What could have been: Bart Starr as Phoenix NFL GM

Jeff Metcalfe
azcentral sports
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Bart Starr, shown from the 1967 Ice Bowl, led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL titles and tried to bring a NFL expansion team to Phoenix.

Tom Stoen is well beyond feeling sorry for himself that he didn't succeed in becoming the majority owner of an NFL expansion team in Phoenix.

"You can't undo the past," said Stoen, retired chairman of an oil and gas exploration company in Colorado Springs. "Arizona didn't lose out on anything because I wasn't down there, I can assure you that. But the one thing you lost out on was Bart Starr. He would have done a lot for the community."

Starr, most valuable player in the first two Super Bowls and five-time NFL champion, could have had whatever job he wanted with the proposed Arizona Firebirds, said Stoen, who was to be majority owner.

"He (Starr) was going to be in charge of football operations and I was going to be in charge of franchise operations," said John Colbrunn, U.S. Olympic Committee director of sports operations when the USOC moved to Colorado Springs in the late 1970s.

Colbrunn met Starr at NFL meetings during Starr's nine-year run as Green Bay Packers head coach, trying to recreate the magic of his days as Packers' quarterback under coach Vince Lombardi.

Starr and Colbrunn became tennis partners and friends. "What are you going to do with the rest of your career?" Colbrunn asked in 1983. Starr said he expected to be fired if the Packers didn't win at least win the NFC Central and make the playoffs again after doing so in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

When the Chicago Bears kicked a late field goal to eliminate their hated rival in the 1983 season finale, Starr was unceremoniously fired by Packers President Robert Parins. "He called me and said John, I got fired," Colbrunn said. "I said that's the best news I've heard in a long time, their loss and our gain."

Starr soon met with Stoen, who explained how he, former American Football League Commissioner Joe Foss and Colbrunn planned to successfully win over enough NFL owners to be awarded a Phoenix franchise.

"We made a handshake deal, and he never wavered," Stoen said. "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. He was the superstar that wasn't a superstar."

Starr and his wife Cherry moved to Paradise Valley. "I could have lived the rest of my life there quite honestly," Cherry Starr said. "We went out there in March so Bart could work out with draft choices for several years. I told Bart I'd love to live there some day. It was a wonderful happening in our lives."

The Stoen group paid to put on a NFL exhibition game between the Packers and Denver Broncos that drew 67,500 at Sun Devil Stadium on a hot August night in 1987. There was a design for a stadium to be built initially near Firebird Lake then in downtown Phoenix.

"I have always tried to take the posture that all things happen for the best," said Starr, from a biography by Keith Dunnavant. "If this franchise comes into being then perhaps that statement will be true."

Others groups wanted in on inevitable NFL-to-Arizona windfall including those led by former USFL Arizona Wranglers owner Bill Tatham Jr. and another by Pat McGroder that included O.J. Simpson. "Once we know that (Bill) Bidwill is not coming here, we intend to move forward with our plans," Simpson said in November 1987.

Two months later, Bidwill informed the NFL of his plans to move the St. Louis Cardinals to Phoenix in time for the 1988 season.

"What held us back was the Al Davis lawsuit," for the right to move the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles, Stoen said. "We couldn't do anything until that was settled. Then you couldn't go against the Cardinals so you don't have another lawsuit. It's easy to say we would have been a better choice in those years, but that's self-serving."

The Cardinals' move to Phoenix "was a real shocker to us," Cherry Starr said. "(Then NFL Commissioner) Pete Rozelle very much wanted Bart to have the team there. He loved Bart and did his very best."

Starr never made another serious pass at the NFL. Instead he returned to his native Alabama, where in the pre-Bear Bryant days at the University of Alabama he was benched as a senior and the Crimson Tide went 0-10. The Packers took a 17th-round draft shot on Starr in 1956 that paid off with five NFL titles in a 16-year Pro Football Hall of Fame career embodied by the game-winning drive in the 1967 Ice Bowl.

Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel traveled to Birmingham in summer 2013 to talk Starr, still No. 1 in NFL career playoff passer rating, for a story about the Packers legend at age 80. "Nearly all conversations with Starr inevitably trace back to the day that defines him," Dunne wrote of the Ice Bowl. "This 21-17 epic was the crest, the culmination for what Starr stood for. Poise. Immune to the elements … Starr remembers that wind chill reaching 60 below. He remembers standing by fire bins for survival."

Now, more than 1 ½ years later, Dunne is even more grateful for his time with Starr, who suffered two strokes, four seizures and a mild heart attack in September. "He's such a humble guy," said Dunn, perhaps the word most used to describe Starr. "He takes it to a different level. He didn't want to talk about himself."

Starr, who turned 81 on Jan. 9, is recovering but not doing interviews. Colbrunn recently spoke with him for the first time since his health crisis: "Bart is an eternal optimist. He was laughing and cheerful. It was a nice visit."

Starr's son Bart Jr. is in town to present the Athletes in Action/Bart Starr Award for outstanding character, integrity and leadership to Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning at a Super Bowl Breakfast on Friday. This is the first year since the award's creation in 1989 that Bart Sr. will not be the presenter.

"It's really a very, very slow recovery," said Cherry Starr, who met Bart in college and has been married to him for 60 years. "When we left the hospital (after 2½ months), he could not walk or sit up unassisted. Now he's walking on a walker and standing very erect. He lost 20 pounds and gained back 10 and is getting stronger. I don't know how much recovery he can make with his cognitive ability.

"He's been such a kind, generous, loving man all his life. It's not a good quality of life for him, and it hurts me to see him this way. I wish so much this had never happened."

NFL career playoff passer rating

1. Bart Starr (1956-71) 104.8

2. Kurt Warner (1998-2009) 102.8

3. Aaron Rodgers (2005-14) 101.0

4. Drew Brees (2001-14) 100.7

5. Russell Wilson (2012-14) 96.3

6. Joe Montana (1979-94) 95.6

7. Mark Sanchez (2009-14) 94.3

8. Ken Anderson (1971-86) 93.5

9. Tony Romo (2004-14) 93.0

10. Joe Theismann (1974-85) 91.4

Source: Pro Football

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