The Cleveland Browns have played many significant games in their history.
One of the Browns most memorable games was their 27-0 victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL championship game – Cleveland’s last championship.
A key contributor in Cleveland’s win over Baltimore was defensive back Bernie Parrish.
Besides playing a solid game against the Colts, Parrish helped develop the defensive game plan and did most of the defensive play-calling that led to Cleveland’s shutout of Baltimore.
Parrish’s role in Cleveland’s 1964 championship game was the high point of his successful NFL career, which saw Parrish earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors with the Browns.
We take a look at the life of Bernie Parrish – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Bernard Paul Parrish was born in Long Beach, California on April 29, 1936.
His father, Charles, was a salesman, and his mother, Margaret, was a homemaker.
When Parrish was six years old, his parents divorced, and his mother had to work to support the family.
Parrish had an older brother and two younger sisters.
He grew up in Gainesville, Florida.
As a child, Parrish dreamed of future athletic success.
“By the time I was eight, I had decided I was going to be a four-sport letterman, a baseball bonus baby, an All-Star pro football player, hit .400, pitch no-hitters, quarterback an unbeaten team, get a scholarship for football, make All-American, and win a world championship at whatever I liked best.”
In elementary school, at 10 years old, Parrish played in a junior-league football program.
He threw 15 touchdown passes and ran for 16 touchdowns, helping his team win the junior-league championship.
Parrish attended P.K. Yonge High School in Gainesville.
In describing his high school, Parrish stated:
“[My[ high school was a football, basketball, and baseball power in the state. It had only seventy boys and fifty-four of them played football. Our coaches, Julian Olsen and Hank Bishop, taught us the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, fundamentals that I would carry with me through my career in professional football. I played quarterback and we had the school’s first unbeaten season my junior year. Looking back now I realize my high-school teammates were as mean a group of competitors as I ever played with.”
With Parrish’s play, P.K. Yonge High School won 17 straight games.
Parrish also excelled in basketball (including that he was MVP of the North-South basketball game) and baseball in high school.
Growing up in Gainesville, it was always Parrish’s goal to attend his hometown college – the University of Florida.
However, Florida did not initially offer Parrish a scholarship.
Parrish considered attending Stetson University (in DeLand, Florida), which offered Parrish a scholarship.
Based on a combination of Parrish believing that it was his destiny to go to Florida and a general promise of financial support from the Gator Boosters Club, after graduating high school, Parrish, even without a scholarship, became a “Florida Gator” for college.
Bothered by a shoulder injury from his last high school football game, Parrish did not play freshman football.
Instead, he played basketball and baseball and went out for track.
However, when Parrish was told he could receive a scholarship if he made the football team, Parrish decided to try out for football.
“I can’t tell you exactly why, but I had to be the best damn football player on that field. I wanted to have a head-on collision with the toughest guy on the other team all the time. I have no idea why I did that. Fortunately, it didn’t kill me – but I’m not so sure that it helped my brain a lot.”
He made the football team and played halfback and defensive back for the Gators in 1956 and 1957.
In 1956, Parrish rushed for 114 yards and one touchdown on 26 rushing attempts and caught seven passes for 93 yards and one touchdown.
Florida had a 6-3-1 record in 1956.
Before the 1957 season, Parrish was described in the “University of Florida 1957 Football Brochure” as follows:
“Played 197 minutes last year . . . A good pass receiver . . . A capable passer, he may be called on to throw some from the halfback slot . . . Has good speed and is a good runner . . . Improved throughout season on defense . . . Tackles hard.”
On November 16, 1957, in a 14-7 Florida win over Vanderbilt, Parrish probably had his greatest college football game.
He rushed for 111 yards and Florida’s two touchdowns (on runs of 45 and 22 yards) on 11 rushing attempts and kicked Florida’s two extra points.
On defense, Parrish made seven tackles, intercepted a pass, and batted down Vanderbilt’s final scoring attempt in the end zone.
For his play in the Vanderbilt game, Parrish was named college football’s “Back of the Week” by the Associated Press.
Parrish rushed for 393 yards and four touchdowns on 71 rushing attempts, caught two passes for 25 yards and one touchdown, and completed a 46-yard touchdown pass, in 1957.
In 1957, the Gators posted a 6-2-1 record.
Florida defeated LSU (then ranked 10th in the nation by the Associated Press) 22-14 on October 26, 1957.
The Gators were ranked 17th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1957.
In addition to his football play, Parrish starred on the baseball team at Florida.
Playing second base, Parrish batted .433 as a junior.
In 1958, Parrish was named to the college baseball All-America team by the American Baseball Coaches Association (the first Gator baseball player to receive this honor).
Recruited by major league baseball scouts, Parrish elected to give up his last year of college football eligibility and signed a bonus contract with the Cincinnati Reds.
Parrish ultimately returned to Florida during his NFL off-season and graduated from Florida with a bachelor’s degree in building construction in 1960.
The Pro Football Years
In the 1958 NFL draft, Parrish was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the ninth round.
He was the 108th overall pick.
After playing minor league baseball for two seasons (with teams in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Topeka, Kansas), Parrish decided to play football and left baseball to join the Browns in 1959.
Parrish made a positive impression on Browns head coach Paul Brown when he arrived at Cleveland training camp.
“About a week after my arrival at camp Paul traded Bobby Freeman, a veteran defensive back, and told me, ‘You’re my left cornerback until somebody beats you out.’ Nobody ever did.”
As a rookie in 1959, Parrish (playing at a height of five feet and eleven inches and a weight of 194 pounds) started all 12 regular season games at left defensive back.
On October 18, 1959, in a 17-7 Browns victory over the Chicago Cardinals, Parrish scored his first NFL regular season touchdown on a 37-yard interception return.
Cleveland forced four Cardinals turnovers.
The victory over Chicago was one of four regular season games that Parrish helped the Browns defense hold the opposing team to only seven points.
For the 1959 regular season, Parrish intercepted five passes, which he returned for 83 yards,
Cleveland had a 7-5 record in 1959 and failed to make the playoffs.
Parrish helped Cleveland’s defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1959 third in fewest points allowed (214), second in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,422), and tied for fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (4.0).
In 1960, Parrish played in all 12, and started 11, regular season games at left defensive back.
On October 16, 1960, Parrish had two interceptions, which he returned for 37 yards, in a 48-7 Cleveland win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Cleveland limited the Cowboys to 79 “net pass yards” and forced six Dallas turnovers.
Parrish intercepted a pass from St. Louis Cardinals quarterback John Roach and returned the interception for 54 yards, in a 28-27 Browns defeat of the St. Louis Cardinals on November 13, 1960.
In a 42-0 Cleveland shutout of the Chicago Bears on December 11, 1960, Parrish intercepted two passes, which he returned for 115 yards, including a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Cleveland held the Bears to 90 “net pass yards” and forced eight Chicago turnovers.
Chuck Heaton, sportswriter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, on December 12, 1960, described Parrish’s 92-yard interception return touchdown as follows:
“It was Parrish who made the key steal of the game in the second quarter with the Browns leading, 7-0, but the Bears seemingly on their way to a score. The second-year cornerback from Florida took [Bears quarterback Ed] Brown’s throw on the Cleveland eight-yard line. Running like the fine offensive back he was in college, Bernie used his blockers beautifully on the 92-yard run to the Chicago end zone. He seemed to be pinned at the five but crashed on through in fullback fashion.”
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) April 12, 2020
Parrish had one of his best years in the 1960 regular season, as he intercepted six passes, which he returned for 238 yards (Parrish’s interception return yards led the NFL in 1960).
He also recovered one fumble in 1960.
For his play in 1960, Parrish received his first Pro Bowl invitation.
Cleveland had an 8-3-1 record in 1960, but failed to make the playoffs.
Parrish contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1960 fourth in fewest points allowed (217), tied for first in recovered turnovers (45), fifth in recovered fumbles (14), and first in defensive interceptions (31).
In 1961, Parrish started all 14 regular season games at left defensive back.
On November 19, 1961, Parrish intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and returned the interception for 15 yards.
The Browns defeated Philadelphia 45-24.
In a 38-17 Cleveland victory over the Dallas Cowboys on December 3, 1961, Parrish both intercepted Dallas quarterback Eddie LeBaron three times (which Parrish returned for 25 yards) and returned a fumble for a 34-yard touchdown.
The Browns forced six Cowboys turnovers.
Parrish intercepted seven passes, which he returned for 40 yards, in the 1961 regular season.
In 1961, the Browns had an 8-5-1 record, but failed to make the playoffs.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) December 9, 2020
Parrish helped Cleveland’s defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1961 fifth in fewest points allowed (270), tied for fifth in recovered fumbles (18), fourth in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,605), and fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.9).
Parrish played in and started 13 regular season games at left defensive back in 1962.
In a 17-16 Cleveland loss to the Washington Redskins on September 23, 1962, Parrish intercepted Washington quarterback Norm Snead and returned the interception for 37 yards.
For the 1962 regular season, Parrish intercepted two passes, which he returned for 37 yards.
Cleveland posted a 7-6-1 record in 1962 and failed to make the playoffs.
With Parrish at left defensive back, the Browns defense ranked in the NFL regular season in 1962 third in fewest points allowed (257), third in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,924), and second in fewest passing yards allowed (1,984).
In 1963, Parrish started all 14 regular season games at left defensive back.
In the 1963 regular season, Parrish recovered one fumble.
For his play in 1963, Parrish received his second Pro Bowl invitation.
OK. Let’s start here. Frank Gifford jumps up to catch a short pass from Y.A. Tittle as Cleveland’s Bernie Parrish defends, October 14th, 1963, Yankee Stadium. pic.twitter.com/hETuIhiqRS
— Mark Weinstein (@mwweinstein) April 1, 2020
The Browns had a 10-4 record in 1963, but failed to make the playoffs.
Parrish’s play helped the Cleveland defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1963 third in fewest points allowed (262), fourth in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,651), and tied for third in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.9).
1964 was a special season for Parrish and the Browns.
Parrish again started all 14 regular season games at left defensive back in 1964.
On October 18, 1964, Parrish intercepted a pass and returned it for a 54-yard touchdown, which provided the winning points in a 20-16 Cleveland victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
The Browns forced five Cowboys turnovers.
In the 1964 regular season, Parrish intercepted four passes, which he returned for 98 yards, and recovered one fumble.
He was named second team All-Pro by the Associated Press and first team All-Conference by the Sporting News in 1964.
Cleveland, with a 10-3-1 record, won the NFL East Division title in 1964.
With Parrish at left defensive back, Cleveland’s defense ranked in the NFL regular season in 1964 fifth in fewest points allowed (293), fourth in recovered turnovers (40), tied for second in recovered fumbles (21), and tied for fifth in defensive interceptions (19).
The Browns advanced to the 1964 NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts on December 27, 1964.
In describing his preparation for the game, Parrish stated:
“I picked up . . . the sheets of graph paper on which I had charted the Colts pass patterns for three of their games that season. On those sheets, to a scale of one square per yard, I had drawn the exact pattern run by each Colts receiver individually on every pass play . . . I also recorded the reaction of the defensive secondary to each pattern. Then, I drafted trees of overlays, superimposing the patterns, separately, by formation, by down and distance, and by field position, noting whether the pattern went to the wide side or the short side of the field. . . . Charting . . . took me over ninety hours, which were in addition to the time spent at regular practice and team meetings.”
From his “charting”, Parrish helped develop a defensive game plan that had the Browns secondary play more aggressively in pass coverage.
“I was telling Ross, ‘In the films every other team’s back-field backed off of them a couple of extra yards. They were obviously afraid of their passing attack. That gives the receivers the extra room they need to work their deeper patterns in. . . . If we line up closer to our men – you a yard and a half closer to [future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end John] Mackey, [Browns cornerback] Walter [Beach] and I will do the same on [future Pro Football Hall of Fame split end Raymond] Berry and [Pro Bowl wide receiver Jimmy] Orr – we’ll force them to break sooner than they want to . . . It has to screw up their timing.”
On the field, Parrish implemented this defensive game plan, as he did most of the defensive play-calling for the Browns against the Colts.
In addition, Parrish, starting at left defensive back, played a solid game, holding Jimmy Orr (who Parrish covered most of the game) to 31 yards on two pass receptions.
Parrish’s role in all of game planning, play-calling, and playing was a key factor in helping Cleveland shutout Baltimore 27-0 for the first NFL championship for the Browns in nine years.
The Browns held the Colts (and their future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas) to 89 “net pass yards” and forced four Baltimore turnovers.
In 1965, for the third consecutive year, Parrish started all 14 regular season games at left defensive back.
For the 1965 regular season, Parrish intercepted four passes, which he returned for 45 yards, and recovered one fumble.
With an 11-3 record, Cleveland again won the NFL East Division title in 1965.
Parrish helped the Browns defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1965 fifth in defensive pass interceptions (24).
The Browns advanced to play the Green Bay Packers in the 1965 NFL championship game on January 2, 1966.
Parrish started the game at left defensive back, but Green Bay defeated Cleveland 23-12.
In 1966, Parrish had a disagreement with the Browns over his playing time and asked to be released.
After playing in, but not starting, the opening regular season game in 1966 (a 38-14 Cleveland win over the Washington Redskins on September 11, 1966, in which Parrish intercepted Washington quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and returned the interception for 16 yards (one of six Washington turnovers)), Parrish was released by the Browns.
The Houston Oilers then signed Parrish.
Parrish played in 11, and started eight, games with the Oilers in 1966 at left defensive back. He intercepted two passes for Houston.
1966 was Parrish’s last season playing in the NFL.
The Years After the NFL
Parrish was married three times.
He had six children, Teresa, Nina, Amy, Holly, Bernard, Jr., and Summer.
After his retirement from the NFL, Parrish had a business career in hotel construction.
He also was involved in the oil business in Texas.
Parrish, who when he played for the Browns served as team representative to the NFL Players Association and later as Vice President of the NFL Players Association, unsuccessfully worked with the Teamsters in the late 1960’s to create a new Teamsters-affiliated football players union.
Much of Parrish’s post-NFL life was filled with controversy relating to the NFL.
He wrote a book in 1971, They Call It A Game, that was highly critical of the NFL, including alleging that the NFL fixed the results of games.
Wow. Looking through some boxes, found this book published in 1971. Written by former NFL player, Bernie Parrish, who passed away last week. RIP. pic.twitter.com/SwiXxBxwr0
— Howard Balzer (@HBalzer721) October 31, 2019
Parrish spoke out against both NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and NFL Players Association President Gene Upshaw.
He strongly supported retired NFL players, including on the issues of head injuries, disability and medical benefits, and name and player image licensing fees.
Parrish was inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame as a “Gator Great”.
In 2017, Parrish was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
Browns induct Bernie Parrish and Tony Adamle into Legends program during a halftime ceremony https://t.co/Dx2rQB7e0S
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 1, 2017
Parrish died on October 23, 2019 in Springfield, Missouri of metastatic prostate cancer.
In reviewing Parish’s NFL career, three points stand out.
First, Parrish was durable.
He played in 96 out of a possible 97 Cleveland regular season and playoff games from his rookie season through the first game of the 1966 regular season.
Second, Parrish was productive in intercepting passes and recovering turnovers.
Parrish ranks seventh in Browns career regular season interceptions (29), fourth in Browns career regular season interception return yards (557), and tied for third in Browns career regular season interception return touchdowns (3). In addition, his December 11, 1960 92-yard interception return against Chicago is tied for the seventh longest interception return in Browns regular season history.
He also ranks sixth in Browns career regular season recovered turnovers (34), third in Browns career regular season recovered turnover return yards (591), and tied for second in Browns career regular season recovered turnover return touchdowns (4).
Third, Parrish was a winner.
He never played on a losing team with Cleveland and won at least 10 games in three seasons, two division titles, and a championship in 1964.
It is this championship, and Parrish’s role in it, game planning, play-calling, and playing to help Cleveland shutout Baltimore, that was Parrish’s greatest contribution to the Browns.
Bernie Parrish should be remembered by Browns fans as an outstanding defensive player who was a key factor in securing Cleveland’s last NFL championship.