Bart Starr: Lifetime of achievement rooted in Montgomery
Editor's note: First of a three-part series reflecting on the life of NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Bart Starr
Just two weeks into his sophomore season at Sidney Lanier High School, Bart Starr made a decision that forever altered the course of his life.
Little did he recognize at the time, that choice also impacted the history of the NFL, a lifetime of teammates and coaches at Alabama and Green Bay, and countless others influenced by Starr’s presence over the course of his 85 years.
The Montgomery native died Sunday morning in Birmingham, his career as a five-time championship quarterback with the Packers and his later years as a successful businessman exceeded only by the way he lived his life with dignity and character.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Starr contemplated quitting the Poets when he was relegated to the junior varsity squad in 1949. His father gave him an ultimatum – either stick with football, or else spend his free time tending to the family garden.
Not wanting to disappoint his father and further damage the complicated relationship he had with Ben Starr, an imposing figure as a master sergeant who ran special services at Maxwell Air Force Base, Bart passed up the gardening gig and returned to football.
It was a choice led to success at Lanier, some challenging seasons at Alabama before blossoming into a Hall of Fame career with Green Bay. It was also one of the seminal moments that began to weave the attributes of determination and perseverance that were always shadowed by the desire to please his father.
The early years in the family were marked with difficult times and tragedy. Starr was a born during the Great Depression in 1934. His only sibling, named Hilton but known to all as ‘Bubba’, was two years younger and died at the age of 11 from tetanus three days after stepping on a bone while playing tag in the yard.
Ben Starr identified with the aggressive nature of Hilton, always urging Bart to be less passive and more like his younger brother.
Hilton’s death only widened the need for approval Bart sought from his father, a motivation that quietly fueled Bart’s desire to fill the void left in his father’s life.
“We stayed at his house before ball games and Mr. Starr would always say to him, ‘Bart, remember your brother.’ Bart would always say, ‘I am dad’. He always did things as a tribute to his brother,” lifelong friend Richard Fulmer said.
Nick Germanos shared his childhood with the Starr family in the Ridgecrest community. He became Starr’s favorite wide receiver target at Lanier and they later played together at Alabama.
“We go back many, many years,” Germanos said. “We used to walk to school together at Lanier. Knowing Bart, you had to know his family and the impact they had on his life. Mr. Starr was a military man with a strong, but loving presence. I was like their other child when we were at Lanier.”
Bart’s internal drive and fastidious attention to preparation was rewarded during his junior season at Lanier.
The Poets were seeking to win their 17th straight game in front of a packed house at Cramton Bowl when starting quarterback Don Shannon went down with a broken leg in the first half.
“My first thought was ‘Oh Lord, we’re in trouble now,’” said Fulmer, who was a fullback for Lanier. “Here comes Bart into the game, all 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds. We had won every ball game, and after Bart came in everybody wondered if he could get the job done. But we wound up beating the dog out of them.”
Lanier finished the season 9-0-1 and was ranked third in the state. But it was the turning point of Starr becoming a central figure of success on the gridiron.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed he would do all he did except for one thing – Bart was always a winner,” Fulmer said. “In anything he did, he always wanted to be the best at it. I remember playing Cloverdale in junior high when we were at Baldwin, and Bart was put in to catch a punt. He fumbled the ball and they scored to beat us 12-6. Bart cried like a baby because he felt like he had lost the ball game. He simply could not stand to lose.”
Starr sprouted to 6-foot-1, 185-pounds entering his senior year at Lanier, catching the eye of college suitors. His coach at Lanier, Bill Moseley, played at Kentucky where Paul “Bear” Bryant was in charge, so Starr spent the summer in the Bluegrass State being tutored by Wildcat all-American quarterback Babe Parilli.
“Bart came back for his senior year and he was zooming that football around,” Fulmer said. “I knew he was going to play in college, but we all thought he was going to Kentucky.”
After leading the Poets to a 9-1 mark, including a resounding road win in Louisville, Kentucky over powerful duPont Manual High School, Starr seemed destined to become a Wildcat.
“They laughed at us when we went on the field,” Fulmer said. “They thought we were country boys from Alabama, and we beat ‘em pretty good. Bart gave them a show, and I think that’s one of the reasons Bear Bryant wanted him so badly at Kentucky.”
But a young lady that would become his wife named Cherry Morton had captured his eye, and her decision to attend Auburn led to Starr choosing Alabama as his college destination to shorten the distance between them.
“Cherry was a beautiful lady, and she’s still gorgeous. I introduced him to Cherry. He was so bashful he didn’t even want to talk to her at first, but we finally got them going together,” Germanos said.
“Bart’s daddy always wanted him to go to Alabama so he could come watch him play, but the real reason was Cherry,” Fulmer said. “They were madly in love. My wife, Louise, and I had our first date on Bart’s 18th birthday, and we double-dated with Cherry and Bart often and have picnics up at the lake. Bart simply didn’t want to go to Kentucky and risk losing her.”
Starr’s influence on Fulmer went beyond the football field.
“He was a straight-A student," Fulmer said. "Coach Moseley made sure he and I were in the same study hall and we’d sit in the back of the room and he taught me more than the teachers did. He could explain things so I could understand it and kept me eligible."
But there was more to Starr than football. The discipline instituted by his father and his quest to gain his approval brought about a maturity that went beyond most of his peers.
“Life was simpler back then," Fulmer said. "When Bart was around, people didn’t cuss. Bart didn’t do any of that. In high school people respected him for what he was. He didn’t want to do anything wrong and disappoint his father."
Regardless of the fame Starr achieved in Green Bay, he always considered Montgomery home as he regularly appeared for charitable causes throughout his life.
“He never forgot where he was from," Fulmer said. "Fame never changed him. If you didn’t know who he was, you’d never know. He’s just plain ‘ol Bart."
Germanos echoed the sentiments of his former Lanier and Alabama teammate.
“When I think of Bart, he was a very caring person,” Germanos said. “I’ve never met another person who worked with people to try to bring the best out of them. His dad had a lot to do with it. Everywhere he went, he was always respected.”