Jesse Parker is 74 years old and has a home in Pinetop where he and his wife, Latsy, like to take long walks around the lake.
It’s an ideal retirement getaway for a high school football coach whose legacy includes 309 victories, five state championships — one at Phoenix Camelback, four at Mesa Mountain View — and hundreds of boys he helped turn into men.
There’s just one problem. Parker can’t bring himself to retire. He’s not an avid golfer or fisherman. He loves to read — he taught history and is particularly interested in the early-to-mid 1800s — but there’s only so much time he can sit still, a book in his hands.
So what’s an old football coach to do? He coaches. Even if it’s in the small town of Willcox, located in the southeastern corner of the state. Even if it’s as an unpaid volunteer assistant for the varsity football team. Even if his wife stayed behind in Pinetop because, well, Willcox isn’t her idea of paradise.
“I think you know me,” Parker said. “I try to keep busy mentally and physically. This is a way to do it. I don’t know if it’s the best way, but honestly as you grow old you can either sit in a rocking chair or find ways to help yourself continue to grow. Kids always have helped me grow.”
Parker’s association with the Willcox program began a few years ago, when then-coach Jim Hughes asked him to come to the team’s summer camp in Snowflake and work with the linemen. Parker quickly agreed; he and Hughes were long-time friends and Snowflake is just 27 miles from Pinetop.
But when first-year coach Jack Korsten approached him this summer and brought up the possibility of moving to Willcox and helping out during the season Parker had to think about it.
“Going meant separating from my wife. She did not particularly want to come to Willcox,” Parker said. “It’s not a very big town. It doesn’t even have a Walmart. But finally at the last moment I agreed to help them out mainly because they’re (the coaches) among the finest people I’ve ever met in terms of humility and a willingness to listen to other people. I don’t care what area you’re in these days. That’s very much in short supply.”
Parker doesn’t have an official title; he’s a mentor both to players and coaches and, in particular, Korsten, a rancher/farmer by trade who had never been a head coach.
“We spend a lot of time together and laugh and talk, and I learn about football,” Korsten said. “He helps more so on offense than defense, although you and I both know I could walk away and he’d do the whole thing.”
For Parker, the simplified role has been a blessing. His stints as Gilbert High’s coach and his one year as an assistant at Mesa Red Mountain under Jim Jones ended unhappily. He’s thrilled to be free of administrative influence, parental involvement, paperwork and anything else that takes time away from what he loves doing most.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever coached without some sort of monetary incentive or ego incentive,” he said. “I don’t get and don’t want any credit for games we win. I don’t want to deal with administrators and all that crap. I don’t have to do that here.”
Most of Willcox’s players didn’t know who Parker was — or what he had accomplished — when he began helping out at their summer camp. They’re teenagers; Parker’s five titles (1974, 1978, 1983, 1986, 1993) may as well have been ancient history.
But Parker knew the kids; they reminded him of a young boy who grew up dirt poor in Ada, Okla., and believed that hard work was the way to a better life.
“They’re just great kids to work with,” Parker said. “I would imagine if I was back in the Valley it would be, ‘Who wants to listen to an old man?’ But these kids are very willing … If I told them to run through a wall, I think they’d try. It’s kind of like the early days or even the later days at Mountain View.
“They’re just so much more receptive than the cynical know-it-all kids you see in urban areas. They’re not into the, ‘Mama thinks I’m going to play at ASU’ thing. They might in their wildest dreams hope to play some day in a small college. They’re humble and receptive.”
Parker doesn’t know if he’ll stay at Willcox beyond this season. He is 74 — “don’t remind me,” he said with a laugh — so long-term planning seems a bit ambitious. There’s Latsy to think of, too. She finally acquiesced and arrived in Willcox last Friday to be with her husband, but she’d rather spend her retirement years at their residences in Mesa and Pinetop.
For now, though, Parker is at home: On the practice field, unrepentant in his philosophy — “People say I’m a tough-ass, old school, all that crap. I know how a program should be run,” he said — and his belief that nothing less than a player’s best should be demanded.
“This man has more respect for the game of football than any coach I’ve ever met,” Korsten said. “We’re blessed to have somebody like Jesse down here.”
Reach Bordow at email@example.com or 602-444-7996. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow.