The ringing telephone caused the first pangs of doubt.
He won’t answer.
And even if he did, would Brent Parker really want to talk?
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. 41 Richard Dillon, pulling him out of bounds. Boy, what a call to make with a minute left to go in the game.”
Then, color analyst Lee Corso says, "I tell you what, unless you’re absolutely positive, don’t call anything like that and disrupt a great game like this.”
Finally, you can see this — the Cowboys line up with Gundy and Sanders in the backfield, three receivers split wide right and big yellow letters at the bottom of the screen, 4th DOWN AND 14.
Gundy takes the snap and rolls right, sets his feet and launches a pass toward the end zone. The ball streaks toward an orange-clad figure near the back of the end zone.
"Gundy has got Parker,” Twibell says, his voice rising.
A defender leaps, a hand extended, but the ball reaches Parker anyway.
"Oh,” Twibell hollers, "he dropped it!”
Like the ball, Parker falls to the turf. He pounds the ground, then rises to his feet and furiously pops himself in the helmet.
"Parker dropped the football!”
‘Knocked the air out of you’
Why would Brent Parker want to talk about all of that?
Heck, it’s tough enough for other people to talk about.
Nutt was on the Cowboy sideline that November day, and after the pass fell incomplete, he remembers making eye contact with Pat Jones. The head coach and the assistant could only look at each other. There was nothing to say.
"Man, I just felt bad because if anyone deserved a ball like that ... it’d be Brent Parker,” Nutt said via telephone from his office in Oxford, Miss. "It was just like somebody knocked the air out of you because you came so close. Boy, just knocked the air out of you.”
Out of the stadium, too.
Sound gave way to silence.
In the locker room after the game, Parker endured wave after wave of reporters. He heard the same questions time and again, but he answered all of them. For the better part of an hour, he sat at his locker and relived the play.
"He did an excellent job in handling it,” said Walker, his teammate and roommate.
Others weren’t so gracious. Parker heard taunts from fans and insults from opponents. In the months following the game, Parker even had to change the number to his room a couple times because of harassing and threatening calls.
Walker bristles at the memory.
"Like he meant
to drop it,” he said angrily.
Nutt said, "I hate when somebody asks me about the Brent Parker drop
. I say, ‘Now, wait a minute. It’s not like he ran a route and the ball was coming right to him in his hands.’
"People remember the ball hitting his hands and the ball going to the ground, but if you go back and watch the film ... his vision was actually blocked by a defender that was in front of him.”
"I know he wouldn’t ever say that.”
‘I can’t change it’
Why would Brent Parker agree to talk about such a painful episode?
That was one of the questions asked of Parker as he sat in the stands at the junior high field where his two sons now play their football games. Why agree to an interview or two about that Bedlam game every year? Why not say no thanks?
"Part of you is always going to say, ‘You know, why do you keep bringing it up?’ ” Parker said. "But ... I know as a human, I’m going to screw up. I can still get up and succeed on a daily basis.”
Parker has never made excuses dropping that touchdown pass. Not then. Not now.
"We had practiced that play over and over again,” he said. "I was just fortunate enough at the time to break free and have an opportunity.
"You always want to keep your eye on the ball. I took my eye off the ball enough, and then when I came back to it ... "
He shook his head, thinking of that instant he glanced down to make sure he was still inbounds.
"The ball ended up hitting me on the outside of my bicep, and that was it.”
Not all that long ago, a friend at work pulled up the play on YouTube. A couple of the comments included death threats.
"How do you take that?” Parker said, his voice rising.
When he spoke again, his voice was calm but strong.
"It is what it is,” he said. "I can’t change it, but I can keep going on and trying to do my best in what I do.”
‘A negative into a positive’
Brent Parker knows he doesn’t need to talk about what happened 20 Bedlams ago.
He wants to do it.
He wants people to know that he went on with his life, marrying his college sweetheart, raising a family and working for a number of national companies including Sprint, Qwest and Travelocity. Now, he works for Bron Tapes, an adhesives company that sells products used in everything from space travel to meat packing.
He hopes his story might touch even one person. Maybe they’ll be inspired to persevere. Maybe they’ll be moved to overcome.
Parker learned those lessons not only through football but also through faith. Those passions became lifelines after his Bedlam bungle. He threw himself into preparations and practices for the rest of the season. He also leaned on the understanding that his worth wasn’t defined by what he did on the football field.
Parker still lives by the same principles today.
He started coaching his sons before they were still in preschool. Didn’t matter what Austin, 12, and Braden, 9, were playing either. Parker coached everything.
"Brent truly coaches for the kids,” said a man who knows a thing or two about coaching.
Robert Irion makes his living working for Coaches Outreach, a Christian ministry that works with coaches like FCA works with athletes.
Irion first met Parker at church five years ago, and his sons have played for Parker ever since.
"I would love for my son to continue to play for him as long as he can,” Irion said. "He takes winning and losing very seriously, but at the same time, it’s just a result of what we’re building in. It’s about the process of these kids learning.”
Who knows when the lessons will come?
Parker coached Braden’s 9-year-old football team this fall. In the regular-season finale, not only had the opponent won no games but it had also scored no points.
Parker made sure they scored.
"You would think that was very easy,” said Irion, who is one of Parker’s assistants, "but you’d be amazed how hard it was to get those kids into the end zone.”
The coaches didn’t want to make it too obvious, but they had to call three timeouts and decline a penalty. Eventually, the other team scored and set off a wild celebration.
A few years back, Parker was coaching Austin’s football team. The morning the team was set to open the playoffs, one of the offensive tackles approached Parker.
"Coach,” he said, "I watched you play last night.”
"You did?” Parker asked.
ESPN Classic had replayed the Bedlam game from 1988.
"We were really cheering for you,” the player said. "I’m sorry you dropped the ball.”
The words hit Parker like a ton of bricks. He brought the entire team together, and right there during pre-game warm-ups, he shared his story. He told them about the game, the play, the drop.
But he also told them about how he refused to let that moment define him.
"What’s done in the past is in the past,” he told his players. "Move on, and keep working to do your best.”
That’s what Parker has done.
Now, he not only coaches youth sports year-round but also oversees the Colleyville-Grapevine youth football league. Those duties have kept him from getting back to OSU more often for more reunions and games, though he hopes to be at Bedlam on Saturday. He also organizes a summer camp that has grown from a few dozen players to more than 300.
"It’s neat to see just all these kids getting impacted by him,” Irion said. "That play happened, and he could’ve shut it down. He turned what we would consider a negative into a positive, and these kids are going to benefit for a lifetime for it.”
Why would Brent Parker talk about what happened that fall Saturday in Stillwater two decades ago?
The way he figures, why wouldn’t he?
"You’ve got to be an example because somebody’s always looking at you no matter what you do,” he said. "I don’t know if I do it right all the time, but I hope to be a better example most of the time than not.”
475-3314. Carlson can be heard Monday-Friday from 3-6 p.m. on KEBC-AM 1340.