A legend forged in time, place and family
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In the third game of the 1950 Alabama high school football season, Montgomery powerhouse Sidney Lanier High School was looking to win its 17th straight game when disaster struck.
Its star quarterback, Don Shannon, suffered a broken leg in the first half of a scoreless game against a decent Tuscaloosa High School team.
In front of about 12,000 people at the Cramton Bowl stadium, Shannon's backup took the field. He was a small, skinny junior, all of about 5-feet-9 inches and 160 pounds. His name was Bart Starr.
"Everybody said, 'Well, that's it,' " Richard Fulmer, a Lanier teammate of Starr's, says while sitting in a Montgomery diner on a sweltering Wednesday morning last month. "Bart came in, and at that time Bart was a pretty small guy. (But) he came in, and as soon as he got in the ballgame, in about five plays Lanier was in the end zone. He was throwing passes to this guy right here." Fulmer points to a picture of senior end Ulmer Priester, who the next season played football at the University of Alabama.
"(Starr) did a real good job in that game," Fulmer says. "And he made all-state that year, his junior year."
More than 60 years after the fact, Fulmer is a little off on some details. Starr took over in the second quarter but didn't get Lanier into the end zone until the third. And Starr didn't make all-state until his senior season.
But Starr in fact led two touchdown drives in a 13-0 win over Tuscaloosa on that October night, and he went on to an excellent season in which a talented Lanier team finished 9-0-1 and ranked third in the state.
That night was the appropriately understated start to what would become a legendary football career. Starr, who retired as a player in July 1972, has won more NFL championships (five) than any quarterback. He was a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer and holds one of the most prominent places in Green Bay Packers lore as the field general of Vince Lombardi's Glory Years teams of the 1960s.
He remains arguably the Packers' most popular ex-player, as evidenced every year at halftime introductions at the alumni reunion game, when the crowd at Lambeau Field gives Starr the longest, loudest ovation. Starr's name doesn't come up much in the Packers' offseason anymore, but just last month, 64 years after his high school debut and 42 years after his retirement as a quarterback, it resurfaced courtesy of Brett Favre.
During the news conference announcing that Favre will be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame and have his number retired next summer, Favre via speakerphone said he had goosebumps just thinking about the scene he envisioned.
When the team unveils No. 4 to join the five other retired numbers displayed on Lambeau Field's north façade — including Starr's No. 15 — Favre hopes Starr will join him on the field as an honorary captain for the pregame coin toss. With Aaron Rodgers also at midfield as a captain, NFL fans will see living history: the Packers' three greatest quarterbacks — with apologies to excellent throwing halfbacks Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell — together on Lambeau's historic field.
Sitting on a couch in his office in suburban Birmingham, Ala., last month, Starr smiles broadly when asked if he'll honor Favre's request.
"If he wants me to do it, I'd be delighted," he says.
The ceremony will return Starr to the stadium of some of his greatest triumphs and the town and state where he remains an icon. Some might even see it as completing the circle of his career with the Packers by sharing the field with the two key players behind the team's revival of the last 20 years.
But really, Starr completed the circle of his football career years ago, in 1990, when he moved back to Alabama after living in Phoenix for about six years.
For it was the years growing up in Montgomery that prepared Starr to be the player and leader he became for Lombardi. Starr's performance replacing Shannon for Lanier High simply was the first time the characteristics for which he'd become famous — attention to detail, craftsmanship, discipline and intelligence — were on view for the football world at large.
Starr in fact was very much a product of his time, place and family.
To visit Montgomery today, as Press-Gazette Media did for three days in August, is to see a historic Southern capital city of a little more than 200,000 people with a revitalized downtown and neighborhoods that run the gamut from early 19th century mansions to inner-city blight.
Founded in 1819 on the bluffs overlooking the Alabama River, Montgomery was the first capital of the Confederacy. In late February 1861, Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy while standing on the portico of the state Capitol building.
About 100 years later, just a few blocks away, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would help launch a nationwide Civil Rights movement: Parks by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955; King by, among other things, organizing the subsequent Montgomery city bus boycott from the basement of his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, as it was known then, only one block west of the state Capitol.
Both sites are commemorated with monuments.
Starr's Lanier High School has a long history of its own. Built in 1928-29, it was dubbed "the castle" for its gothic architecture and "million-dollar high school" for its approximate cost. It remains an eminent structure to this day.
Among its former students are country music legend Hank Williams, who is buried in Montgomery, and Zelda Sayre, who would become famous as the outrageous and eccentric wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. The entryway to the school features a plaque honoring another famous student: Starr.
In some ways, Lanier has changed dramatically from when Starr attended in the late 1940s and early '50s. At that time, all the students were white — Lanier was integrated in 1964 — but now they're African-American. The immediate neighborhood still has most of the same charming Southern mansions. But now there's an apartment complex directly across the street, and while some of the old houses still are in great condition, others are in various states of disrepair.
But walking around the school grounds, two of Starr's Lanier teammates say much hasn't changed. It's easy to picture Starr's teams on the practice field that's still there. Just behind the main building, the field is worn to dirt between the 30s now as it was then, with possibly the same goal posts. The field is still surrounded by the oval track, which has a synthetic surface rather than the cinder that covered it back then.
It was here, and at Baldwin Junior High about 2 1/2 miles toward downtown, and the modest neighborhood with cracker-box houses a mile or two in the other direction, where Starr evolved from an undersized and undistinguished player to an all-American as a senior at Lanier.
Back then, as today, sports were the best way for a teenage boy of modest means to gain respect and self-esteem. Football was king. So everyone tried to play.
"Football, I guess it's like a fever in Alabama," Fulmer says.
Starr's story starts with his father, a career military man who imbued the highest degree of discipline in Bart. Their complex relationship often left Starr yearning for approval but also forged his inner strength and helped him thrive under the demanding and mercurial Lombardi.
As early as junior high school, Starr showed a highly competitive streak on the athletic field that belied his introverted and passive personality off it. Then after his confidence-building play as a junior at Lanier replacing Shannon, Starr hit a growth spurt, crucially augmented by tutoring from the University of Kentucky's star quarterback, Babe Parilli, that helped Starr become a highly regarded college prospect by the end of his senior season.
Starr was born in the middle of the Great Depression, on Jan. 9, 1934, and his early years were itinerant. His family moved from Montgomery to Columbia, Tenn., when he was 3; back to Montgomery three years later; to Fort Blanding in Gainesville, Fla.; Fort Ord on the Monterrey Peninsula in California; and back to Montgomery after his father returned from World War II's Pacific theater in 1946.
Starr had only one sibling, a brother two years younger, and the seminal event in Starr's life after the family's return to Montgomery was Hilton "Bubba" Starr's death from tetanus in 1947. The two had been playing tag with kids in their modest south-side neighborhood when Hilton stepped on a bone that cut his foot. Though his mother, Lulu, cleaned the wound, she didn't take him for a tetanus shot, which was only becoming a routine treatment around that time. Hilton died three days later.
Bart's relationship with his father already had been strained because Ben Starr, though physically similar to his oldest son, saw more of himself in the aggressive and athletic Hilton. Starr biographers Keith Dunnavant and David Claerbaut wrote extensively about Bart knowing he didn't measure up to his younger brother in his father's mind.
Starr craved affection and approval from his father, who ran special services at nearby Maxwell Air Force Base, which meant coordinating recreational activities for the servicemen. Ben Starr was a strict and intimidating figure to his son who, according to the two biographies, essentially withheld that approval until 1961. After the Packers won their first NFL title under Lombardi he told Bart, "I was wrong" in thinking he didn't have the fire to succeed.
Yet, in junior high and high school in Montgomery, Starr never shared with his friends his ambivalent feelings about his father and, rather than giving up or rebelling, used Ben Starr's critiques as fuel. So Bart's friends saw Ben Starr only as the tall, friendly man who took a keen interest in his only remaining child's athletic career, including getting himself transferred to the ROTC program in Tuscaloosa so he could see Bart play at the University of Alabama.
"He and my daddy never missed a practice," says Robert Barnes, a football teammate at Lanier who went on to play basketball at Belmont University and still ranks as that school's No. 3 all-time scorer. "He was a big, tall military man. I think Bart inherited a lot of that military discipline his dad instilled in him.
"(Our fathers) never missed a game on the road. Every game, we'd look up and they'd be standing there. (Ben was) just always as nice as he could be to everybody out there. Everybody loved him."
Another of Bart Starr's former Lanier teammates, Snoozy Jones, wells up and pauses to collect himself in the living room of his suburban Birmingham home as he remembers Ben Starr. When Jones had to forgo his senior season of football at Virginia Tech to support his mother in Montgomery, Ben Starr landed him a job watching over the teenage children of the servicemen at Maxwell.
"Sergeant Starr was always so nice and kind with me, I thought that was the way he was with everybody," Jones says. "I did not hear stories when we were growing up about that (relationship with Bart). I did not hear any of that until later on, after Sergeant Starr's funeral. ... I didn't ever realize there was any friction, because Sergeant Starr was always there promoting us kids, what we were doing, to stay playing, stay working, and work hard to get somewhere."
If Starr's friends saw only the friendly side of Ben Starr, they witnessed his discipline in Bart as early as those junior high years right after the family returned to Montgomery.
"I don't believe I ever heard (Bart) say a cuss word," Jones says. "In the neighborhood we grew up in, that was the first language we learned, cussin'; English was a second language. But he was always very kind to everybody, even in junior high."
Starr's friends also saw in junior high glimpses of the highly competitive spirit hidden beneath Starr's mild exterior.
As a ninth-grader, Bart was a halfback on the Baldwin Junior High football team, a decent athlete who was too small to get on the field much. In a game against Cloverdale, another junior high that fed into Lanier, the coach put in Bart to return a punt late in a tie game. Starr was inconsolable after he muffed the catch and Barnes, who played for Cloverdale, returned it for the game-winning touchdown.
"Cried like a baby because he felt like it was his fault we lost the ballgame," Fulmer says.
Not long after Bart got to Lanier, his athletic prospects began to brighten. Though he threatened to quit football early in 10th grade because he felt the coaching staff wasn't giving him a chance — his small stature left him too nondescript to get a shot at varsity — he had moved to quarterback and played well enough to lead the "B" team.
Then, in his junior year, though still undersized at 5-9 and 160, he won the backup job to Shannon. By that point, he'd already developed the habit of meticulous preparation.
Even in high school, Starr had limited running skills, but Lanier coach Bill Moseley, who'd played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky, ran an offense that favored a quarterback with Starr's drop-back skills. Starr also had to execute intricate footwork for the array of handoffs, fakes and drop backs in Moseley's scheme, and practiced them obsessively.
"I'd tell him stuff to do, and I knew where he'd be when he got home and on the weekends," says the 92-year-old Moseley, who still lives in Montgomery. "He'd be in his backyard practicing, spinning, handing off.
"He had an automobile tire hanging in a tree, throwing that ball, run and trying to hit that hole in that automobile tire. Bart worked on it. ... He would pay attention to (footwork drills) and had the ability to interpret what you mean pretty good. He was very coachable. He'd look you in the eye and give you a good shot at it."
All that practice on his own meant Starr was better prepared to take over for Shannon than his teammates realized. With Starr at quarterback, Lanier went 7-0-1 (including his first game), finished 9-0-1 overall and ranked No. 3 in the state in the final Alabama Journal poll.
At a football power at a large school in the Deep South, juniors had a hard time getting on the field, yet Starr had emerged as better than the senior he'd replaced. Jones is convinced that starting as a junior was key in accelerating Starr's development.
"You could just see his chest go out and everything mature," says Jones, who is in the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame as a track coach and game official.
Starr also was about to hit a growth spurt in body and mind. Between his junior and senior seasons, he added about 4 inches of height and 15 pounds to his lanky frame. And as Starr was getting bigger physically, Mosely's connections to Kentucky would prove a boon to his quarterback's understanding of his position.
Moseley had played for Bryant at Kentucky and had a brother, Doug, who was Parilli's center. They arranged for Parilli, who would become a two-time all-American in 1951, to work with Starr in the summer of '51. No one could have known that Parilli would be the Packers' first-round draft pick in 1952 and get cut in favor of Starr in Lombardi's first year as coach in 1959.
After working twice daily with Parilli for a week that summer, Starr returned to Montgomery an uncommonly sophisticated, fundamentally sound high school quarterback.
"He could read defenses, which back in them days a high school quarterback just didn't do," Fulmer says. "I remember even back then we'd go into a huddle, Bart would always ask us, before anybody leaves the huddle, 'If you don't know what you do, ask and I'll tell ya what to do.' So he knew the plays of all the linemen, backs and everything.
"... If somebody would say, 'Bart, who do I hit?' He'd say, 'If it's a six-man line hit so and so, if it's a five-man line hit so and so.' I think it had a lot to do with the success of that team."
Lanier in 1951 went 9-1 and was ranked No. 3 in the state by the Birmingham News. The team outscored its opponents 220-85.
Included was a game in late October at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky. In what probably was the best game of Starr's high school career, Lanier won in a blowout, 25-7, against a big-city team that finished 7-3 against its local competition.
"They were like a college team across the line," Fulmer says of Manual. "They were 200 pounds and a whole lot better, and we did good to have a 200-pounder. They laughed at us when we went on the field, they thought we were country boys from Alabama, and we beat 'em, and we laughed at them when we come off.
"Bart put on a show that night. I think that's one of the reasons Bear Bryant decided he wanted him to come to Kentucky."
At the end of his high school career, Starr was being recruited by several Southeastern Conference schools, but his choice came down to two: Kentucky and Alabama.
Kentucky knew him well because of Moseley, Parilli and the duPont Manual game. Starr appeared headed there but changed his mind so he could be closer to his girlfriend, Cherry Morton. Cherry, a Lanier classmate and his future wife, was going to attend Auburn, which was about 160 miles from Alabama's Tuscaloosa campus; Lexington, Ky., was about 465 miles away.
But if going to Alabama helped cement his relationship with his wife of 60 years and counting, it also nearly ruined his chances of playing professional football.
Starr's career started well enough even if Alabama used the Split-T offense, which required the quarterback to run more than Starr had in high school. As a freshman, he played occasionally in mop-up, and as a sophomore he was the starting quarterback for an Alabama team that went 6-3-3, won the conference title and played in the Cotton Bowl.
But Starr hurt his back while practicing punting before his junior season, and the injury limited his playing time (41 passes total) and effectiveness (66.7 NFL passer rating). Alabama went 4-5-2, fired coach Red Drew and hired a new coach, J.B. Whitworth, who deployed an even more run-oriented version of the Split-T.
So in his final college season, 1955, Starr was mismatched in his offense and shared playing time at quarterback. Alabama had a disastrous 0-10 record, the worst in school history, and Starr (39.7 rating, one touchdown, nine interceptions) had done nothing to warrant the NFL's attention. It appeared his football career was finished.
There's no knowing what would have happened if Starr had stayed with his original plan and attended Kentucky. Bryant, after all, left for Texas A&M after what would have been Starr's sophomore season. But the school ran a drop back-oriented offense.
"Kentucky's offense was set up that Bart could fill right in," Moseley says. "Bart was not a Split-T quarterback, he wasn't a big threat to run in there and wiggle like the little fellow that played in Georgia — (Fran) Tarkenton — Bart wasn't a threat in that area because he wasn't real quick-footed. But as far as setting up for the pass, he could handle that as good as any of them."
The man who arguably saved Starr's football career was Johnny Dee, a former Notre Dame basketball and football player who was Alabama's basketball coach at the time. In those days, the head coaches of Alabama's other sports doubled as football assistants, so Dee knew Starr well.
Dee also was part of the nationwide network of contacts Jack Vainisi had set up as the Packers' head scout. Dee had played football at Notre Dame in 1944 and basketball in the '44-45 and '45-46 seasons; Vainisi played football there in '45.
Though Starr was only a part-time player his final two seasons at Alabama, Dee recommended him to Vainisi. The Packers famously selected Starr in the 17th round of the '56 draft, the 200th player taken overall. His odds of making it as such a late pick were slim — the league had only 12 teams and 33-man rosters, compared to 32 teams and 53-man rosters today — but at least he had the chance.
"I'm surprised he made it (in the NFL) so early," Moseley says. "(But) to me, a lot of his abilities were wasted at Alabama. He wasn't that kind of (running) quarterback, and they didn't make any changes to get out of him the things he could do.
"Bart didn't do anything all that fancy, but what he was doing was done well. He could polish up a play real soon, his part of it. I never talked with Coach Lombardi about Bart, but I know he gave Bart some good options, some freedom when he saw the opportunity."
The highlights of Starr's career with Lombardi are well known to longtime Packers fans, and the details are familiar to Packers aficionados.
Starr was the gentleman leader and spokesman for Lombardi's teams. He was physically limited in arm strength and mobility relative to other NFL quarterbacks, and even early in his NFL career he was barely hanging on in the league.
But he held his job as an extension of Lombardi on the field because of the thorough work habits, inner strength and intelligence he first displayed on football fields in Montgomery and south Alabama, and showed even while his career floundered in college.
"I think (it came) mostly from my father," Starr says.
After Starr's failed tenure as Packers coach in the late 1970s and early '80s, he and Cherry moved to Phoenix. But in 1990, about two years after the cocaine-related death of their son Bret, they returned to their Alabama roots. Their only other child, Bart Jr., lived in suburban Birmingham — he still does — and they wanted to be near him and their three granddaughters.
Starr today maintains his wiry build — he walks 2 miles a day — and even at age 80 moves without noticeable difficulty, which makes him distinctly unlike many of his former NFL peers. Even the back injury that cost him his junior season in college and flared up at times with the Packers doesn't seem to bother him.
"I've been very lucky," he says with a smile.
Starr remains semiretired, though his work pace has slowed considerably in the last few years. For instance, just last spring he resigned after 44 years as co-chair of the Vince Lombardi Classic golf tournament. He still works five days a week in two rooms at the corner of his son's office building in suburban Birmingham — Bart Jr. runs an investment firm — but the workdays can be as short as an hour or two.
His main priority is charity work, most notably the Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London, Wis., that works with at-risk youth. Starr co-founded Rawhide in 1965 and helped complete the down payment on the Rawhide property in 1968 by raffling off the Corvette he won as MVP of Super Bowl II.
On this day, the room next to his large office has a desk covered with photos, miniature plastic helmets and other memorabilia waiting for Starr's autograph. Most go to Rawhide and other charities.
What stands out during the meeting is the unwavering way Starr looks you in the eyes. That's the most obvious manifestation of growing up with Ben Starr, who insisted his son treat everyone with respect. How deep does the father's influence run? Starr's assistant says that even now, Bart rarely goes a day without mentioning him.
"I think about my father often because of the great lessons I learned from him," Starr says. "I'll be grateful forever that he was in the military while I was growing up."
Starr remains unfailingly polite and smiles often, both during small talk and when the voice and video recorders go on. At 80, he doesn't have the endurance for lengthy interviews, so the session lasts about 20 minutes. Then he gives a tour of the office, showing the memorabilia he will sign later and the walls covered with photos, mostly of the Lombardi-era Packers. He also introduces his guests to Bart Jr., who like his father, is remarkably polite and gracious.
While growing up in Montgomery, Bart Starr had no way of knowing what was to come with the Packers. But if not for the mostly unsatisfying relationship with his father growing up, and the way he responded, Starr might not have been equipped to thrive under the relentlessly demanding Lombardi and achieve the triumphs captured in those photos covering that office wall.
"They were very tough people," he says of his father and Lombardi. "My dad was one tough hombre. That made it easy for me to work with a man like Lombardi, because I was accustomed to that with my father. It was a blessing."
— email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.