Over the course of the 2018 off-season, the New England Patriots office at Last Word on Pro Football will be highlighting a different historical Patriot great every week. Last week, we highlighted the lives and careers of hard-nosed linebacker Steve Nelson and the late legendary broadcaster Gil Santos. This week, we will be taking a look at Babe Parilli‘s impact on the football world.
Babe Parilli: “A True Pioneer”
Before the Pros
Vito “Babe” Parilli began his journey to professional football as a member of Bear Bryant‘s phenomenal Kentucky Wildcat squads. Parilli earned All-American honors in 1950 and 1951 and was a Heisman Trophy finalist both years, landing at fourth and third in the voting, respectively. His early style of play was characterized by his “Houdini hands” that could make the ball disappear and reappear seemingly at will. After a shoulder surgery in 1950, Bryant and Parilli perfected the shotgun offense, letting Parilli sling the ball with ease.
His talents led the Wildcats to consecutive bowl wins in the 1951 Sugar Bowl over the Oklahoma Sooners and the 1952 Cotton Bowl over the Texas Christian Horned Frogs, cementing his legacy as a Kentucky great. He was selected to both the University of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
Before the Patriots
The Green Bay Packers selected Parilli with the fourth overall pick in the 1952 NFL Draft. Over the next eight seasons, Parilli bounced around, playing a total of four seasons for the Packers, three for the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League, and one with the Cleveland Browns. In those eight seasons, he started only 17 games for NFL teams.
In 1960, Parilli landed with the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League. After a single season in Oakland in which he notched just a single start, an off-season trade sent Parilli and fullback Billy Lott to the Boston Patriots in exchange for fullback Alan Miller, halfback Dick Christy, and defensive tackle Hal Smith.
Becoming a Patriots Legend
Parilli was an instant success in his first season with the Patriots, earning the starting position and winning at least six of his first eight starts. Over his career with the Patriots, he would amass 1,140 completions for 16,747 passing yards and 132 touchdowns. Parilli also rushed for 14 career touchdowns in Boston.
In 1964, Parilli passed for 3,465 yards and a whopping 31 touchdowns. 31 touchdowns stood as a single-season franchise record for 43 years until Tom Brady threw for 50 in 2007. Also during the 1964 season, in a shootout with the team that traded him to Boston, Parilli posted 433 yards and four touchdown passes against the Raiders. The following year, his play declined, and he found himself losing or tying nine of his 13 starts in 1965 and posting a 40.6 percent completion rate. The former Wildcat bounced back in incredible fashion 1966, throwing for 2,721 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was named the AFL Comeback Player of the Year after the 1966 campaign.
The do-it-all wonder Gino Cappelletti and Parilli had an otherworldly connection. The two were an offensive marvel, cooperating for 278 receptions, 4,386 yards, and 40 touchdowns during Parilli’s time with the Patriots. Due to their Italian family histories, the quarterback-receiver combination was nicknamed the “Grand Opera.” Cappelletti spoke very highly of Parilli after his death, telling The Boston Globe that “[he] was a true pioneer and an important part of an era that helped establish the Patriots and the AFL…He had a quick release and delivered the ball to us in the right place at the right time, and he would do anything and everything to win”
Parilli was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 1993. His passing prowess keeps him in the Patriots record books as the fourth-most prolific passer in franchise history.
At age 40, Parilli retired from playing football after a two-season stint with the New York Jets, with whom he won his first and only Super Bowl (Super Bowl III).
He would go on to coach for the next 23 years. After serving as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach for a season, he joined the World Football League as the coach of the New York Stars and the Chicago Wind for a season apiece. Between 1988 and 1997, Parilli was the head coach for six different teams in the Arena Football League, including the New England Steamrollers, Denver Dynamite, Charlotte Rage, Las Vegas Sting, Anaheim Piranhas, and Florida Bobcats.
Babe Parilli passed away on July 15, 2017, due to complications with multiple myeloma. Parilli was 87 years old.