Legendary Packers quarterback Bart Starr dies at age 85

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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The quarterback who guided the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships and was as popular as any figure in franchise history has died.

Bart Starr, who served as the extension of coach Vince Lombardi on the field during the Packers’ glory days of the 1960s, died Sunday, his family said in a statement. He was 85.

Starr’s health had been in decline since he suffered a mini-stroke while giving a speech in Madison in 2012. After suffering another stroke, a heart attack and multiple seizures in 2014, he underwent stem cell treatments in 2015 and ’16 and rebounded to some degree.

“We are saddened to note the passing of our husband, father, grandfather, and friend, Bart Starr," the family statement said. "He battled with courage and determination to transcend the serious stroke he suffered in September 2014, but his most recent illness was too much to overcome.

“While he may always be best known for his success as the Packers quarterback for 16 years, his true legacy will always be the respectful manner in which he treated every person he met, his humble demeanor, and his generous spirit.

“Our family wishes to thank the thousands of friends and fans who have enriched his life – and therefore our lives – for so many decades and especially during the past five years. Each letter, text, phone call, and personal visit inspired him and filled him with joy.

“His love for all of humanity is well known, and his affection toward the residents of Alabama and of Wisconsin filled him with gratitude. He had hoped to make one last trip to Green Bay to watch the Packers this fall, but he shall forever be there in spirit.”

Starr’s place in Packers lore is cemented by his role in Lombardi’s 1960s Packers dynasty, which remains the most successful seven-year stretch in NFL history with five titles, including wins in the first two Super Bowls.

“The Packers Family was saddened today to learn of the passing of Bart Starr,” Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy said in a statement. “A champion on and off the field, Bart epitomized class and was beloved by generations of Packers fans. A clutch player who led his team to five NFL titles, Bart could still fill Lambeau Field with electricity decades later during his many visits. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Cherry and the entire Starr family.”

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He is most famous for leading the legendary drive and scoring the touchdown on the iconic play in Packers history, the quarterback sneak against Dallas that won the Ice Bowl in 1967.

The Ice Bowl drive and sneak were the culmination of the Lombardi-era Packers’ will to win, toughness and discipline that Starr embodied as quarterback of those teams.

“That’s the sign of a champion,” Cowboys tackle Ralph Neely told the Green Bay Press-Gazette after the Ice Bowl. “They needed a score, and Starr got it for them.”

Starr’s jersey No. 15 is one of only six numbers retired in Packers history.

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Starr also had a long but mostly unsuccessful tenure as Packers coach, from 1975-83. His teams were 52-76-3 (.408 winning percentage) and qualified for the playoffs only once in his nine seasons.

But long after the Packers fired him as coach, Starr remained extremely popular with fans because of his role as leader of Lombardi’s Packers on the field and his gracious manner off the field. For years he drew by far the longest and loudest ovation of all the players who were honored at halftime of the team’s annual game honoring its alumni, until his failing health finally prevented him from attending starting in 2014.

Starr returned to Lambeau Field in November of 2015, when he joined in the Thanksgiving night halftime celebration of the Packers unveiling Brett Favre’s retired jersey No. 4 on the stadium’s façade.

His final trip back to Green Bay came in October 2017, when the Packers Hall of Fame celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1967 championship team. Starr got a huge ovation when he emerged from a Lambeau Field tunnel between the first and second quarter of the Packers’ game against the New Orleans Saints. The next day, Starr and his family donated seven items to the hall, including his three-diamond Super Bowl II ring.

Starr’s greatest accomplishment in football is his five NFL championships, which was the most by any quarterback until New England’s Tom Brady won his sixth this year. Starr's five titles still rank ahead of San Francisco’s Joe Montana and Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw, who each won four.

Starr also won the NFL’s most-valuable player award in the 1966 season and was the MVP of the first two Super Bowls. He had a career record of 94-57-6 (.622) and was 9-1 in the postseason. His 196 games played was most in Packers history until Brett Favre surpassed him in 2004.

“(Starr) didn’t start out like he was going to be the greatest player,” said Bob Schnelker, a Packers assistant coach under Lombardi and later Starr. “But toward the end, he was as good as there was. Look at all the championships.”

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Starr’s highly successful NFL career began as a long shot. The Packers drafted him in the 17th round in 1956, the 200th player selected overall, from the University of Alabama. His once-promising career at Alabama had been derailed by a leg injury and then a coaching change that de-emphasized Starr’s strengths as a drop-back passer. In his senior season, Starr split playing time at quarterback for an Alabama team that went 0-10.

An obscure player coming into the NFL, Starr performed well enough to make the Packers’ roster as a rookie and play his way on and off the field during one of the worst stretches of Packers history. In his first three seasons in the league, he was 3-15-1 as a starter and threw 13 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions.

But when Lombardi joined the Packers in 1959, Starr’s prospects brightened, even if it took the young quarterback some time to convince the coach he could lead the team.

Starr took over as the starter in the last five games of Lombardi’s first season and went 4-1. Then in 1960, Starr was benched after losing the opener, only to regain the job in Week 5 and eventually lead the Packers to the NFL title game.

They lost the championship to Philadelphia that season, but Starr and Lombardi never would lose a playoff game again. That would include winning championships in the 1961, ’62, ’65, ’66 and ’67 seasons.

Starr’s postseason passer rating of 104.8 remains the highest in NFL history among those meeting the minimum experience standards.

Starr’s 16 seasons with the Packers is tied with Favre for the team record. Starr retired in 1972 at age 38 because of chronic arm problems.

In September of 2018, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers talked about how much he appreciated receiving letters of encouragement from Starr during the early years of his NFL career.

“It meant the world to me because I knew I had the support of one of the greatest players of all time," Rodgers told Peter King of NBC Sports.

Starr wasn’t a particularly gifted player physically – for a modestly sized quarterback (6-feet-1 and 197 pounds), he wasn’t athletic and possessed an average-at-best throwing arm. He also had a shy, passive demeanor off the field. But because of his background and character, he ended up being a perfect match for Lombardi.

“Tremendous preparation,” said Zeke Bratkowski, Starr’s longtime backup with the Packers. "(Starr) didn’t have the strongest arm, but it was plenty strong for what he had to do. Sunday was easy for him because he was prepared.”

As the son of a non-commissioned officer in the Air Force, Starr grew up primarily in Alabama in a highly disciplined home under a father who withheld the approval Starr craved. Yet over time, despite his unassuming manner, he developed a preternatural resolve and will to succeed.

That enabled Starr to thrive under the highly demanding and detail-oriented Lombardi. He eventually became an extension of the coach on the field, a role that culminated in the game-winning drive in the Ice Bowl against the Cowboys that sent the Packers to Super Bowl II.

“They were very tough people," Starr said of his father and Lombardi in 2015. "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."

After Starr’s playing career ended, he returned to the Packers in 1972 as quarterbacks coach. He left that post after a dispute with coach Dan Devine about play calling. Starr worked in broadcasting, and then in 1975 replaced Devine as head coach.

However, Starr was inexperienced as a coach and had no background in running a football team. His tenure was marred by bad personnel moves, and his Packers teams advanced to the playoffs only once, with a 5-3-1 record in the strike-shortened 1982 season, when they beat St. Louis in the first round and then lost to Dallas in the second round.

After the Packers went 8-8 in 1983, they fired Starr. He nearly returned to the NFL later in the ‘80s as coach for a proposed expansion team, the Arizona Firebirds. But the team never won approval from NFL owners and fell through when the Cardinals moved from St. Louis to Phoenix.

Around 1990, Starr and his wife, Cherry, moved from Phoenix back to Alabama, where Starr worked mainly on charity endeavors and as a speaker.

The Bart Starr file: Facts and figures

Born:  Jan. 9, 1934, in Montgomery, Ala.

School: Alabama from 1952 to ’55. Was the starting quarterback as a sophomore in 1953, then because of a back injury and a change in the offense shared playing time at quarterback his final two years. For his career completed 54.4 percent of his passes, averaged 6.7 yards an attempt and threw 10 touchdowns to 20 interceptions.

Hall of Fame: Packers Hall of Fame, Class of 1977; Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1977.

Packers playing career: Drafted in the 17th round (No. 200 overall) in 1956, was in and out of the starting lineup his first four years, then became full-time starter and led the Packers to five NFL titles under coach Vince Lombardi. Had a career playoff passer rating of 104.8. Was named NFL MVP in 1966 and was MVP of the first two Super Bowls.

Post playing career: Coached the Packers from 1975-83, had record of 52-76-3. Later worked in health-care real estate in Alabama and was active in charitable endeavors, most notably as a co-founder of the Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London, Wis.

Quote: “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.” – Bart Starr, on how his father, Ben, who was a non-commissioned officer in the Air Force, helped prepare him for playing for Vince Lombardi.

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