Packers fans get loud in honor of Bart Starr
The ceremony honoring Bart Starr at halftime of the Green Bay Packers-Minnesota Vikings game was brief and dignified. Starr would have approved, not least because dozens of former teammates and players were on the field with Cherry Starr and the rest of their family.
It was a weekend to honor the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback who led Green Bay to five championships in seven years. Starr, 85, died in May.
"For 63 years, you have loved and embraced us and supported us. I am so grateful," Cherry Starr, his widow, said to nearly 80,000 fans at Lambeau Field. "I want to tell you how much I love you and you will always have a special place in my heart."
Her short speech was met with a defining roar, such as the Packers have been hoping to hear from fans all season
The focus was so completely on Starr that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre played silent backup roles. Favre escorted Cherry Starr onto the field between rows of Packers alumni and Goodell was there to present her with a 1960s Packers helmet with a No. 15 decal on it that all Packers players will wear this year.
Fifteen was a big number on Sunday, Sept. 15. In addition to Starr's retired No. 15 hanging above the field, and on a banner at field level for the remainder of the year, fans were given No. 15 buttons for attending the game Sunday. There were plenty of Starr jerseys in the stands and No. 15 Rawhide t-shirts as well, including one worn by old No. 4, Brett Favre.
Starr was celebrated Saturday at Rawhide, the facility for at-risk youth near New London that the Starrs helped found in the 1960s, and which was to him one of the most important places on earth.
The most prominent photo in his father's office in Birmingham, Alabama, was not of football or Packers, but of youth at Rawhide, Bart Starr Jr. said.
"That sort of tells it all," Starr said. "When they won all those championships, that was something that was significant and gave a lot of joy and pride to the people in Green Bay and to the organization, but that was really a platform to do something even more profound and lasting. And here it is."
The Pro Football and Packers halls of fame quarterback also was honored Friday at the annual Green and Gold Gala at Lambeau Field, and will be again Sunday during halftime of the Packers game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Amy Van Alstine came to Rawhide from Merrill with her husband and daughter, and her dad, Terry Vanden Heuvel, who now lives in Florida and attended the Ice Bowl with his father. The family has had tickets since Lambeau Field opened in 1957, nine rows up in the north end zone. You get the drift: Packers fans.
"We are just here to show our respect to Bart," she said.
Vanden Heuvel remembers going to Packers training camp when he was 10, accompanied by his younger nephew. They encountered Bart and Cherry leaving the parking lot and his nephew asked for an autograph on his shirt. Starr said he didn't want to ruin the shirt, but of course they got the autograph.
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As did many thousands of people over the years. Cherry said the requests never stopped coming, even decades after Starr was out of football. Starr believed in signing autographs, but he believed in Rawhide even more. He never charged for autographs, but included with them a request that the person receiving the signature donate whatever they could to Rawhide. Cherry said Rawhide received received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from those autographs over the years.
And Rawhide received another $50,000 Saturday from the Bart & Cherry Starr Foundation to kick off a campaign to build another residential home on the campus named after the Starrs.
Along with fans, Packers alumni who played with or for Starr were on hand, among them Paul Coffman, Ezra Johnson, Carroll Dale, Ken Ellis, Paul Hornung and many others. A handful — Dave Robinson, Boyd Dowler, Jerry Kramer, Johnnie Gray, John Anderson and Greg Koch — recalled playing with and for Starr.
"Nothing ever seemed to change him," teammate Dowler said. "He was the same person when we won, the same person when we lost, the same person off the field as on the field.
"Bart seemed to always come up with just the thing to do. He was that way in his life."
Dave Robinson, who played with Starr, recalled receiving a call from him after Robinson's youngest son died of kidney failure. Robinson said he was mad at the world in the wake of the death. The Starrs lost a son, Bret, to a drug overdose in the 1980s.
"We talked like two fathers who lost sons and when it was done, I was all right," Robinson said.
Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy said that at Starr's funeral service, none of the speakers talked about his football career. The speeches were all about Starr as a man, father and husband, and how he had an impact on people.
Starr wasn't the only one honored Saturday. For more than 65 years he and Cherry were a team. Rawhide founder John Gillespie recalled her deciding vote on the Starrs becoming involved with the just-launched facility, and players remembered her generosity toward them.
Koch, a native of Houston, recalled that Cherry would spend two days before Thanksgiving making cornbread dressing, a favorite of Southern-born players.
"That's the kind of lady she was," he said.
Cherry Starr said she and Bart always tried to do things to benefit children and Rawhide was a natural for them.
"We just decided right there at the moment that we were going to join them, we were going to help him," she said. "We just didn't have the resources at the time. I feel like it was divine intervention because the year Bart won most valuable player at the Super Bowl, and of course you know the story about the car and auctioning it off and raising enough money to put a down payment on this property."
Starr won MVP Corvettes in back-to-back Super Bowls and donated them to Rawhide. Both cars were on display Saturday.
Jeff Spindler of Startford, the son and grandson of Packers fans, grew up a Starr fan.
"The class of the man, it was just legendary," he said. "If he had flaws, you never saw them. It seems like all heroes now have flaws."
Starr had a mostly unsuccessful run as Packers coach, but those who played for him said there was more to it than wins and losses.
"I don't recall the Xs and Os. I recall the things I learned as a man," said former linebacker John Anderson, an opinion echoed by Koch and Johnnie Gray, who also played for Starr.
Jerry Kramer, Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Starr teammate best summed up the day's prevailing sentiment:
"Bart made this whole world a better place because he was in it."
Contact Richard Ryman at (920) 431-8342 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @RichRymanPG, on Instagram at @rrymanPG or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RichardRymanPG/