Without ugly incident at Alabama, legendary QB likely doesn't wind up in Green Bay
The news that Bart Starr sustained a back injury in college from hazing, not while practicing football, brings to mind a couple of points.
One, what a different world we live in than the 1950s, when the ugly practice of hazing was common and accepted. Today, it carries a stigma.
Two, the injury didn’t affect Starr’s play with the Green Bay Packers, though it probably changed the trajectory of his career.
“In a weird way, it worked out pretty well,” said Starr's son, Bart, Jr., in a telephone interview Monday. “At the end of the day he wound up where he should have been, which was Green Bay. Not that you’d want to take that route to get there, but that’s the place he was meant to be.”
To summarize the story, which was reported Monday by AL.com, Starr always had attributed the back injury that ruined his junior season at Alabama to a punting practice session before training camp opened in 1954.
But now Starr’s wife, Cherry, says the injury stemmed from a hazing incident that year. Starr was a varsity letterman at Alabama and member of the A-Club, and apparently as punishment for having been married that spring he was beaten by other members with wooden paddles that had holes in them.
Cherry Starr said that after the beating her husband’s back was badly bruised, looked like “raw meat” and suffered permanent damage
Starr, who as starting quarterback the previous season had led Alabama to the Southeastern Conference title, ended up missing part of training camp because of a back injury. He was unable to start in the opener in ’54, was in and out of the lineup thereafter because of the injury, and even spent a week in traction in the hospital in October.
Alabama finished the season 4-5-2, and coach Harold “Red” Drew was fired. He’d run a pass-oriented version of the Split-T offense and was replaced by Jennings B. “Ears” Whitworth, whose offense favored a running quarterback. Starr was a good passer but not very athletic, so he ended up only splitting time the next season for a winless Alabama team.
The Packers didn't select him until the 17th round of the 1956 draft, and then only because of the recommendation of Johnny Dee, who was Alabama’s basketball coach and football assistant.
But from the start in 1954, Starr used the fabricated story that he’d hurt his back while practicing punting before camp. It later became lore in his rise from a seemingly nondescript college career to Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Nick Germanos was a close friend of Starr’s who also went through the hazing ritual to get into the A-Club. The two were high school teammates in Montgomery, Ala., and roommates in college.
Germanos said he was unaware that the paddling caused Starr’s back injury. But his take on the ritual says everything about how much times have changed. He considered the prestige of being in the club well worth the price.
“All I know is, it was an honor to go through it but it was hell to go through it,” Germanos told me Monday. “It was a wonderful feeling, believe me. Bart and I were grateful to be initiated.”
There’s no knowing how Starr’s career would have gone without the injury. He likely would have been Alabama’s quarterback as a junior, though even that’s not a given. College football rules starting in 1953 mandated single platoon as a cost-saving measure, with a substituted player not allowed to re-enter the game in the first and third quarters, and only in the final four minutes of the second and fourth quarters.
So Starr would have had to play defense well enough to stay on the field, which he apparently did in ’53.
And if Starr had been the quarterback, there’s still no knowing whether Alabama would have won enough games to save Drew’s job. Whitworth’s emphasis on a run-oriented quarterback essentially doomed Starr’s senior season.
No doubt, Starr’s back injury started a cascade of events that led to the Packers drafting him and eventually teaming him with Vince Lombardi starting in 1959. We all know what came of that.
History could have been different. With a better college career, Starr might have been drafted higher by another NFL team. He also might have passed a physical when called up to the Air Force from his reserve unit after his rookie year with the Packers. Eglin Air Force Base wanted him to quarterback its football team.
But failing a physical for an armed service is different than failing a physical for a professional sport. The U.S. military, after all, sometimes rejects recruits because of flat feet.
Starr’s back held up well enough in the NFL that he’s tied with Brett Favre for most seasons with the Packers at 16. I wouldn’t dispute anyone who argued Starr was Favre’s equal in mental toughness.
Starr can't speak out about the hazing now because of his declining health and cognitive function. He had never talked about it with anyone but Cherry – Bart Jr. only vaguely knew of it from a passing remark by his mother years ago – and probably wouldn’t have wanted it to become public knowledge now.
But even if it no longer matters, it’s better to know the truth.
“He was pretty fortunate with respect to his health,” Bart Jr. said. “I can’t speak for Dad, but I don’t think his NFL career was any way truncated by that hazing incident, or diminished by it either.”