Bart Starr: Alabama years nearly derailed Hall of Famer's future
Second of a three-part series reflecting on the life of NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Bart Starr
Alabama can partly thank Auburn for Bart Starr winding up in Tuscaloosa.
After spurning Paul “Bear” Bryant’s offer to play at Kentucky, Starr, who died Sunday at 85, attended Alabama along with Sidney Lanier teammates Nick Germanos and Bobby Barnes in part because his future wife, Cherry, selected Auburn as her college home.
Full of promise leaving Montgomery, Starr’s years at Alabama were a test of character and perseverance. He endured a series of setbacks that would shape his future and create greater resolve that would propel him lofty heights in the NFL.
With freshmen deemed eligible for varsity action in 1952 due to the Korean War thinning rosters of eligible players, Starr earned the third-string quarterback slot under coach Harold “Red” Drew. Alabama went 9-2 and won the Orange Bowl.
Just before the 1953 season, the NCAA returned to the one-platoon system.
This meant players competed on both offense and defense and could enter the game only once per quarter. It placed a premium on versatility, and Starr wound up at defensive back and punter in addition to quarterback.
Defenses ruled the day, as coaches were forced to sacrifice skill performers in return for those who could play both ways. Offensive schemes were simplified, and never did Alabama run a system that played to Starr’s strengths as a drop-back passer.
“It was very complicated,” said Hootie Ingram, the former Alabama athletic director who was a teammate of Starr’s. “It took a CPA on the sidelines to keep up with substitutions and the officials were more focused on keeping track of the players than they were calling the game. It was probably the worst offensive era in college football.”
Starr earned the starting nod his sophomore year but lost the opening game to Mississippi Southern (now Southern Miss) at Cramton Bowl. The Crimson Tide was undefeated with three ties in SEC play, closing the year 6-3-3 and a conference championship.
While the path of his football career was trending upward, Starr would spend much of his free time burning up the highway between Tuscaloosa and Auburn visiting Cherry. Three years into their relationship, she finally relented to his third proposal for marriage the summer before his junior year.
Starr borrowed a car more reliable than his own from Barnes, whose father ran an auto dealership in Montgomery, then snagged Germanos to serve as best man as the trio headed across the Mississippi state line to Columbus to get married in the living room of the justice of the peace.
“Cherry went out with one of the football players over there (in Auburn), and Bart heard about it,” said Richard Fulmer, a childhood friend of Starr’s from Montgomery. “They went over to Mississippi with Nick in Bobby’s car and secretly got married.
“Cherry didn’t go back to school, so she went to live with her parents who had moved to Mississippi. Bart sent her a letter addressed to ‘Mrs. Cherry Starr’ and her momma got to the mailbox before she did. That’s how they found out she and Bart had gotten married.”
The newlyweds hid their union as Bart was concerned about losing his scholarship due to Drew’s opposition to having married players. But Bart moved out of the dorm and Cherry joined him in Tuscaloosa.
“Bart and I were in the same suite so we shared a shower and bathroom,” said Albert Elmore, a Troy native and current Montgomery resident who entered with Starr as a freshman competing for the quarterback position. “I used to tell him he wound up with a better-looking roommate than I had.”
The marriage to Cherry not only eliminated Bart’s commutes to Auburn, but it also brought a stabilizing presence to the final two years of his time in Tuscaloosa.
“I was a year ahead of Bart. We hung out together, and Cherry was good friends with my future wife,” Ingram said. “The night I got engaged and gave my wife the ring, we went out to eat with Bart and Cherry. We had a lot of fun and great memories with them.”
But entering his junior season, Starr suffered a back injury that for 60 years was thought to have stemmed from a punting drill.
However, Cherry disclosed in 2016 that the condition was the result of an initiation ritual for admission into the Alabama lettermen’s A-Club.
With Starr sidelined most of the season and Elmore also dealing with injuries, Alabama struggled to a 4-5-2 record and Drew was fired.
“We never had a cross word with each other even though we were competing for the same job,” Elmore said. “I think he was pulling for me and I was pulling for him. I have nothing but highest respect for him. I felt like his strengths were not used in college. We were mostly a running team. You played defense first, and then offense.”
Drew’s replacement was J.B. “Ears” Whitworth, and he was intent on focusing on developing younger players and implementing a ground-oriented offense.
Two years after leading the Alabama to a conference title, Starr was relegated to mop-up duty as a senior when the Crimson Tide was winless in 10 games.
“When Whitworth came in with Split-T ground game, it was with the idea of running the football 90 percent of the time and only throwing the ball off the run,” Elmore said. “That really hindered the thing Bart was best at. We didn’t have the personnel to do what a Split-T quarterback needed to do.”
While the dismal Whitworth era ushered the arrival of Bryant three years later from Texas A&M, Ingram still has fond memories of those years at Alabama with Starr.
“I’m sure a lot of people stay close in every generation, but our group from Alabama kept contact with everybody for quite a while,” Ingram said. “There was a special bond we had with each other.
“Bart had bad timing here, and it took a while for him to get over that. When I was AD and we won the championship in ’92 and that was the centennial celebration for the university, I got Bart involved. He was a little reluctant to throw himself into that because he felt like he had a couple of bad years here.
“I’m glad he got all those honors in pro ball because he so richly deserved it. Again, it was timing. He maybe had a bad situation at Alabama, but he ended up playing for Lombardi.”
Despite the challenges they encounter on the football field, Elmore is thankful for the enduring friendship he cultivated with Starr at Alabama.
“Bart was finest person you’ll ever met and I hold him in highest regard,” Elmore said. “You always hear negative, but there’s nothing about Bart that is bad. The fact he went on to become one of the very best pro quarterbacks ever didn’t come as a shock to anybody.
“He’s was a fine Christian human being who would do anything in the world for you. Fame never changed him. He was always the same humble person he was the first time I met him.”