Before Prentice

John Rohde
By John Rohde
Special to

Steven Parker freely admits his temperament is nothing like his father's. Parker also concedes his disposition bears little resemblance to that of his own son, Steven Parker II, a former All-Big 12 defensive back for the Sooners who is now a member of the Los Angeles Rams team that will play Sunday against New England in Super Bowl LIII.

"We are just night and day," Steven said while comparing himself to his father and son. "Steven (II) is more like my dad than I could ever be. I've got the temperament of dynamite. My father was totally opposite of me."

Given what Charles Edward Parker encountered more than 60 years ago, perhaps no one was better qualified to handle such a ground-breaking moment.

Steven Parker is proud of his notable father, Charles Parker, but he often struggles to find suitable words to characterize him. "I really wish I could describe the person that he was," Steven said. "He was something different. I wish I had more to give to you as far as who he was as a person and a father and a man, but it would be impossible for me to come up with all that needed to be said. He was unbelievable. I am very proud of him — very proud."

An inordinate amount of pride and pain engulfs the memory of Charles Parker, but which emotion burns brightest inside his only son? When discussing his father's historic, but brief experience with the Oklahoma football team, does Steven Parker feel more pride or pain?

"More pain," Steven said without hesitation. "There's more pain, man. I would say pain comes to mind every time I discuss this."

Oklahoma running back Prentice Gautt long has been credited with integrating college football, particularly in the South. A standout from Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, Gautt arrived as a walk-on and debuted on the OU freshman squad in 1956. He eventually received a scholarship and twice earned all-conference honors. He also was chosen as a UPI All-American. The 1958 Academic All-American and 1959 Orange Bowl Most Valuable Player played eight NFL seasons with the Browns and Cardinals. OU's student-athlete academic center was named after Gautt in 1999 and a Big 12 student-athlete postgraduate scholarship is named in his honor.

Technically, however, the legendary Gautt was not the Sooners' first African-American football player. One year earlier, it was Charles Parker who was among the first black players to walk on at OU.

In September of 1955, Parker, George Farmer and Sylvester Norwood enrolled and were walk-ons who tried to make the OU freshman team after excelling at Dunjee High School, a segregated school located in Spencer just east Oklahoma City. They were referred to as the "Dunjee Trio." A fourth African-American, George Wilson Jr., also walked on that year and lived on campus. He attended Douglass but did not play high school football there. None ever appeared in an OU game. (One year earlier, Douglass standout quarterback Andy Dement nearly became the Sooners' first black player.)

In an effort to trim his roster, Hall of Fame OU coach Bud Wilkinson left freshman coaches Port Robertson and Norman McNabb in charge of eliminating the pretenders and finding the survivors. According to multiple accounts, the four African-American walk-ons endured relentless racial slurs and few whites offered support or respect.

"I lined up against Charles Parker quite a bit that fall, and I can honestly say he probably could have started for any Big Seven school. That's how good he was. It's unfortunate he didn't get that chance."
- John Ederer

"With who my father was, how he was reared and who he was inside as a man, I don't think that bothered him in the sense that he wanted to hate whites or feel any different than how he felt before he went down there (to OU)," Steven Parker said. "I think he basically had to compartmentalize that situation and what was going on down there from the rest of his life."

John Ederer was a white walk-on from Oklahoma City who practiced alongside Charles Parker and eventually lettered at OU (1955-1957). "The coaches did their best every day to run off all the walk-ons. That was just part of the deal," Ederer said in a spring 2007 Sooner Magazine story. "I know it was tough for those black players because they had it even harder than the rest of us did."

Ederer added, "I lined up against Charles Parker quite a bit that fall, and I can honestly say he probably could have started for any Big Seven school. That's how good he was. It's unfortunate he didn't get that chance."

Ederer's quote on Charles Parker left an impact on his son. "Seeing that he could have played for any Big Seven school was crushing to me, man. Just crushing," Steven Parker said.

The 1954 Dunjee High School varsity football team. Front row (from left): John Paul Patton, Lynn Smith, Clarence Zigler, Alvin Mitchell, Buerl Swain, Joseph Carr, Donald Ray Massey; middle row: Coach Alexander Jones, Lee Daniel McCauley, Maurice Smith, Raymond Guess, Sylvester Norwood, Charles Parker, Willard Reed, Frank James, Maurice Luster, Coach Curley Sloss; back row: Norman Morton, Alan Mukes, Theodore Jones, Leroy Swain, Jake Joseph, James Guess, J.O. Joseph, Jerome Dubois, Gilbert Roberts. (Not pictured: George Jr. and Johnny Farmer; photo courtesy of Johnny Farmer)

Charles Parker was a 6-foot, 200-pound defensive tackle who suffered a severe concussion when his head struck a steel blocking sled during an OU practice, according to Harold Keith's book "47 Straight: The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma." Parker also was a member of the ROTC while attending OU, completed 13 credit hours and eventually transferred to Central State College (now the University of Central Oklahoma) in Edmond. Farmer and Norwood quit football early because of financial issues that came with commuting back and forth from Oklahoma City.

For Charles Parker to be so mistreated by whites was ironic.

"Most of his friends were white," Steven Parker revealed. "When I was growing up and my father answered the phone, people would hang up sometimes because they thought he was a white man and they had called the wrong number. That's a true story.

"People were like, 'Your dad's white?'

"Naw, he's not white. What are you talking about?"

"Well, a white man answered the phone."


"I'm just going to tell you straight up," Steven Parker said. "I don't think my father ever met a man he didn't like. He didn't see race in anybody. I mean, anybody."

Steven Parker said he believes the initial presence of the "Dunjee Trio" helped Gautt's cause in receiving a scholarship.

"There's no doubt it would have been more difficult (for Gautt)," Steven Parker said. "The first thing that comes to mind is that Prentice may have ended up being them (the Dunjee Trio) and somebody else may have been Prentice. It definitely would have been harder for him."

It would have been understandable had resentment and jealousy overwhelmed Charles Parker, but Steven Parker insisted his father never expressed anything but admiration toward Gautt. "He spoke very highly of Prentice Gautt, and that's the way it should be," Steven Parker said.

Charles Parker simply allowed each person to be his own man. "He talked about Prentice Gautt and all his accomplishments until he died, but he never, ever brought it up to me while I was growing up," Steven Parker said. "When I was (excelling) at (Oklahoma City's) Star Spencer (High School), he never compared himself to me. He came to every game, but never discussed his career with me at all dealing with the University of Oklahoma."

In an interview with ESPN five years ago, younger brother Maurice Parker said of Charles: "He was a different breed from the get-go. 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... He didn't think he had any place in history, blazing trails or anything. He was just all about playing football."

Steven Parker said much of what he learned about his father came from talking to his uncles after Charles' death on Jan. 31, 1994, at age 56. Wilkinson died nine days later.

Why did Charles Parker never share his gut-wrenching story with his son? "I couldn't understand it then, but I can now," Steven said. "I think it was because of the pain. He just didn't want to keep re-living that situation right there."

Charles Parker, who had a lengthy career in the floral arrangement business at Capitol Hill Florist and worked for Continental Airlines, was confident and authoritative, yet somehow remained humble and unassuming, an unfathomable paradox given what transpired in the fall of '55.

"I've never understood that about my father, but that was who he was," Steven Parker explained. "That was his personality. My father never even spanked me in his whole life. That's the honest-to-God's truth, man. His personality was so laid back."

Asked how he was disciplined by his father, Steven said, "When he looked at you, you knew it was over and you just stopped whatever it was you were doing right then."

"I don't think my father ever met a man he didn't like. He didn't see race in anybody. I mean, anybody."
-Steven Parker

Steven Parker II was a four-star recruit out of Jenks High School in 2013 and chose OU over offers from Alabama, Auburn, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Texas and others. During the recruiting process, Steven was careful not to mention his father's Sooner legacy.

"I didn't want that to be the only reason he went to OU," Steven said of his son, who was born 22 months after Charles Parker died. "He never knew anything about his grandfather."

Steven Parker said his house burned down during his childhood and most of the photographs of Charles Parker were destroyed. "Steven (II) saw some snapshots of him, but that doesn't really bring a person back to life at all," Steven said. "When he got to a certain age — around 8 or 9, when I was coaching him in Little League football — I told him he (Charles) was an athlete just like you are. That's why I brought it to his attention. It gave him something to think about. 'You come from a history of athletes.'"

A 1978 Star Spencer graduate, Steven Parker also excelled at football and said he never experienced racism anywhere near the degree his father did. "We didn't have those issues at all," Steven said. "I can't even imagine that right there, man. It baffles me to know that's the way it was back then."

Steven Parker was a hard-hitting safety at Oklahoma State in 1978 and 1979 before leaving to join the Marines in 1980. Steven said opting to play for the rival Cowboys had nothing to do with how his father was treated at OU. "I give (former Sooners coach Barry) Switzer the blues all the time about how he didn't offer me a scholarship," Steven said with a hearty chuckle. "We have big laughs about that. Apparently, I wasn't of OU's ability in their eyes and OSU was close to home."

Steven Parker said he is appreciative of any attention his father receives as an OU football pioneer. "He left a legacy that nobody knows about and this is why I've basically been (pleading with) OU to wake up history," Steven Parker said.

"If you hear anything good about him, it was actually true," Steven Parker said of Charles. "You're not going to hear anything bad. I could bet anything on that right there. Nobody had anything bad to say about him."

This explains why Steven Parker had the following engraved on his father's gravestone: "The man everybody loved."

1955 OU Freshmen Team

The 1955 OU freshman team featuring Frank Wilson (front row, third from left) and Sylvester Norwood (middle row, fifth from right). Charles Parker (injured) and George Farmer Jr. (ill) were not at the photo shoot.