By Rick Eymer
Coach Ben Parks made you a better person whether you liked it or not. Most of the time, you'd appreciate his kindness, his toughness and his way of embracing life. There was something special in his heart, something that made him believe every life was valuable.
When you listened, you believed it too.
The long-time iconic Menlo-Atherton football and wrestling coach died in his sleep Aug. 19. He was 77.
There will be Coach Parks Memorial/Tribute day at Menlo-Atherton High School on Saturday, Sept. 17, beginning at 11 a.m. Video equipment will be there to record memories of Coach Parks for a future tribute.
Known simply as "Coach Parks," he had 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.
In 2008, he stepped forward when the head football coach suddenly resigned, days before a game. He let the staff run the team. He was there to make sure everything ran smoothly. M-A won its next game, and kept winning, taking home the championship trophy as the best team in the Central Coast Section Large Schools Division.
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 treated them the same way he treated high school players.
"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 fundraising event and his signature event.
Parks, who coached the Bears football team between 1968 and 1984, was named Leading Citizen of the Year for 1996 by the Boys & 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, integrity and character mattered and that shortcuts only lead to dead ends.
Go to tinyurl.com/Coach-163 for more information and to post remembrances.