D'Amato: Packers legend Bart Starr exemplary both on, off the field

Gary D'Amato
Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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The football part of his biography, impressive as it is, barely scratches the surface in describing Bryan Bartlett “Bart” Starr as a man.

What he achieved as the brilliant quarterback of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s was beyond extraordinary: five National Football League titles in a span of seven years, the most valuable player in Super Bowls I and II, numerous passing records and the undying respect and admiration of teammates and opponents.

But he had a lot of life to live after he threw his final pass, and he lived it so very well.

Humble, gracious and philanthropic, the impeccably mannered Starr was the rare athlete who consciously and meticulously conducted himself, every day, in a manner befitting the hero mantle he’d earned on the field of play.

“He lived his life to be an example to others,” said Jerry Kramer, the starting right guard on those great Packers teams of the ‘60s. “He knew he carried a burden. He lived his life with purpose and with willpower. And because of that, he was an example to everyone on our team.”

Bart Starr throws a pass against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 13, 1964, toward receiver Ron Kramer (88). The Packers won 23-12.

When Starr died Sunday at age 85, he left behind a legacy in Green Bay, in Wisconsin and in the hearts of Packers fans everywhere that will endure until there is no more history left to write.

Starr suffered two strokes, four seizures and a heart attack in early September 2014, and was hospitalized for 2½ months. He also had cognitive issues, struggled with short-term memory loss and stopped making public appearances and granting interviews. Starr later did make two trips back to Lambeau Field.

Starr was born Jan. 9, 1934, in Montgomery, Alabama, where some two decades later Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King would help launch the civil rights movement.

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His father, Ben Starr, was a master sergeant with the Army Air Corps and a stern and intimidating man with whom Bart had a complicated relationship. If he somehow fell short in his father’s eyes, which was often the case, young Bart redoubled his efforts to win approval.

Years later, Starr would say that growing up in a military environment with a demanding father prepared him to succeed under coach Vince Lombardi, a volatile taskmaster who ultimately rewarded Starr with his complete trust.

Starr’s professional career, however, could not have gotten off to a more inauspicious start. Drafted in the 17th round out of Alabama in 1956, he shared the quarterback job with Tobin Rote and Babe Parilli and started 19 games over three seasons, compiling a 3-15-1 record with 13 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions.

His teammates had little faith in him as a leader.

But Lombardi, hired in 1959, recognized that Starr was intelligent and coachable and realized in time that he was tougher mentally and physically than most thought. After another 1½ seasons of job-sharing with Lamar McHan, Starr became the starter for good late in the 1960 season and led the Packers to their first division title in 16 years.

The Packers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 17-13 in the 1960 NFL Championship game but would never lose another postseason game under Starr and Lombardi. The franchise won NFL titles in 1961, ’62, ’65, ’66 and ’67, putting tiny Green Bay on the map.   

The offense, directed by Starr and including future Hall of Famers Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Jim Ringo, Forrest Gregg and Kramer, was one of the most productive in NFL history. Starr called his own plays and in contrast with his gentlemanly demeanor off the field was a cutthroat competitor on it.

“There was a part of Bart Starr that was the great individual, courteous, never rude to anybody,” said Zeke Bratkowski, Starr’s backup from 1963-68. “Then there was the part of him on the football field deciding to throw it on fourth-and-1.

“Coach Lombardi would ask me, ‘What do you think he’s going to do?’ I would say, ‘He’s going to throw it.’ That’s the way he operated.”

In the 1967 NFL Championship game, the famed “Ice Bowl” at Lambeau Field, Starr called his own number and scored on a 1-yard plunge in the final seconds to give the Packers a 21-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in one of the most memorable games in league history.

Bratkowski said Starr was unlike any quarterback he’d seen in the way he studied film and prepared for games.

“When I got traded (by the Los Angeles Rams) in the middle of ’63, I went to Green Bay and checked in to the Holiday Inn,” Bratkowski said. “I got a call half an hour later and it’s Bart. He said, ‘I’m watching film. Would you like to come over and watch it with me?’

“He was so regimented. During the season he would trim his fingernails on Thursday. He would lace his shoes a certain way. He just had things that he was very regimented about. Everything had to be just so. There was a tremendous amount of respect for his work ethic and preparation.”

Starr played 16 seasons for the Packers and completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 24,718 yards, with 152 touchdowns and 138 interceptions. He was brilliant in the playoffs, going 9-1 with 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

He led the league in passing three times, was the NFL’s most valuable player in 1966 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.

In 1972, Starr attempted a comeback but a shoulder injury forced him to retire. One day that summer, rookie kicker Chester Marcol was practicing field goals alone, kicking off a tee in Lambeau Field, when Starr approached and offered to hold the ball for Marcol’s kicks.

“I was awestruck,” Marcol wrote in his autobiography. “Starr was a living legend. … His offer to help told me a lot about him as a person and as a teammate. He didn’t have to do that. He was headed to the Hall of Fame and I was a rookie kicker from a tiny college in Michigan. That’s how much he cared about the Green Bay Packers.”

Starr cared so deeply about the franchise that he couldn’t turn down the Packers’ offer to become the head coach and general manager in 1975, even though, as he would admit years later, he was unprepared for the job. He had spent the ’72 season as Dan Devine’s quarterbacks coach, but had no other coaching experience.

Plus, he inherited a mess. Devine had traded five high draft picks for washed-up quarterback John Hadl, basically bankrupting the team’s short-term future.

“He inherited a team that didn’t have a strong nucleus,” said Bratkowski, Starr’s quarterbacks coach from 1975 to ‘81. “There wasn’t enough personnel. You win with people. We did make some mistakes in the draft, but there was so much need you can’t fill it all up in one draft or two drafts or three drafts.

“You could say those are excuses. No, they’re not.”

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Starr was stripped of his general manager duties after the 1980 season and was fired as coach after the ’83 season. He had compiled a 52-76-3 record, with two winning seasons and one playoff victory.           

In the mid-‘80s, Tom Stoen, the retired chairman of an oil and gas exploration company, led an effort to get an NFL expansion team in Phoenix. Stoen planned to make Starr the director of football operations for the proposed Arizona Firebirds.

“We made a handshake deal and he never wavered,” Stoen told the Arizona Republic. “During the time he was with us, he had opportunities to take a piece of the action with other teams and he never said a word.

“I cannot say enough good things about him. He’s probably as honorable and decent a man as you would ever meet.”

But there would be no expansion team in Arizona. Bill Bidwill informed the NFL of his plans to move the St. Louis Cardinals to Phoenix in time for the 1988 season. Bart and wife Cherry, who had relocated to Paradise Valley, moved back to Montgomery.

“(Then-NFL Commissioner) Pete Rozelle very much wanted Bart to have the team there,” Cherry Starr said. “He loved Bart and did his very best.”

Though his dismissal in Green Bay had stung the prideful Starr, he didn’t let it affect his feelings for the organization or for Packers fans, who were quick to forgive and forget his coaching record. He remained a beloved figure in Wisconsin and a treasured Packers icon for the rest of his days.

Off the field, he continued to build goodwill with his unwavering devotion to the franchise and his many charitable endeavors.

He served as honorary co-chair, along with Cherry, of the Vince Lombardi Golf Classic from its inception in 1971 until his health no longer permitted him to attend in 2014.

He co-founded the Rawhide Boys Ranch for at-risk youth in New London in 1965, helping complete the down payment on the Rawhide property in 1968 by raffling off the Corvette he won as the MVP of Super Bowl II.

“He did so much for so many people,” said Bob Long, a Packers receiver from 1964 to ’67 and later a business associate of Starr’s.

The Athletes in Action/Bart Starr Award has been given annually since 1989 to the NFL player who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership. The award honors Starr’s lifelong commitment to serving as a positive role model.

Aaron Rodgers won the Bart Starr Award in 2014.

Asked if Starr was as good a man as he has been portrayed to be, Taylor, the Hall of Fame fullback (who died in 2018), said, “Probably more so than what’s been written about. He’s just a great guy. He lived a good, full life and has been an asset and a tribute to the National Football League and the Green Bay Packers.”

Added Bratkowski, “If you had to describe a gentleman you would take all the adjectives and put them in a long line. That’s Bart.”

Early on, however, Starr had to convince some skeptical teammates that he was who he appeared to be. Kramer, for one, initially thought there was an element of phoniness to Starr’s yes-ma’am-no-sir politeness and the ramrod-straight way he carried himself on and off the field.

“For many years, I didn’t think Bart was as good as he was letting on,” Kramer said. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a flaw in there somewhere.’ I watched him for 10 years. Nothing. Not the slightest thing. And so I threw in with him.

 "We’d go to a function and he’d go to a prayer breakfast with the ladies. Then he’d go to a luncheon with the business leaders. And then he’d have a beer that evening with the guys. He did it all, you know?”

The Starrs lost a son, Bret, to a drug overdose in 1988. Starr discovered the body. Though it was the most painful event of his life, he handled it with typical poise and grace.

“I was watching Roy Firestone do his (television) show with Bart,” Kramer said. “Roy is doing the interview and he says, ‘Bart, I hate to ask you this, but how did it feel when you found your son?’ I jumped out of my chair, I was so mad.

“And Bart says, ‘Roy, I was so thankful that my wife wasn’t there and that she didn’t have to see that.’ He found a positive in the most negative thing I could imagine. That’s Bart.”

Starr always treated Packers fans with respect and was unfailingly patient and polite in countless encounters with them. He once told Bratkowski, “It’s an honor for people to recognize you for what you accomplished.”

“We’d be eating dinner and somebody would come up to him and say, ‘Mr. Starr, can I have your autograph?’ ” Bratkowski said. “He would stand up, hold out his hand and say, ‘It’s Bart. This is coach Zeke Bratkowski and his wife, and this is my wife, Cherry.’ He was always so polite, so cordial.

“He wouldn’t sign a napkin. He’d say, ‘If you get a piece of paper and write down your name and address, when I get home I will sign a picture and mail it out the next day.’ ”

Starr’s neat and distinctive autograph is highly prized by sports memorabilia collectors and Starr-signed jerseys, footballs, helmets and lithographs can easily surpass $1,000 in value.

“Even the current fans today, the Starr name resonates with them,” said Rick Moncher, a sports memorabilia dealer who in recent years had exclusive signing rights with Starr.

Starr is survived by Cherry and a son, Bart Jr.

“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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