Bart Starr, the quarterback with a movie star name who led Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers to victory in five NFL Championship Games and the first two Super Bowls, died Sunday at the age of 85 in Birmingham, Ala.
Starr’s health had been in decline in recent years. He suffered a mini-stroke in 2014 while giving a speech in Madison, Wis. After suffering another stroke, a heart attack, and multiple seizures, Starr underwent stem cell treatments in 2015 and 2016. The stem cell treatments were somewhat successful. He also had to overcome a life-threatening bronchial infection and a broken hip.
Starr’s death was announced by the Packers.
“The Packers Family was saddened today to learn of the passing of Bart Starr,” Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said in a statement. “A champion on and off the field, Bart epitomized class and was beloved by generations of Packers fans. A clutch player who led his team to five NFL titles, Bart could still fill Lambeau Field with electricity decades later during his many visits. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Cherry and the entire Starr family.”
His family released a statement as well.
“We are saddened to note the passing of our husband, father, grandfather, and friend, Bart Starr,” the statement said. “He battled with courage and determination to transcend the serious stroke he suffered in September 2014, but his most recent illness was too much to overcome. While he may always be best known for his success as the Packers quarterback for 16 years, his true legacy will always be the respectful manner in which he treated every person he met, his humble demeanor, and his generous spirit.”
Bryan Bartlett Starr was born Jan. 9, 1934 in Montgomery, Ala. Starr’s father, Ben, served in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force during World War II. He also had a younger brother, Hilton (also known as Bubba), who cut his foot on a dog bone while walking barefoot in the family’s yard and died of tetanus three days later at age 11.
Starr’s relationship with his father deteriorated after his brother’s death. Bart was an introverted child who rarely showed emotion while his father wanted him to have more of a mean streak. In addition, Ben Starr believed Bubba had more athletic potential and constantly reminded Bart of that.
Starr attended Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery. He tried out for the football team in his sophomore year but quit after two weeks. Starr’s father gave him an ultimatum: play football or work in the family’s garden. Starr chose to return to the gridiron.
Starr became Lanier’s starting quarterback in his junior year after the incumbent broke his leg. He led his school to an undefeated season. He raised his profile during his senior season by being named all-state and All-American. Starr received scholarship offers from all over the country. He seriously considered Kentucky, where Paul “Bear” Bryant was head coach at the time. He also had Auburn on his list. In the end, he chose another Southeastern Conference school (Alabama) so he could be close to Cherry, his high school sweetheart.
Unlike many conferences at the time, the SEC allowed freshmen to play varsity sports. Starr didn’t start for the Crimson Tide during his freshman season (1952) but played enough minutes to earn a letter. The highlight of his first season in Tuscaloosa was going 8 of 12 for 93 yards and a touchdown in a 61-6 rout of Syracuse in the Orange Bowl. Starr entered his sophomore season as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, safety, and punter. He led Alabama to a 6-3-3 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl, a 28-6 loss to Rice. Starr was also second in the nation in punting with an average of 41.4 yards per attempt.
Starr and Cherry eloped before the start of his junior season but chose to keep the marriage a secret. Colleges routinely revoked the scholarships of married athletes during the 1950s because they believed the focus should be on athletics. Starr also suffered a severe back injury during a hazing incident that he covered up by saying he injured himself while punting. The injury cost him much of his junior year, would later disqualify him from military service, and bothered him throughout the remainder of his football career.
The Crimson Tide went 4-5-2 in 1954, leading the firing of head coach Red Drew. Drew was replaced by Jennings Whitworth. Whitworth decided to focus on youth in his first season with only two seniors starting. Starr was used sparingly during his final season at Alabama, an 0-10 campaign.
The Packers selected Starr with a 17th round pick (200th overall) in the 1956 NFL Draft. Jack Vainisi, Packers personnel manager, was a friend of Crimson Tide head basketball coach Johnny Dee. Dee convinced Vainisi that Starr had the ability to succeed at the NFL level. Starr started 19 games in his first three NFL seasons with a record 3-15-1.
Lombardi arrived in 1959. Initially, his assessment of Starr was similar to that of his father. Lombardi, as he later said, thought Starr might be “too polite and maybe just too self-effacing to be the bold, tough quarterback that a quarterback must be in the National Football League”.
Starr would become Lombardi’s most important player. Lombardi was a different kind of coach: a relentless taskmaster who demanded perfection at all times. Starr was a different kind of quarterback: a serious, cerebral field general with skin thick enough to endure Lombardi’s incessant criticism. It was a union that helped propel the NFL into the modern era.
“I loved it,” Starr said in David Maraniss’ 1998 book “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi”. “I loved the meetings. I never, ever was bored or tired at any meeting we were in with Lombardi. I appreciated what he was trying to teach. He was always trying to raise the bar.”
Lombardi gave Starr the autonomy to call his own plays. Starr rarely, if ever, gave Lombardi reasons to doubt him.
“There’s nobody who could put a team in a better position with what Vince wanted to do,’ Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung, Starr’s teammate of 10 seasons, said in a 2013 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “He gave him control of the team. He gave him authority to do whatever he wanted to do. And that’s pretty strong.”
Starr’s most memorable moment came at the end of one of the NFL’s most memorable games.
Dec. 31, 1967: the NFL Championship Game between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys known in NFL lore as the Ice Bowl. The air temperature at Lambeau Field was -13°F (-25°C), which led to the failure of the turf’s heating system. Players slipped and slid throughout the afternoon. A lost Starr fumble led to a Dallas touchdown early in the second quarter.
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The Packers trailed 17-14 on the game’s final drive. They needed 70 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Starr methodically led his offense down the field using a combination of short passes and run plays, coming to within two feet of the end zone. In the game’s final minute, the Cowboys defense stopped two Packers rushing attempts.
With 16 seconds remaining, Starr called a timeout and went to confer with Lombardi on the sideline. There was no talk of kicking a field goal to force overtime. Lombardi worried the 50,681 fans in attendance wouldn’t be able to endure an extra session in the frigid cold. Starr told his coach the running backs were struggling to get traction all afternoon. However, he thought he could get the ball over himself.
“Then run it!” Lombardi said. “And let’s get the hell out of here!”
Starr returned to the huddle and called 31 Wedge, a running play designed for fullback Chuck Mercein without telling his teammates he was going to keep the ball. When the ball was snapped, Starr hesitated for a moment before diving into the end zone thanks to huge blocks from Jerry Kramer and Ken Bowman. The Packers won 21-17. Two weeks later, the Packers defeated the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in an anticlimactic Super Bowl II at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
During the Ice Bowl, a Packers fan held a sign which read “Texas has the Lone Star, but we have the bright Starr”.
“The dirty little secret of those days was that during the week it was Lombardi’s team, but on Sunday it was really Starr’s team,” former Packers offensive tackle Steve Wright said in Keith Dunnivant’s 2011 book “America’s Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League”.
Super Bowl II was the final championship of the Lombardi/Starr Packers. The Packers wouldn’t win another league title until Super Bowl XXXI. Lombardi resigned as head coach after Super Bowl II but stayed with the Packers as general manager. He joined the Washington Redskins as head coach/minority owner for the 1969 season. Lombardi died Sept. 3, 1970 of cancer at age 57.
Starr played 16 NFL seasons (1956-71), all for the Packers. He appeared in 196 regular season games with 157 starts, completing 1,808 passes in 3,149 attempts for 24,718 yards, 152 touchdowns and 138 interceptions with a record of 94-57-6. Starr started 10 playoff games for the Packers with a record of 9-1 (the sole loss being the 1960 NFL Championship against the Philadelphia Eagles).
Starr was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and a First-team All-Pro in 1966. In spite of playing on a team that favored running the ball (and the perception that the Baltimore Colts’ Johnny Unitas was a better quarterback), he led the NFL in passer rating four times (1964, 1966, 1968, 1969). He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection (1960-62, 1966) and a three-time Second-team All-Pro (1961, 1962, 1964).
Starr is one of only three players in NFL history to win at least five league championships: 1961-62, 1965-67. He was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowls I and II, becoming the first of only five players with multiple Super Bowl MVPs. He has the highest postseason passer rating of any quarterback in NFL history (104.8). His career completion percentage (57.4) was an-NFL record at the time of his retirement. He held the Packers’ franchise record for most games played until he was surpassed by Brett Favre in 2003.
Starr’s No. 15 was retired in 1973, the third of six Packers players to receive the honor. He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
After his retirement, Starr served as the Packers’ quarterbacks coach under head coach Dan Devine in 1972. Devine departed for Notre Dame after the 1974 season and Starr was hired to succeed him. He initially signed a three-year contract but led the Packers for nine seasons (1975-83), acting as his own general manager for the first five seasons.
The Packers were 52-76-2 (1-1 postseason) under Starr, with the team’s sole postseason appearance in the strike-shortened 1982 season. The Packers defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 41-16 in the opening round (the team’s first postseason victory since Super Bowl II) before falling to the Cowboys in the Divisional Playoff. Starr was fired after going 8-8 in 1983. He was replaced by Forrest Gregg, a former Packers teammate who led the Cincinnati Bengals to an appearance in Super Bowl XVI. Gregg died on Apr. 12.
He was devastated after being fired by the Packers but remained one of the team’s most ardent supporters. When the team sought a tax-break to renovate Lambeau Field in 2000, Starr was recruited in the lobbying effort and the legislation passed. He was present at Lambeau Field when Favre’s No. 4 was retired during the 2015 season. He was personally asked by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to attend Super Bowl 50 because of a pregame ceremony honoring the MVPs of the then-previous 49 games. Starr was unable to attend because of a broken hip suffered when he attempted to pick up a toothbrush that had fallen to the floor.
In 1965, Starr helped found Rawhide Boys Ranch, a facility for at-risk and troubled boys in Wisconsin, by donating the Corvette he received as MVP of Super Bowl II. After Lombardi’s death, he helped start the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation and the Starr Children’s Fund for cancer research. The Bart Starr Award annually honors an NFL player who “best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field, and in the community”.
Starr is survived by his wife, Cherry; son, Bart Jr.; and several grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Bret. Bret died of cardiac arrest after a cocaine overdose at age 24 in 1988. It was Bret’s death that propelled Starr to return to his roots in Alabama after relocating to Green Bay during his playing career.