Dougherty: Bart Starr's graciousness, fortitude forged at early age
The first and only time I met Bart Starr was in August 2014.
The Press-Gazette sent me and photographer Evan Siegle to Alabama to research a story about Starr’s formative years. After spending a couple days talking to his former coach and teammates in Montgomery, where Starr attended middle and high school, we drove about two hours north to interview the Green Bay Packers legend at the office building he shared with his son Bart Jr.
This was two years after Starr had suffered a mini-stroke. I’d heard his health was declining and was stunned when he greeted us at the front desk. He had the straight-as-an-arrow posture of a soldier and a sprightly step. He smiled broadly and looked us square in the eye as he shook hands with Evan and me. After some small talk, we went to his office to conduct the interview.
It was only after about five minutes in the more formal setting that I realized that while Starr looked great physically, his ability to communicate had been compromised by the mini-stroke. It had caused aphasia, which impairs a person’s ability to connect thought and speech.
Starr had difficulty expressing thoughts or memories with depth or detail. Throughout our 20-minute conversation, he was poised and cheerful, but you could see hints of frustration as he was unable to find specific words and names. Our conversation, in and of itself, wasn’t particularly meaningful.
Yet, what came through was an unabiding sense of Starr’s commitment to decency and graciousness in every-day interactions. In talking about his strict father and playing for Vince Lombardi, he regularly dropped the word “blessing.” Even though his ability to convert thoughts into language was compromised, it was as though his habits of decency and gratefulness were burned into his central nervous system.
As an aside about Starr’s decency, I’ve now heard from two people who say Starr came to their rescue when they had car troubles on the highway without knowing whom he was helping.
One was one of his former high school football and baseball teammates, Robert Barnes, who on our visit to Alabama in ’14 told the story of friends whose car broke down on the interstate near Birmingham as they were transporting an elderly friend to the hospital in the early 2000s. Almost immediately a car pulled up from behind, and it was Starr, who drove them to the hospital, arranged for the car to get fixed, and paid the repair bill.
Then just today, I got a text from a friend who had a relative with a similar tale. This was from late December 1977, just after Starr had finished his third season as Packers coach.
Tom Stoltenberg, a basketball and football coach at Gillett High School at the time, was driving his wife and two young children back to Gillett when his car conked out on Highway 41 not far from Lambeau Field. A car came up from behind, and who was it offering assistance? Starr, who drove the four of them and the family dog to Lambeau, arranged to have the car picked up and serviced, and provided a tour of the Packers’ facilities as they waited for the car to be fixed.
If there are two of these stories, there surely are more.
Anyway, the trip to Alabama was especially enlightening because it provided insight into the forging of Starr’s character growing up.
Starr’s father, Ben, was a career non-commissioned officer in the Air Force, and he instilled in Bart the lifelong habit of discipline, which helped Starr lead the Packers to five NFL titles, and the respectfulness that I saw in Starr in 2014, and that at least two unsuspecting motorists benefited from over the years.
Ben Starr’s military background clearly played a crucial role in building the fortitude and inner strength that would allow his son to thrive under the demanding Lombardi. But the relationship with his father was often unsatisfying for Bart.
According to Starr biographers Keith Dunnavant and David Claerbaut, Ben Starr thought that his younger son, Hilton “Bubba” Starr, was the more promising of his children because he was more athletic and aggressive than Bart. Even Ben Starr doubted the toughness of mild-mannered Bart.
Then when Bart was 13, Hilton died from tetanus. From that point on, Bart had no chance to measure up to a brother whose potential was forever unknown and therefore limitless.
One thing that jumped out when Evan and I interviewed three of Starr’s high school teammates in Alabama – Barnes, Richard Fulmer and Snoozy Jones – was that they had no clue of Starr’s ambivalent feelings about his father.
They only knew Ben Starr as the commanding but nice man who took an intense interest in his son’s athletic career. They had no idea that Ben Starr essentially withheld approval from Bart until 1961 when after the Packers won their first NFL championship under Lombardi, Ben told Bart that he’d been wrong in thinking his eldest son didn’t have the stuff to succeed as an athlete.
In all those years growing up, as Bart became a star quarterback in high school, he never betrayed to his friends the deep pain of never measuring up in his father’s eyes. He was a true stoic who endured it without any outward show of complaint. He was a classic stoic whose deferential exterior masked an inner wildfire to succeed and prove his father wrong.
But whatever his feelings, as he became an NFL star and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Starr from what I can tell remained his father’s son. There are at least two stranded motorists who can attest to that. And Evan and I saw it first-hand in 2014.