KUSA—Vito “Babe” Parilli, who helped guide quarterback Craig Morton to glory in the Denver Broncos’ first Super Bowl-appearing season of 1977, died Saturday morning, the New England Patriots announced.
He was 87.
Parilli was one of the top quarterbacks in the old American Football League in the 1960s. His best years were with the Boston Patriots from 1961-67 before he finished as the New York Jets’ backup quarterback to Joe Namath in 1968-69. Parilli was the AFL’s All Star Game MVP in 1966.
During his years with the Jets, Parilli was the placeholder for kicker Jim Turner. Both wound up with the Broncos – Turner as the team’s Ring of Fame kicker from 1971-79 and Parilli as Red Miller’s quarterbacks’ coach from 1977-79.
Both Parilli and Turner made Denver their permanent home.
Parilli not only helped resurrect the career of the aging Morton in 1977, he is given credit for discovering a skinny, undrafted receiver from Temple named Steve Watson.
“Besides my dad, he was the biggest reason I made it to the NFL,’’ Watson said Saturday. “I was out doing some errands and I’ve been thinking about all the conversations we had. It breaks my heart to know Babe’s not here anymore. He was a special guy. And when you talked to him, you know that he really cared. Babe was a real caring person.’’
Watson had been a last-minute addition to the East-West Shrine Game in 1979 and though he didn’t do anything extraordinary, Parilli saw something he liked.
“I remember asking Fran Poolsfoot, my receivers coach in Denver,’’ Watson said for the book, “50 Greatest Players in Denver Broncos History,” that will be released in November. “My first year after I made the team, I said, ‘Hey coach Poolsfoot, what did you think of me in the East-West Shrine Game?’ Because I had always kind of wondered. He goes, ‘Stevie, you stunk the joint up. You were so bad you couldn’t catch a cold.’
“And I said, “Well, how did I make it here?’ And he said, ‘Babe Parilli.’ He said, ‘Babe Parilli stood up on the table for you and none of us could figure out why.’’’
Parilli went to Temple to work out Watson. It was raining so Parilli had Watson run a 40-yard sprint in the hallway, then threw him passes in the gym.
Parilli knew what he saw. Watson in the five-year period from 1981-85 ranked third in the NFL with 5,017 receiving yards.
Parilli also coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL, two World Football League teams and several Arena Football League teams before retiring to his Denver home in 1997.