Don Parcells, R.I.P.

Mickey Spagnola passes on some sad news, the passing of Don Parcells, a man I never knew existed, from brain cancer.

Life keeps interrupting football for Bill Parcells. Real life.

A couple of weeks ago, Wellington Mara, the long-time owner of the New York Giants, the man who basically raised Parcells in the NFL, died.

Now again, Wednesday night. Bill Parcells received the phone call he’s probably been dreading for several years. His brother Don Parcells, 20 months his younger, had finally succumbed to the brain cancer that had nearly taken his life several times earlier. This one hit harder, harder than Wellington. This one is blood. “Tough there,” Bill Parcells said following his 30-minute press conference out here on Thursday, taking that slow walk down the breezeway back to his office. “Tough times.”

You got the idea he might wanted to have said more. But you could tell, he just couldn’t. Not then. Not now. The pain still was too raw. And after all, Bill Parcells still has a job to do. He is the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and he would never allow anyone to see him in a weak moment, no matter how understandable that would have been.

That’s how he’s been, evidently, throughout his coaching career, insisting on keeping his private life private. Oh, he’ll mention something about his daughters every once in a while for the sake of humor, and he’s even made mention of his ex-wife just recently. He’s talked of his mom quite often, telling us that’s where he acquired his style of confronting a problem or person head on. But you know what, and maybe this is my fault, but I never knew Bill had a brother, let alone two, Don the middle child of Charles and Ida Parcells, and Doug, a high school coach and teacher, the youngest. Never came up. Never asked.


If we only knew . . . and if those witnessing this new chapter of his life had only knew how close he was to Don, an executive banker who resided just outside Newark, N.J., and who went to school at West Point and fought in the Viet Nam War.

The Newark Star-Ledger caught up with Bill nearly two years ago, the Cowboys getting ready to play that playoff game against Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. The paper was doing a story on Don Parcells. But in doing so, the writer, Steve Politi, was establishing a side of Bill few ever get to know. “That’s blood right there,” Parcells was quoted, knowing his younger brother nearly died two years earlier from grade-IV glioblastoma – the most aggressive of brain tumors. “He is my closest brother, and I love him very much. We’re 20 months apart, age wise. He is one of the closest people I have in this world.”

That right there should explain just how “tough” this day has been for Bill Parcells, and just how tough the rest of this week will be on him. He’s a football coach, not a corporate executive. He can’t call in sick the rest of the week. He’s got a team, and that team has one of the season’s most important football games to play Monday night, in Philadelphia against the Eagles.


[H]e’s got guys counting on him, not only his coaching staff, but his players. At best, he might be able to get away Sunday when the team flies to Philadelphia. And for sure part of the day on Monday when Don Parcells’ funeral will be held, since the Cowboys-Eagles don’t get underway until 9 p.m. (EST).

To Bill Parcells, he knows the show must go on. He also knows his players have enough to think about. He did not burden them with his personal life.

“I heard,” said 12-year veteran Aaron Glenn, who is on his second tour of duty with Bill. Did he say something? “He would never tell us,” Glenn said.

Evidently not. When his quarterback was asked if he had heard, Drew Bledsoe, who is spending his fifth NFL season with Bill Parcells, said, “Nooo, when? I didn’t know.”

And when Keyshawn Johnson finally concluded uttering his umpteenth “Not my problem” response to questions about the Eagles suspending Terrell Owens, he kind a nodded knowingly when asked if he knew, saying, “Yeah, you just kind of knew, but he didn’t say anything.”

No, that would have been un-Bill-like.

That the people closest to Parcells professionally–and that’s close, given the nature of being on a team–didn’t know that he had a brother, let alone that he was dying, is further proof that big time sports is a strange existence. Players and coaches routinely show up and perform while wives are giving birth, close relatives die, and other major life-altering events that sideline people in other walks of life.

Don Gutman has a brief biography of the young Parcells boys, describing a life that was far more “normal.”

The West Point Class of 1965 has a reprint of the Steve Politi piece referenced in Spagnola’s article. Particularly chilling, especially on Veterans Day, is this passage:

The two went separate ways after high school: Bill to Wichita State to pursue a career in athletics, Don to West Point to play football. The latter graduated from the military academy just in time for the Vietnam War.

One night, during an operation in the jungle, his brigade came under heavy mortar attack. He tried to hide in his foxhole, but he still got hit. Both his legs, bleeding badly, needed tourniquets. He knew he would not survive the night, but the rescue helicopters could not get to him.

Finally, one made it through. He was taken to an aid station, where he prayed he would make it through triage. His big brother got the news days later, and never felt more helpless.


Don spent four months rehabilitating his injuries in Japan and, when he got healthy, was sent back to Vietnam. The near-death experience gave him a perspective on life that helped after his cancer diagnosis. “You know, I lived longer than I thought I would have anyway,” he said. “I could have been dead at 22 or 23.”

The life of a combat soldier isn’t exactly “normal,” either.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Sports, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Elmo says:

    Me, I haven’t read a book in years. I stopped buying them when I realized they had just been stacking up, collecting dust. As much as I wanted, as hard as I tried. I could never find the energy or the interest.

    Heroes. I could read about heroes forever.

  2. ICallMasICM says:

    I’m sorry to hear about his brother but Parcells is still a dick. I used to be a ‘Boys fan, not anymore.

  3. foppa says:

    Yeah Parcells has never once seemed like a decent guy.

  4. Bgonaf says:

    I was surprised to hear that Bill Parcels was still alive.

  5. Kristin says:

    That was very sad news to hear, Bill and his family are in our thoughts.

  6. greg stevens says:

    Don is a true hero of mine. He reached out to try to give me strength and hope. I’ve always admired his brother coach and our thoughts are with him and his family, now…greg stevens

  7. John Turner says:

    I think the picture we paint with or without media as our main supply is irrelevant now. What we think about a man we never met and most likely never will should not matter now. The death of a loved one is hard for us all. Death is the one things that ties us all together in life. And the pain it leaves is commonly understood. I wish Coach Parcells the best in this battle. And I am not speaking of a football game.

  8. Matt Seymour says:

    Don Parcells was a lot more than Bill’s little brother… Football may have made the Parcells name famous, but Donnie was already leagendary among those who called him a friend. My father John Seymour (RB) shared the Army backfield with Don (FB) along with Rollie Stichwey (QB) to run over Roger Staubach and the Navy midshipmen in the battle of ’64. His teammates and West Point classmates (Dennis Lewis, Bill Zadel, Dave Kuhn, Ray Paske, Bobby Jones, Chuck Shaw …the list of great men goes on forever) shared the battlefield with Don in Vietnam. And, I was lucky enough to call Don a friend for the last 2 decades at our annual Vegas superbowl trip. He will be missed by more people than you will ever imagine. The world has lost a truly great man, and my prayers go out to the thousands of lives Don touched while with us, especially his family and friends. He will be sorely missed by all. -Matt Seymour

  9. Ken Villa says:

    What ever you might think of Bill Parcells is your own opinion, but then that show’s everyone what type of person you are to say something negative about a guy when a family member die’s. When karma smacks you in the face don’t go crying to MOMMY!!!!

  10. Neal Zundell says:

    My statement:

    If we play like this against the Lions on Sunday we will lose the football game. We were consistently blown off both sides of the line of scrimmage, did not control the clock, could not run the football nor stop the run. Christmas comes but once a year. We have much work to do in a short week.

    Having said that, I’m gratified that there is no quit in these guys. As I said these 11 days will tell me what type of team I have here. It meant a lot to pull out an unlikely victory in the most unlikely of ways. In addition to feeling some vindication for the Week 2 debacle against Washington, it was an emotional win for Bill, who just hours earlier buried his younger brother Don. I’d like to present the game ball to Don’s memory.

  11. Brian Scheets says:

    Don parcells, was a good man. I went to school with his kids, in New Jersey, he was fighting a long fight.He tried to reach out to others who had the same problem. Ive also had the pleasure of meeting Bill Parcells and as much as you might want to belittle the guy, he has feelings like you and I, were all human. He cared very much for his brother. So just keep them in your prayers

  12. Jack O'Brien says:

    As a kid I saw two of the Parcell boys, Bill and Don, play football at River Dell HS in Oradell, NJ. Bill was an OL and Donnie a FB. It was in the early years of the school and the Golden Hawks hadn’t become a power under Mattie Certasimo. It was character building time.

    I followed Bill’s career through the media from Witchita State as a player to West Point as a coach and then to the NFL. Local kid makes good.

    I probably hadn’t thought about Donnie in 40 years until a few minutes ago when I read a line in ND football coach Charlie Weis’s 11/15 press conference noting the death of Bill Parcells brother. A google search brought me here.

    I didn’t know he was a vet, a retired banker, had made it to Short Hills, his struggle with cancer and his impact on others.

    By different roads two kids, who I admired as a younger kid, have made indelible marks on the lives of others. Condolences and sweet memories to the family.

  13. Tameka Hillary says:

    My condolences to the Parcells family. I think that Bill is one of the best coaches that Dallas could ever have. (We just don’t want T.O. on the team with all of that drama!) Bill, if you ever read this, I am so sorry, and your family is in my prayers.

  14. Ronnie Reagan says:

    I am a member of The Central Jersey Brain Tumor Group which is where I met Don and his wife Elaine. I had the pleasure of speaking with him only twice. He was unpretentious, very caring, very helpful and had a positive attitude. I just found out about his death today;my heartfelt sympathy go out to his wife,children,and his two bothers.I will keep him and his family in my prayers.

  15. Shannon Parcells says:

    I am Don Parcells daughter. I like to say thank you to all who have expressed their sympathy here. My father was a wonderful human being and man of honor and loyalty. The void left in our lives by his death is still incomprehensible. Yes, my Uncle may be the coach of the Cowboys– but he is a brother who has lost an important part of his life…you can not imagine the pain this has caused him. I commend him on his ability to stand as tall–as he did on Monday night and make it through that horrific day. Those of you who have a had negative, hurtful things to say– not that he would care– but I do. I only hope that when your family is suffering you are not subjected to the same. A little compassion would be appreciated.

  16. Bob Menzenhauer says:

    Growing up just a few short blocks from the Parcells in the late 50’s and early 60’s, We regarded Bill and Don as sports Legends in our town. They defined a sports culture in Oradell that kids could easily relate to, they were our roll models.
    As a younger kid growing up in Oradell, I was proud to play ball on the same fields to which Bill, Donnie and their friends played.
    My sincere condolences go out to the Parcells family, you are in my prayers.

  17. Ken Dubensky says:

    I met Don Parcells in 1983 during my interview with Marine Midland Bank. He did 2 things in that interview that truly amazed me:
    1) ripped up my resume at the start of the meeting and told me if I could not do what was I said in it, he would fire me.
    2) told me that he never hired anyone who would not land on their feet when they were fired.

    Don had a clear vision where the field of banking was heading. He had insight into something he couldn’t name, but would lead to mortar-less-banking sometime in the future. This became the Internet…..

    My career was a good one before I joined MMB and Don’s team. 20+ years later, I look back on that time with fondness and an awareness that my best opportunities began to develop career wise because of Don and the talent he attracted who were my teachers.

  18. Himmelberg says:

    I, too, was a Parcells fan back in the ’60’s. Both of them. Went to River Dell and look back on those guys as heros. My thoughts go out to Don’s family and to Bill.

    Still a Parcells fan, himmelberg

  19. Russell Mehls says:

    As a student at Riverdell, I remember Don as a good natured, somewhat reserved, active in athletics guy with the flat top haircut. You knew that he had the tenacity to be successful at whatever he did in life. He was a good man and certainly lived life to the fullest. My condolences to the Parcells family. You have much to be proud of.