Bart Starr: The Self-Made QB Who Led Lombardi’s Packers

Starr will be remembered and revered by Green Bay Packers fans as the steady, on-field leader of the 1960s Packers dynasty that won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls.
By Tim Layden ,

He had a cinematic football hero’s name, two short syllables full of hard consonants evoking crisp autumn afternoons, long touchdown passes and a stadium full of unconditional love. A name for television, radio and sharp newspaper headlines. A name for a child born unto greatness in America’s Game. It is all a misnomer. Bryan Bartlett Starr, known forever as Bart, was a man nearly cast aside by football both in college and early in his professional career, who by dint of tireless study and repetition and with the support of a legendary coach became one of the most successful quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, and carried that resolve through a long and challenging life that rarely offered him an easy path.

Bart Starr died Sunday at the age of 85. He had struggled, but with dignity and resolve, since two strokes and a heart attack in 2014 diminished his physical and intellectual self, but not his uncommon spirit. He is survived by his wife, Cherry, with whom Starr quietly eloped when both were 20-year-old Alabamans; and by a son, Bart, Jr., age 61. A younger son, Bret, died of a drug overdose at age 24 in 1988. Starr’s football family is vastly larger. Starr will be remembered and revered by Green Bay Packers fans as the steady, on-field leader of the 1960s Packers dynasty that won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls, in 1967 and ’68. He endures as a mythic figure, sandy-haired and stoic, wearing No. 15 in green and gold.

Starr’s lifetime statistics are modest in comparison to modern quarterbacks, whose numbers are propelled by ongoing rules changes that have benefitted the passing game and offensive schematic evolution that has transformed professional football from the run-first game of Starr’s era into a wide-open aerial competition. In 16 seasons, all with the Packers, Starr passed for 24,718 yards, which ranks only 77th in history. He threw 138 interceptions, nearly as many as his 152 touchdowns, and his career passer rating was only 80.5, only 67th in history. But those numbers, accumulated in an era of far less offensive precision, are overwhelmed by Starr’s championship resume.

Starr started 10 postseason games in his career and his Green Bay teams won nine of them, including those five NFL title games and the first two Super Bowls. He threw 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions in the postseason, and his postseason passer rating of 104.8 is the best in history. His enduring legacy as an NFL quarterback is that he was best in the most important games and under the most enervating pressure. He was named MVP of the first two Super Bowls; only Tom Brady (four), Joe Montana (three), Terry Bradshaw and Eli Manning (two each) have also won that award multiple times.

It’s likely that none of this would have happened if Starr’s path had not intersected with Vince Lombardi’s. Their alliance was the foundation of the seminal dynasty in NFL history. Lombardi was hired as the Packers’ head coach in 1959. Starr had come to the Packers as the 199th player selected in the 1956 draft, after an undistinguished career at Alabama, his home state university, where he played intermittently for three years and then sat on the bench for a winless (0-10) team in his senior year. His first three Packers teams, under two coaches, went a combined 8-27-1. According to a passage in When Pride Still Mattered, author David Maraniss’s biography of Lombardi and his Packers, Phil Bengtson, an assistant on Lombardi’s first staff, said Starr, "might be adequate as a backup."

But Lombardi saw something. In Run To Daylight, which Lombardi wrote with W.C. Heinz in 1962, Lombardi wrote, "When I joined this team, the opinion around here and in the league was that Starr would never make it. They said he couldn’t throw well enough and wasn’t tough enough, that he had no confidence in himself and that no one had confidence in him. He was a top student at Alabama, so they said he was smart enough, and after looking at the movies that first preseason, I came to the conclusion that he did have the ability, the arm, the ball-handling techniques and the intelligence, and what he needed was confidence."

Lombardi’s offensive system was relatively uncomplicated, but required precision and discipline. This was a perfect fit for Starr, whose father, Ben, had been a master sergeant in the Air Force and ran his household with military precision. (Starr had one sibling, an older brother, Bubba, who died of tetanus at age 13, after cutting his foot in a field). Starr was naturally quiet and introverted, but endured his father’s discipline. It prepared him for Lombardi. He studied endlessly and mastered the Packers’ system.

Starr became the starter late in the 1959 season, but was benched in 1960, when the Packers went to the NFL championship game and lost to the Eagles (a game in which Starr started and played well). It was in 1960 that Starr confronted Lombardi after the coach had criticized him in front of the team. Starr felt that Lombardi’s frequent tirades were undermining his ability to lead, and Lombardi agreed. "From then on," Starr told Maraniss, "we had a relationship that was just unbelievable." Together they prospered: From 1961-67, Starr started all but seven games, which he missed because of injuries, and the Packers went 74-20-4 and won five NFL titles and two Super Bowls. In the last of those seasons, on New Year’s Eve in 1967, Starr’s quarterback sneak gave the Packers a 21-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the so-called Ice Bowl, a game played in temperatures that reached minus-13 degrees with brutal wind chill. It is one of the most famous touchdowns in NFL history.

Starr retired after the 1971 season. His second life was by turns cruel and inspiring. He became the Packers’ head coach in 1975, a legend brought back to resurrect a franchise that floundered since Lombardi’s departure after that 1967 season. But Starr struggled: In his nine years at head coach, the Packers had only three non-losing seasons and made the playoffs only once, in the strike-shortened 1982 season. The same aversion to public criticism that Lombardi accommodated was unavoidable as a coach, and Starr despised it. He was fired after the 1983 season.

Bart and Cherry Starr retired to Arizona, but less than five years later, the younger of their two boys, Bret, was found dead of cardiac arrhythmia, a complication of his addiction to cocaine. By nature loath to seek public attention, Starr went public with his concern for the drug problem in the U.S. "I hate cocaine, I hate the cocaine evil," Starr told the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1988, less than two months after Bret’s death. "I’m angry that it’s doing all this damage, but I question whether the country is angry enough even now to lick it."

Shortly after Bret’s death, Bart and Cherry moved back to Alabama to be closer to their older son. They also committed part of their lives to anti-drug advocacy, including support of the Rawhide Boys Ranch program for at-risk youths in Wisconsin that they helped start in 1965.

Starr suffered his first stroke on Sept. 2, 2014, four months shy of his 81st birthday. Five days later came another stroke, a heart attack and seizures. According to a story written by Ian O’Connor for ESPN.com in September of 2015, Cherry was told that Bart might not live through the night after the second stroke and heart attack. "Hospital officials asked Cherry if she wanted Bart placed on life support if necessary," wrote O’Connor. "And she explained that both had living wills and that neither wanted to be sustained by a machine. Cherry called their granddaughters and told them they were needed at Bart’s bedside. But she never said her own goodbye to her husband; she couldn’t bring herself to do it. And the very next morning, that goodbye was no longer necessary. Bart had launched his comeback."

Bart Starr, No. 15, rose from his hospital bed and lived five more years. He learned to walk, with assistance, and to communicate. Fourteen months after his strokes and heart attack, he returned to Lambeau Field for the ceremony retiring Brett Favre’s No. 4; and in the fall of 2017, he came back again, for a reunion of the Ice Bowl Packers. He was helped through the tunnel and onto the grass of the field that day, and the crowd roared its adoration, celebrating their quarterback and promising in full throat that he will never be forgotten.

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