During the NFL postseason, pundits pontificate how different teams’ position groups will match up against each other. Some teams are left wanting on the offensive line while others have elite receivers that put any defense at a disadvantage. Analysts compare these players and try to determine where the games will be won or lost.
Less often do they discuss the conditioning of the teams this time of year, outside of key injuries. Super Bowl LVI is on the horizon and now is the perfect opportunity to take a look at football conditioning through the eyes of former coach Johnny Parker. A legendary strength and conditioning coach for many years in the league, his stops ranged from the collegiate ranks of South Carolina to Bill Parcells’ Patriots, to the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It all started with a high school freshman and a set of weights. “When I was in the ninth grade, there was a coach at our old, small high school. [He] had a set of weights in his backyard and he let me, some other boys come over there and lift. He lived right across the street from school, and I was so weak that I needed him to empty the bar in most cases,” Parker said.
Despite the unassuming start for the accomplished former coach, Parker got to work on bulking up his slight frame after receiving a set of weights as a Christmas present from his parents. Throughout high school, he continued to lift until his 5’11” and 105-pound stature had been filled out with an additional 75 pounds.
However, his hard work, and a second-place finish in the state at discus, unfortunately, was not enough to attract collegiate eyes as far as sports were concerned. So, what was next for the young Parker?
The Mississippi native attended the University of Mississippi and decided to venture into the world of coaching. While his interests were in teaching, limited salaries required that he become a high school coach as well. This allowed Coach Parker to teach kids a bevy of invaluable lessons outside of a classroom setting. “To learn what it takes to be successful,” said Parker. “They learned how to sacrifice temporary pleasures for long-term pleasures. They learned self-discipline. They learned commitment to something bigger than yourself. Work as a team.”
Coach Parker’s passion for instruction bore more fruit as the lessons he taught his players ultimately led to 14 out of 34 players on his last high school team playing collegiate football. Of those 14 players, 8 found themselves on rosters in the Southeastern Conference.
As the Super Bowl-winning strength coach made his way up the coaching ranks, he had the chance to learn from many other legends as well. When Parker was coaching at Indiana, the then basketball Head Coach Bob Knight recommended the up-and-coming Parker to Head Coach Bill Parcells. That recommendation led to 11 long and fruitful years of coaching with the Patriots’ headman.
Coach Parker was not “the first pioneer that made it to California,” as the Mississippi alumni put it. “I was sort of in the second wave.” He learned from and emulated the coaching styles of the foremost leaders in conditioning at the time: Alvin Roy, Louis Riecke, and Clyde Emrich.
“Some of the trails had already been blazed, but luckily those three men had similar beliefs and again they influenced me a lot. My basic beliefs ain’t changed in all these years,” said Parker.
Roy became the first strength and conditioning coach in the NFL in 1963 with the San Diego Chargers and was the first to start a training system across high school, college, and professional ranks. Riecke helped to create the Pittsburgh Steelers strength program in 1970 and Emerich became the Chicago Bears’ first conditioning coach in 1971.
Parker particularly saw eye to eye with Roy on the concept of exercises targeting more than one muscle group. “The more of your body that a single exercise works, the more valuable it is because it makes the muscles work in harmony as it happens on the field,” Parker stated.
As for his coaching style, Coach Parker always set a high standard for his players. After determining what is most important, he refused to compromise or else, “You’ll never get it back. I’d encourage very loudly and correct or chastise quietly,” the accomplished strength coach said.
After winning his second state championship as a high school coach he decided to take a position at South Carolina. What Parker considers his greatest honor came after winning his second state championship as a high school coach.
Mere months after he had been hired by South Carolina, 56 out of 95 sophomore students who he had taught history the prior year chose him as the person who made the largest impact on their lives. The sentiment was that the students felt Coach Parker cared enough about them to push them to do their best. “It’s the greatest honor I’ve ever received, ” said Parker. “But trophies and game balls and Super Bowl trophies and all that… All of that stuff, they don’t mean nearly as much to me as that one call.”