By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Long-time Menlo-Atherton football and wrestling coach Ben Parks passed away in his sleep Friday night. He was 77.
Known simply as "Coach Parks," he has profoundly influenced thousands of students, not just the athletes he coached. He put kids first and nothing else was second.
"Coach" was merely a small part of Parks' character. He was also a friend, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a role model, and a father figure and his boundaries were limitless, just like his compassion for people.
Parks was still roaming the M-A football sidelines this past fall, still encouraging the Bears. His absence this football season will surely be felt. He was one of a kind.
Parks worked with athletes on every level, including serving as conditioning coach for former San Francisco 49ers such as Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Keena Turner and Roger Craig. He treats them the same way he treats prep players like Darrell Hughes, who made a friend for life with a simple invitation.
"Go ask Joe and Ronnie how I treat them," Parks once said. "They're all the same; they are just like my sons. People are people."
He founded the Pro Football Institute and worked with his sons, Ralph and Ben Jr., to create an environment for success. Just being around him seemed like enough. He was a gift that no one took lightly.
Parks retired from M-A in 1999 after spending 31 years reaching out to the student body. He couldn't stay away from sports, though, and returned to coach wrestling at Sequoia High at age 73.
"He was an icon at M-A," said Stanford women's water polo coach John Tanner, a 1978 graduate of M-A. "Whenever there was a problem at school everyone -- teachers, students, administrators -- would look to him for guidance. He was everything a coach aspires to be in terms of being a leader, being self-assured and being ethical."
He inspired courageous acts of kindness and good will, and nurtured future coaches and teachers. When he spoke, he backed his words with action.
His annual "birthday run," in which he would run a mile for every year, became an enormous fund-raising event and his signature event.
Marc F. Rogers, M-A class of 1975 and former football player and wrestler, spearheaded the move in 2005 to rename the football field at M-A for Coach Parks.
"Coach taught us never to give up on ourselves, and always to see how we can be of service to others," Rogers said. "Teenage boys can be totally self absorbed, and insecure, and I was no exception. I have to admit to not always agreeing with him back then, but always respecting him. It seemed rare to find a "grown-up" back then who was congruent and honest. I am proud to consider him a part of my family, as he knows four generations of us (my grandfather, mother, me, my daughter) and that those lessons learned will keep going."
M-A grad David Mueller produced a 22-minute documentary on Parks, a labor of love and adoration for the man he met while a student at the school.
"I met Coach as a student at Menlo-Atherton in the late seventies, in the midst of race riots and strong racial tensions," Mueller writes on the Wakan Films web site. "I watched Coach step into the middle of many potential violent situations and diffuse them with his strength and character. Long after I graduated, his words and example continue to stay with me and inform my life."
Parks, who coached the Bears football team between 1968-84, was named Leading Citizen of the Year for 1996 by the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula.
Parks, who worked in physical fitness for over 50 years, was also involved with 'Fifty-plus,' an association that draws attention to the need for fitness and health even at an advanced age.
"I train seven days a week myself," he said in 2000. "In my day, growing up, I thought 30 and 40 was really old, and 50 was ancient. Now 50 plus is nothing. I'm just getting started and I'm looking forward to 70. There are things I haven't done yet, like hiking to the highest peak, swimming, cycling."
What Coach Parks accomplished was showing us that anything was possible if we believed in ourselves and accepted the support of friends and family. He showed, by the way he lived his own life, that integrity and character mattered and that shortcuts only lead to dead ends.
He will be fondly remembered by all.