A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Former UK great from Bear Bryant era, NFL superstar, Babe Parilli dies at 87 in Denver

By Mark Maynard
Kentucky Today

One of the University of Kentucky’s all-time great quarterbacks died on Saturday after a bout with cancer.

Vito “Babe” Parilli, who played for UK during the Bear Bryant era, passed away in Denver. He was 87.

The New England Patriots organization announced his death. Parilli played for the Patriots from 1961-67. His pro football career also included stints with the Green Bay Packers, the Cleveland Browns, the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets. He threw for more than 20,000 yards in the NFL.

A 1961 photo shows Babe Parilli of the Boston Patriots.

With Parilli as his quarterback, Bryant guided the Wildcats went to three major bowl games (Orange, Sugar and Cotton). He flawlessly ran Bryant’s “T” formation offense that ripped up opponents.

“I called all the plays,” he said in a January 2017 interview. “I used to play a game with him every day for three years on calling plays. We went over down-and-distance situations. We met every day during the school year.”

Kentucky was 28-8 with Parilli as its quarterback. In 1951, the 11-1 Wildcats won the SEC championship and defeated top-ranked Oklahoma 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl.

Parilli lettered three years at quarterback for the Wildcats and set Kentucky records for touchdowns with 50. He completed 331 of his 592 passes for 4,351 career yards in three years as quarterback at UK.

In 1950, Parilli threw 23 touchdown passes and the following year, when Kentucky beat TCU in the Cotton Bowl, Parilli threw 19 TDs.

From the time Parilli left UK until Tim Couch threw for 37 touchdowns in Hal Mumme’s Air Raid in 1997, no Kentucky quarterback ever threw for more than 11 TDs (Rick Norton in 1965 and Bill Ransdell in 1984) in a season.

After being taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Packers in 1952, Parilli played for six years in the NFL, then 10 years in the AFL, culminating with a 1969 Super Bowl championship with the New York Jets. He was the backup quarterback to Joe Namath that year.

Parilli was a two-time All-American, Heisman Trophy nominee and a member of the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame.
Born May 7, 1930, in Rochester, Pa., Parilli was voted to three AFL All-Star games (1963-64 and 1966) and earned the AFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1966. Parilli was also named to the All-AFL 10 Year Anniversary Team in 1971 and his 31 touchdown passes in 1964 were a team record until 2007.

Parilli currently sits fourth on the Patriots all-time career passing list with 16,747 yards and fourth with 132 touchdown passes on 2,413 attempts in 94 games over seven seasons.

In addition to his skills as a quarterback, Parilli became known as an excellent holder and earned the nickname “gold finger.” The combination of holder/quarterback Parilli and kicker/wide receiver Gino Cappelletti came to be known as the “Grand Opera.”

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