeated season with a 24-18 win against Greater Lawrence in the Super Bowl.
“I haven’t lost to him and I don’t intend to,” said McDonough, who is in his ninth year as head coach at Latin. “It’s not about him. It’s about the kids. I’m going to tell my seniors ‘Let’s let Keith win one,’ right. This is their last game too and there’s a whole lot more of them than Keith.”
But McDonough said he doesn’t rib his counterpart about the lopsided rivalry.
“That’s not a fair thing,” he said. “If everything were the same, if everything were equal then I’d give him a hard time but I know the last decade or so he’s been up against it in terms of student population and how it’s changed. English has more kids who are good at baseball and soccer than football.
“It comes and goes. You don’t have any control over the hand you’re dealt. You get ingredients and try to do the cooking as best you can. That’s always been Keith, he’s always adapted and adjusted to what he’s had to work with.”
At the same time, McDonough knows Parker, who has been known to pull a trick play or two out of his sleeve for the Latin game, is not going to go quietly on Thursday.
“Gosh only knows what to expect this year,” McDonough said. “I expect his kids to try as hard as they can to win this one and send him off on a positive note. I don’t know what to expect. When we first started practicing on Tuesday I said ‘Okay what are we going to do to prepare for English?’ You talk to the defensive side of the ball — you do what you’re going to do on offense — but defense, god only knows [Parker] shows so many things.
“He might pull the best plays from each of the last 30 years and create an offense out of that.”
To hear Parker tell it, however, he’s just a Bobby Bowden-type figurehead who will delegate power to his assistant coaches in his final chapter of a rivalry that began in 1887.
“Let’s put it this way, the last several games I turned a lot of responsibilities to my assistant coaches who will probably be part of the program after I leave,” said Parker, who would like to catch on as an assistant coach somewhere else after this year. “I just sort of give them the opportunity to make the decisions. In other words, I’ll try to pass the torch to them with a little experience.
“I’m going to sit back and enjoy the game. If I’m called upon to make suggestions I will and when the game is over I’ll walk out of Harvard stadium with my head up and be very proud of the 30-plus years I was involved in the English-Latin game.”