Twenty years have passed since he dropped a Bedlam-winning touchdown in the back of the Lewis Field end zone. Twenty seasons have come and gone since the wide receiver became the Earnest Byner of Oklahoma State football. All these years later, the mere mention of his name still turns stomachs among Cowboy fans.
Who knows what might have come of the 1988 season had Parker caught that ball?
The phone rings again.
The doubt rises more.
Why would Parker talk?
Of course, this week marks the 20th anniversary of that Bedlam botch, but it sure won’t be cause for celebration. Just like the Cowboys, who are having one of their best seasons in decades, Parker has moved on. He’s living and working in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He’s a husband and a father, a traveling salesman and a pee wee coach.
Surely, the last thing he would want to do is meet a total stranger and talk about the moment that’s forever with him, the failure that’s always linked to his name.
Suddenly, a click on the phone line, then a voice.
"Hello, this is Brent. How can I help you?”
‘Good fit for Brent’
Brent Parker isn’t well-known beyond the borders of Oklahoma, and even here, his name usually comes up only around Bedlam.
The 1988 edition was an instant classic, after all. It was OSU’s first nationally televised game of the season. It was the country’s first chance to see Heisman Trophy hopeful Barry Sanders. It was a great showcase that ended with a colossal blunder.
So, where is Parker now two decades later?
Legitimate question, but would Parker want to answer it? He didn’t need to agree to an interview. He didn’t need to explain that play all these years later. He didn’t need to talk about his life since.
Parker, after all, came from a proud athletic tradition. His father, Bill, played football at Memphis State. Oldest brother, Brad, played at Colorado, and middle brother, Billy, had a scholarship to Arizona State before a horseback riding accident cut short his football career.
All of the Parker boys blossomed in Southern California. Even though Bill and Betsy Parker were longtime Oklahoma residents, they moved west to open their own business. In Mission Viejo, there were abundant athletic opportunities for their boys.
Many former pro and college athletes lived in the posh Los Angeles suburb, and Brent Parker soaked up their knowledge starting at a young age. His pee wee football coach had played for the Raiders. Three of his high school coaches had played in the NFL, too.
All of them taught lessons that would serve Parker well for years to come.
"Three things are going to happen to you in any sporting event you do,” he was told. "One, you’re going to do something good. Two, you’re going to face somebody who’s as talented as you are. And three, you’re going to screw up.”
The moral of the story — "The difference between a winner and a loser is how you’re affected by all three of those things.”
Who knew how profound that lesson would be?
Certainly not Parker.
He became a hot-shot receiver at Capistrano Valley High, catching passes from Todd Marinovich, the robo-quarterback who set a national high school passing record before drugs derailed his career.
During a camp at UCLA before his junior year, Parker ran a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash. That opened the recruiting floodgates: Penn State. Nebraska. UCLA. Oklahoma. Arkansas. Colorado. Oklahoma State.
The godfather of modern recruitniks, Max Emfinger, ranked Parker as the second-best receiver in the country.
His father called some friends around college football for advice.
"What,” he would ask, "would be a good fit for Brent?”
One of the folks he called was his oldest son’s position coach at Colorado.
His advice: "I’d go to Oklahoma State.”
His name: Les Miles.
Even though he would one day coach the Cowboys, Miles had no ties with the program then. What he saw, though, was a high-octane offense with elite-level players. Thurman Thomas. Hart Lee Dykes. Mike Gundy. Even with Barry Sanders still a relative unknown, the Cowboys nevertheless looked loaded.
OSU wasn’t at the top of his list, but Parker decided to make a recruiting visit there. He quickly realized that everything from the scheme to the school, the coaches to the players was a fit.
Parker thought it was perfect.
Brent Parker was the blue-chip recruit from Mission Viejo.
Mark Walker was the blue-collar preacher’s kid from Guthrie.
And freshman year at OSU, they were assigned to live together. The players didn’t get to pick roommates that first year, and the coaches couldn’t have paired two freshmen who seemed more opposite.
Sometimes, they didn’t even seem like they were speaking the same language.
"‘Dude’ everything,” Walker said of the way Parker talked. "Dude this. Dude that.”
Truth is, Parker and Walker became fast friends. They suffered through two-a-days together. They endured the growing pains of playing as true freshmen together. And eventually, they went to Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings together.
Walker, now the football coach at Edmond Memorial High School, had been involved with the group for years.
Parker had never been a part.
He didn’t grow up in a religious family. Truth be told, the Parkers’ religion was sports.
For more than a year, Parker went to FCA meetings, listening to the message and soaking up the meaning. People around him noticed a change.
"You could tell that there was something extra,” Walker said.
Midway through his sophomore season, Parker made a profession of faith.
Less than a month before Bedlam.
‘He dropped it’
Much like this season, the Bedlam build-up in 1988 was extreme.
The Cowboys rolled up points in bunches, scoring more than 40 in their first seven games. Spurred by a magical season from Barry Sanders, they were No. 12 in the rankings despite stubbing their toe at Nebraska.
The Sooners suffered their own early season loss at the hands of Southern Cal, but they had rebounded to No. 8 in what would be Barry Switzer’s last season in Norman.
OU had the more complete team, OSU the more explosive offense.
Brent Parker was a piece of that machinery. Even though guys like Hart Lee Dykes and Jarrod Green were the pass-catching stars, Parker was a burner who could draw defenders and help keep pressure off the big-play receivers.
"He was a real good player, an intelligent player,” said Houston Nutt, then the receivers coach at OSU, now the head coach at Ole Miss. "Very hard worker. Excellent hands.”
The Cowboys needed every weapon against the Sooners. After spotting them two quick touchdowns, the Cowboys outscored the Sooners 28-10 over the next three quarters. They took the lead for the first time midway through the fourth, only to have the Sooners answer with a 13-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a Charles Thompson touchdown and lasted more than six minutes.
The Cowboys faced a long field and a short clock.
What happened next is the stuff of legend and YouTube. The images are grainy, the graphics rudimentary, but you can see Gundy hitting Dykes on a pair of long passes that moved the Cowboys into Sooner territory. You can see Switzer snuffing out a cigarette on the Sooner sideline. You can see Sanders making a couple of nifty runs to put the Cowboys at the 20-yard line. You can hear the crowd erupting and the bands wailing.
Then, you can see officials whistling Cowboy fullback Garrett Limbrick for a personal foul that turned a fourth-and-short into fourth-and-a-mile with less than a minute remaining.
You can hear ESPN play-by-play man Roger Twibell say, "Limbrick was blocking, but you saw the man, No.