Back in the days before he was known as Parker Simson the football player, or Parker Simson the basketball player, he went by a simpler, more snappy nickname.
“The announcer at the track would shout ‘Here comes Super-Sonic Simson,’” laughed his mom Sheri, remembering the days when her 17-year-old son, then in his pre-teen years, was a world championship rider on the international BMX bicycle racing circuit.
All these years later, the moniker might well be resurrected, because last week, Simson, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior with the Kelowna Secondary Owls, became the rarest of a very rare breed when he signed on to play both football and basketball with the UBC Thunderbirds beginning next season.
In these times of athletic specialization, when collegiate athletes turn their chosen sport into a 12-month a year pursuit, just how unique was the news?
As close as UBC historian Fred Hume can determine, the Thunderbirds have not had a student-athlete play those two sports in the same season since well before the first lunar landing, at least 1960-61, meaning Simson will be ending a 55-year-long drought if he is able to crack the starting line-up of both teams beginning in the fall.
“I feel that at university, one of the sports might end up showing itself as the one for me,” explained Simson, “and I don’t know if I can do the two sports for my whole career there. It’s going to be tough, but I think it will figure itself out.”
HIS PLACE IN HISTORY
The Thunderbirds are Canada’s most decorated university sports program, and when its women’s soccer team won the CIS national title at home in November, it marked the school’s 100th national title in what is being celebrated this season as its 100th year as an institution.
Curiously, the signing of Simson can be viewed as both the grand start to its next century, and a re-connecting with its glorious, old-school past. In each of its first five decades, one athlete went down in its record books as having played both football and basketball in the same season of competition (see chart), beginning in the 1920s with Doug McIntyre.
Yet it’s because the last 50-plus years have gone by without such an occurence that both Hume and Wilson Wong, the school’s Sports Information Director, were forced to do their best detective work this past week.
Ultimately, it’s believed that the last person to manage the hardcourt-gridiron double on the Point Grey campus is the late Wayne Osborne.
The record books show that Osborne, a receiver and tight end, played football in all five of his seasons at UBC from 1958-62. (see full chart below)
Wong discovered accounts of Osborne playing basketball for at least those first three seasons (1958-59 through 1960-61), and Hume can remember as a youngster, actually watching Osborne play basketball for UBC in the early sixties.
Initially, it was believed that Dave Kirzinger, a 1974 grad of Victoria’s Oak Bay Secondary, was the last to do it.
But when contacted on Friday, Kirzinger said that after playing basketball for UBC in 1975-76, he quit the sport and joined the football team in the fall of 1976, where he then played two seasons.
Nonetheless, Kirzinger was quick to appreciate the significance of the news.
“My hat’s off to Parker, because I believe that the athleticism to do this now is so much more than what would have been required 40 years ago,” said Kirzinger, who in 1978 became the first UBC football player to go No. 1 in the CFL draft when he was picked by the Calgary Stampeders. “Athletes are so much better today, and the academics so much more stringent.”
The list of UBC football-basketball alumnus is a short and decorated one. Credentials include the both the Thunderbird and the B.C. Sport halls of fame.
Yet with what UBC football coach Blake Nill is pondering, as the team begins preparations to defend its 2015 Vanier Cup national championship title, might end up making Simson the most special of the lot.
“Not only did our school recruit Parker as a two-sport athlete,” said Nill, who worked hand-in-hand with men’s head basketball coach Kevin Hanson, “but I recruited him as a multi-positional athlete.”
It should be noted that Nill is not simply projecting Simson to play different positions on either offence or defence, but rather making him a a true old-school, two-way football player.
“He is going to play on defence, but I can also see him doing things like running our short-yardage offence at quarterback,” Nill began of a player who over his senior season starred as a fleet-footed quarterback and a punishing free safety with the Owls. “It’s not like he would be taking 50 reps on each side of the ball, but he is such a tremendous run-threat at quarterback.”
En route to being named B.C. high school football’s Triple A Offensive Player of the Year, Simson totalled 1,863 all-purpose yards and 23 touchdowns in nine games with the Owls, and the very next day, he was on the court as the point guard with the basketball team, which thus far sits undefeated against B.C. competition and has been ranked No. 1 by The Province since the preseason in the sport’s highest Quad A tier.
And while the Owls’ basketball team is filled with a galaxy of stars, Hanson knows he has plucked a player who is oozing with intangibles.
“He has the quarterback’s and the point guard’s mentality for sharing the ball and delivering it into space,” said Hanson, second all-time in Canada West victories. “In basketball, you often times get more of the finesse body. But Parker, he comes in here with a man’s build. And I have always been an advocate for the multi-sport model.”
So too, has Nill, himself a former football player and wrestler at the University of Calgary, who later went on to a career in the CFL.
“I am a real believer that when these kids can stay in a structured program the entire academic year, they excel,” explained Nill. “When I played, I went straight from football into the wrestling season and I was able to excel within that structure and I think single-sport athletes can have a lull without it.”
At every turn along his athletic journey, those who have watched him on both the court and the gridiron all begin their Simson thesis the same way: He is the most competitive person they have been around.
“Some kids play multiple sports for fun or to keep in shape for their main sport,” says Ben Macauley, the Owls’ head football coach. “Parker plays to win everything. He doesn’t wait for you to make a mistake. He pressures you into one and then he takes over. ”
Adds Kelowna head basketball coach Harry Parmar of Simson: “You can’t teach that kind of a compete level. He didn’t win a 60-second run because he was just coming over from football to basketball, and I tried to tell him that it was alright to be a little tired. He just looked at me and said ‘I don’t care. I hate losing.’”
Simson knows nothing about any part of his future is guaranteed, and you get the feeling that’s just the way he likes it.
“They will make sure that I know I am a rookie,” he says of his future teammates. “But I will try to play older than I am.”
Yet good things seem to happen wherever he goes.
Last February, when the basketball Owls hosted the best teams from across B.C. to its annual Western Canada Invitational, Kelowna won the event for the first time in 33 years and Simson was named MVP, the first time an Owls player had taken the top honours in 40 years.
In March, if he can help lead Kelowna to the B.C. Quad A hoops title, it would mark the first time that a senior varsity boys team from outside the Greater Vancouver and Vancouver Island regions has won the top prize at the province’s highest tier since 1980.
After a while you begin to notice a trend here: Parker Simson’s accomplishments are all rare.
“All I can say,” begins Kirzinger, “is that for this young man to try and take on both of those sports, he must be a truly exceptional athlete.”
BIRDS FOR ALL WEATHER
(UBC athletes to play football and basketball in the same sports season, by the decade)
1960s — Wayne Osborne: Brother Dave was also a UBC varsity athlete. Dad Bob was a former UBC athletic director.
1950s — Jack Henwood — A running back through the latter-half of 50s, played at least one season of basketball for the ‘Birds.
1940s — Reg Clarkson — Pro hoops for Vancouver Hornets. In football was traded straight up to Calgary from Edmonton for Normie Kwong.
1930s — Ralph ‘Hunk’ Henderson — First UBC player to turn professional in football when he joined Edmonton in 1939.
1920s — Doug McIntyre — First UBC athlete to play both football and basketball.
(Source, Fred Hume, UBC athletics)
CLAN JOCKS HAVE CAN-DO ATTITUDE FOR DOUBLE-DOUBLE
Executing the football-basketball double-double is indeed a rare one at UBC, but it’s happened twice in more recent times across town at Simon Fraser University, both involving student-athletes from PoCo’s Terry Fox Secondary.
The most recent was wide receiver/power forward Emmy Unaegbu, who did the double over his first three seasons on the hill, beginning in the fall of 2001 before a busted kneecap sidelined him and saw return as a hoops-only player.
As well, longtime former B.C. Lion Bret Anderson played both sports for the Clan beginning in the fall of 1993 for three seasons, finishing his SFU career in 1996 by concentrating solely on the gridiron.
Anderson’s SFU basketball coach, none other than men’s national team head coach Jay Triano, who while not playing the two sports concurrently, was a defensive back on the football team for one season following his basketball career (1977-81).
Photo: Whether he is playing quarterback or point guard with the Owls, Kelowna's Parker Simson dominates the play. (PNG photos)