Bart Starr: The best and worst of times in Green Bay
Third of a three-part series reflecting on the life of NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Bart Starr
From his earliest days Bart Starr never wanted to disappoint his father. He sorely wanted the approval of the master sergeant who ruled their home with firm oversight.
So after dealing with the humiliation of being benched during his senior season at Alabama on the heels of missing much of his junior year due to injury, Bart Starr, who died Sunday at the age of 85, still felt like he had something to prove.
He believed his football days were not behind him.
But he also assumed his immediate future would be in the military after receiving an Air Force ROTC commission upon graduating. However, Starr failed the military medical exam due to a back injury suffered his junior year and was deemed unfit to serve.
He was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 17th round – the 10th quarterback taken – and served his first three seasons as a part-time starter.
Entering the 1959 season Vince Lombardi was hired to lead the Packers, leading to one of the most dominating eras in professional football. Green Bay won five NFL championships between 1961-67, including the first two Super Bowls.
Starr played 16 seasons, passing for 24,719 yards and 152 touchdowns before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
Starr’s childhood was spent trying to please a father who more closely identified with the personality of his younger son who died of tetanus at the age of 12.
Bart never rebuffed the demands of his father, Ben, but rather inwardly channeled the challenges to purse perfection.
Little did he know that his childhood home environment would prepare him to successfully deal with Lombardi’s iron-fisted coaching style at Green Bay. In fact, he began to view his father’s influence on his life as a blessing.
“Bart told me a story about when Coach Lombardi invited him into his office one day right after he took over,” former Alabama athletic director and Crimson Tide teammate Hootie Ingram said. “Lombardi looked at him and said, ‘Bart, do you want to be my quarterback?’ Of course Bart said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said ‘Well, when you get in the huddle you’ve got to start calling some of those guys SOBs and kicking them in the butt so you can be the kind of leader they’ll respect.’ And he said, ‘Yes sir.’
“When I asked Bart who was the first guy was he called an SOB and he said, ‘I never did that. I got a little rough with them and talked down to them, but I didn’t exactly go the same route Coach Lombardi asked me to do.’ It worked out, and I thought that was the only element about running a pro team he didn’t have by being rude to anybody. When he corrected anybody, you can rest assured they had done something wrong.”
Former Alabama football coach Bill Curry was drafted by the Packers in 20th round of the 1964 draft. He was late arriving due to training camp due to an obligation to participate in a college all-star game, not sure what to expect his first day in pro football.
“As a 22-year-old and one of the smallest linemen in camp, I’m not feeling really confident,” Curry said. “I’m walking over to dinner and I realized somebody was walking beside me. I looked and almost passed out because it was Bart Starr.
“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, Mr. Starr it’s great to meet you’ and he said ‘None of that mister stuff. Just call me Bart’. It was obvious he was going to walk all the way over there with me. He said ‘Bill I’ve been looking forward to you reporting. I don’t’ know what your faith is, but Cherry and I think we have a wonderful church and minister, and if you’d like to have Sunday dinner and go to church with us tomorrow, we’d like to have you.’
“Those were the first words out of his mouth when I reported to the Green Bay Packers. He didn’t tell me the snap count, what time practice was, he just invited me into his home and church to meet his family, which we did. And from that day until now, he’s been like my big brother. I don’t even know why, but I thank God every time I think about it. I could sit here for hours literally and tell you one story after another of his kindness.”
Curry saw another side of Starr’s unassuming personality when he was in the huddle, and he learned early in his career the competitive side of his quarterback’s makeup.
“I learned that once we got on the football field there was no sympathy,” Curry said. “(Packer linebacker) Ray Nitschke was beating me to death literally – broke my facemask, broke my nose, knocked me out. I was so embarrassed because I couldn’t block him. I didn’t think about it at the time, but nobody else in the league could block him either because he was a Hall of Famer.
“I expected Bart to come up and hug me and tell me everything was going to be OK, but he never did. He just left me to my own. At some level I knew I had to learn this the hard way, but Bart wasn’t going be able to do anything. He was the perfect big brother teammate, so I fought and fought to prove myself. It’s what you have to do in order to survive in that league because high school football is powderpuff, college football is a petting zoo and the NFL is a jungle.
“There are no nice guys, and you have to learn to not be a nice guy when you step across the line. So Bart was not a nice guy on the field, although he never raised his voice except to Lombardi. He would take on Lombardi occasionally when he would become too profane or nasty, but never said a word if my man got past me and knocked his teeth out, he never said a word. He’d get up, help me up, and get back in the huddle.”
Bart and Cherry also took a personal interest in helping care for Curry and his wife, Carolyn.
“A couple of weeks into training camp, Carolyn came to Green Bay,” Curry said. “We had been married a couple of years and I couldn’t find a room at one of the Holiday Inns that had a vacancy, so I put her in a hotel downtown called the Northland that I did not know didn’t have a real good reputation.
“Bart walks up one morning and asks, ‘Is Carolyn staying at the Northland hotel?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, she is.’ He said ‘You tell her that Cherry Starr will pick her up at 10 o’clock this morning. She’s not staying in that place another minute.’ I said, ‘Mr. Starr we couldn’t allow you to do that.’ He said ‘I didn’t ask you. Cherry’s picking her up and she’s staying out our house until you can find her a place.’ And that’s how it started. You can imagine how quickly we came to love them and treasure them.”
Curry played two seasons in Green Bay before serving playing center in front of another Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas for six seasons in Baltimore.
“When I’m asked to contrast and compare them, I cannot,” Curry said. “And if I could, I would not because I love them both too much. I have said, and I mean this reverently and respectfully, I would march into hell protecting either one of them any time, any day, any year. When they stepped into the huddle or walked into your life, there were so many similarities. With both of them there was this aura of invincibility, and we always knew we would win the game.”
Immediately after his retirement, Starr agreed to serve as the Packers’ quarterback coach for the 1972 season. It created a perfect opportunity for former Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter to become tutored by the legend he replaced as Green Bay’s quarterback.
“His last year was my rookie year so he was a big help that year,” Hunter said. “He started about half the games, and I started the other half. But he was just terrific in taking me under his wing and schooling me how to study and prepare.
“I had learned this at Alabama, but he continued the idea you had to be the best prepared person on the field. That’s what Bart always was and it reinforced it with me.
I think the most impact was the next year in ’72. Bart had retired and Coach (Dan) Devine had asked him to stay as quarterback coach and also to call plays. It was a great situation for me. I had Bart Starr over there calling plays and coaching me during the week, preparing me for each game to become an extension of him. We won the division championship, and the way he worked with me was a big part of that.”
Starr spent the next two years cultivating his business interests including auto dealerships and dabbling as a color commentator for NFL games, but he was wooed into trying to help the Packers return to their glory years as head coach when Devine left for the Notre Dame job.
“When he became GM and head coach of the Packers, hired me as an assistant and brought me back up there for four years,” Curry said. “He is the only reason I became the head coach of Georgia Tech. It would have not happened if he hadn’t given me that responsibility. I cannot even begin to calculate all that I owe him.
While Starr later admitted taking the Packers head coaching job was one of his biggest mistakes as he wasn’t prepared having been away from the game for two years, his influence nonetheless impacted those under his watch.
Montgomery native Bryon Bragg played locally at Carver, then followed Starr’s path to Alabama and Green Bay.
“Growing up in Montgomery when the Packers were winning championships, I had always heard of Bart Starr. The fact that we’re both from the same home town was a humorous point when I got drafted by Green Bay,” Bragg said. “They kidded me that the only reason they drafted me was they said I used to mow Bart Starr’s grass in Montgomery, which obviously wasn’t true.”
Starr’s coaching style helped Bragg adjust to the rigors and demands of the professional game.
“It was pro football so it was all business,” Bragg said. “But at the same there were certain things that stood out about Coach Starr. Right off the bat he was a class act. He was very intuitive when it came to people. He understood what made them tick. That’s the most interesting thing about professional football is it’s the pinnacle of the sport, but unless the cards fall right for you it’s a very difficult journey to make.
“Bart was one of those strong people who you could always count on. He never got too high or low because he knew the journey was not finished.”
Rich Wingo also played for Starr in Green Bay after a collegiate career at Alabama. Drafted in the seventh round as a linebacker, Wingo’s selection was boosted by a phone call from Crimson Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“I was starting middle linebacker and Coach Bryant kicked me off the team during warm-ups a week before the first game our junior year,” Wingo said. “We had our history, but he was the reason I got drafted. I didn’t think I had a chance of playing in the NFL.
“I sat on a plane one night flying back from the west coach next to Coach Starr, and I find out Coach Bryant had called Coach Starr. He said ‘Listen, I’ve got a middle linebacker here that got injured halfway through the season and I think he’d help your team.’ I can’t believe he did that for me. He did it because of the word of Coach Bryant.”
After enjoying great success and national championships at Alabama, the transition to Green Bay was challenging for Wingo made more bearable by Starr’s leadership.
“My rookie year we went 4-12," Wingo said. "We won four stinking games, and I had just won a national championship the year before. I had never been on a team that lost more than a game ever, and we couldn’t win. But he never changed even though he was under such pressure, and he came back and won the division the next year.
“I never saw Coach Starr in all the adversity ever lose his cool. Football was important to him, but it wasn’t important enough for him to lose his witness as a Christian.”
After 25 years with the Packer organization at a player, general manager and coach, Starr was notified by letter that he was being relieved of his duties. But seeing how Starr handled this disappointment further bolstered Wingo’s faith and love for his coach.
“He lives in Green Bay, he’s a legend there and the Packers didn’t tell him he was fired face-to-face. They sent him a letter notifying him his service was being terminated,” Wingo said.
“Around that same time we had a teammate named Ron Cassidy whose child suffocated when he got trapped under their garage door. He was probably two years old, and it was tragic. Understand, Bart was just let go, and there was a lot of hype surrounding his firing. But he and Cherry made it a point to be at that funeral.
Their support for that family had as much of an impact on my life as anything because I was a new Christian when that happened. He would talk about his faith in a very, non-intimidating manner but it was clear how he lived that he loved the Lord.”
Starr served as head coach for nine seasons, the first five also doubling as the Packers’ general manager. Green Bay went 52-76-2 under his guidance, making the playoffs only once during the strike-shortened 1982 season.
“There’s a lot of great coaches who don’t succeed in pro ball,” Ingram said. “You take Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban – both were great coaches who went to a place that didn’t have a quarterback. It’s kind of hard to play without a quarterback.
You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. I’m sure the New England coach is a great coach, but if I were him as soon as my quarterback retired I believe I’d retire too. It’s what you call timing.”
Bart and Cherry moved to Arizona after his dismissal from Green Bay as member of a partnership group that vainly attempted to bring an NFL franchise to Phoenix. While there the youngest of their two sons, Bret, died in Florida at the age of 24 from drug abuse in 1988.
Curry was coaching at Alabama at the time, and he reached out to Starr to offer his heartfelt condolences.
“Neither he nor Cherry wavered even though they were heartbroken and crushed,” Curry said. “I asked him if there was anything I could do to help, and he said ‘Yes there is. When we’re ready – if we’re ever ready – we’d like to speak to some young people to keep this happening to them.’ I told him to call me whenever he was ready.
“Like everybody in America, we were having problems too with the drug issue. I stayed in touch with them letting them know that I loved them, and about six months later the phone rang, and Bart said, ‘We’re ready.’ I called a team meeting thinking it would just be Bart, but it wasn’t just Bart. He and Cherry walked into my office and I just held her and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this.’ And she said, ‘I can’t either, but we’re both going to do it.’
“So, we walk into that wonderful group of young men at Alabama and my coaching staff and I witnessed the greatest team meeting I’ve ever seen. Cherry stood up first and she was doing fine. She said ‘Look, Brett was not a bad boy. He was a good kid just like you guys. He meant well and was doing so well on his recovery. He’d had like three years of sobriety, and she faltered. I thought, ‘Gosh, do I take over now?’ Bart stood up and walked over and put his arm around her. He waited, she recovered and went on with her remarks.
“When a mom talks like that it’s not like anybody else. When she finished, Bart got up and looked them in the eyes and said ‘Men, I’ve been a general manager and coach in the NFL. I know what the deal is on the streets.’ It was the most remarkable talk I’ve ever heard. When we walked out, I told him I don’t know how many lives you saved today, but I promise you it was a substantial amount. We’ll never know.”
The Starrs returned to Alabama 1989, settling in Birmingham to be closer to their older son, Bart, Jr., and their three grandchildren. Starr became chairman of a real estate corporation developing medical office buildings before retiring in 2006.
He also continued to be involved with Rawhide Boys Ranch in Wisconsin, a facility designed to help at-risk and troubled boys. Starr’s association with the ministry gave it credibility, and he even donated to Rawhide the Corvette he received as most valuable player for Super Bowl II to raffle off to help keep it financially afloat.
A combination of medical setbacks over the last few years including strokes, seizures and a heart attack limited Starr’s public appearances. But nothing changed the character and consistency that were hallmarks of his life.
“Success never changed Bart,” Curry said. “I never, ever saw him walk by a child, or a drunk or an obnoxious fan without stopping, smiling, shaking hands and signing an autograph. Ever. His priorities were always his faith, his family and the Green Bay Packers.”
From his childhood in Montgomery, through four challenging years in Tuscaloosa, to his Hall of Fame playing days in Green Bay followed by his mediocre coaching record, Starr never changed according to Wingo.
“No matter how much success or adversity he experienced, he was always consistent,” Wingo said. “He loved his players enough to be demanding. He would encourage you, but he would be very straight with you. Just as a godly father loves their child enough to discipline them, that was Bart with his players. No matter what, you always knew he loved you.”