In some ways 34-year-old George Lawrence Starke—Columbia University graduate, political activist, carpenter, avid cyclist, filmmaker, promoter of reggae music, erstwhile actor and schoolteacher, aspiring TV mogul, writer, Caribbean hedonist, the man who brought Winston (Yellowman) Foster to the attention of Joan Mondale and, oh yes, an offensive captain of the Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins—is the least prepossessing member of the Skins' renowned offensive line. That line is, of course, known as the Hogs, and it's the most famous unit on a team that also includes the Fun Bunch and the Smurfs.
Starke is at least six years older than any of the other eight linemen, including subs, who count as Hogs, and 10 years older than five of them, a truly negative distinction. He has been a starter at right tackle for the last nine years but has never won any postseason honors. He's strong but not the strongest, big but not the biggest, quick off the ball but not the quickest. He's an excellent pass blocker and more than adequate on the run, but it's the left side of the Skins' line, anchored by Guard Russ Grimm and Tackle Joe Jacoby, that deservedly gets most of the acclaim.
Starke makes decent money, $165,000 a year, but that's not much more than the minimum of $140,000 for an 11th-year player; Guard-Tackle Mark May, who's going into his third season, already makes $105,000, and could pick up another $20,000 in incentive bonuses. Starke has no such bonus clauses. He is good-looking—modest Afro and mustache, cool sleepy eyes under dark prescription shades, great legs—but among the Hogs any modeling jobs would more likely go to the sleek tight ends, Don Warren and Rick (Doc) Walker. Starke is famous in Washington, where he lives year-round, but even there he's often mistaken for May, who rode into town on a wave of first-round draft choice publicity two years ago.
However, Starke has a title, and the others don't. He's Head Hog. These days that means far more than captain.
June 5, 1983
Originally the Hogs comprised only the Skins' offensive linemen: Starke and Jacoby, guards Grimm, Fred Dean and May (plus two others no longer with Washington, Melvin Jones and Ron Saul), Center Jeff Bostic and tight ends Walker and Warren. Running Back John Riggins argued that in life-style (he lives on a farm in Kansas) and temperament he was a Hog. The Hogs eventually agreed and admitted him. All you need to know about the Hogs as an exclusive club is that a free spirit like Riggins petitioned for membership and was accepted, while a walking conglomerate like Quarterback Joe Theismann asked in and was rejected. To all these porkers, even to Riggins, Starke is Head Hog.
"George's role isn't something we sat around and thought up," says Jacoby. "It just kind of came about because we all look up to George, expect him to be the leader. He's always cool and calm in the games, and he's always there when we need him off the field."
Even non-Hogs feel that way about Starke. "There are some guys who are great players who aren't necessarily great for the team," says Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs. "George is good for the team. Intelligent, team-oriented, a great sense of humor, a guy who keeps people loose. A successful team has to have a guy or two like George Starke."
Off the field Starke holds the reins of Hog leadership even more securely than he does on it. The Hogs aren't the best offensive line ever, but they're surely the first to be incorporated. Credit Starke, who three months ago formed Super Hogs, Inc. "After we became famous Washington went absolutely crazy with Hog products," says Starke, "and because we weren't incorporated, we never got a penny. For me, it was a natural. I can put together a company in a second."
Indeed, he had already launched Starke-Reid Televideo, KSR Group and George Starke Communications, but more on them later. "One thing I really didn't need was another company," Starke says, "but I just couldn't resist. I want these guys to make some money out of this. We could've gone into it halfway and made a couple hundred dollars on T shirts or something, but I don't go into things halfway."
No, he doesn't, and because of his aggressiveness the Hogs should get more than their share of the porkpie. Starke has contracted with a manufacturer to produce pennants, T shirts, bumper stickers, key chains, buttons, sports bags, painters' hats, etc., all of them featuring the official Hogs logo—a befeathered, winking hog. Can a line of Hogette products be far behind?
A Saturday afternoon last month found the Hogs, minus Tackle Don Laster and Riggins, who often doesn't participate in revenue-producing Hog activities because of his megabuck salary, gathered at a pig farm in Leesburg, Va. in formal attire with top hats. The occasion was a photo session that produced an official Hogs poster and may have put Hollywood just a hog call away. An independent producer named Walter Reed, who was helping make the poster, had two television crews shoot film while the Hogs were posing as the basis for a comedy pilot that he will try to peddle to the networks. The Hogs would play themselves. As for the plot, there's this farm, see, that's rented out to the Hogs—who cares why—and the offensive line features all these zany characters. They're always getting the prize hog drunk and.... Green Acres ran for six seasons with Eva Gabor in peignoirs, so don't count out large athletes in BVDs.
Much of the work of Super Hogs, Inc. has been done out of Starke's home in the Mount Pleasant area of D.C. Most of his film, music and monkey business—considerable undertakings all—is done there, too. The telephone is in constant use. If Starke is judged unfit for the kingdom of Heaven, as punishment he will be sent to a place where the phones don't work.
It is significant that Starke is the only Redskin who lives year-round in the city. "I'm what you call an urban personality," he says. Most of the Skins live in Washington's tony suburbs. Mount Pleasant is, in Starke's words, a "former ghetto" that's now being gentrified. His three-story house, built about 100 years ago, looked every bit its age when Starke bought it in 1976 for $55,000. He spent three years as a live-in renovator, rebuilding it—the plumbing was one of the last things completed, so that meant three years of using a neighbor's John—and his workmanship is impressive.
To the existing structure Starke added a garage, sundeck and porch. On the porch sits a hot tub kept constantly at 105°, so even in the middle of winter he and his companions can heat up. Inside, Starke rebuilt all the walls and refinished the woodwork and hardwood floors. His own living quarters on the second floor are a monument to both pleasure (skylight, sunken tub, Franklin stove) and business (a full office with two desks, both covered with paperwork). When Starke rests his head on his king-sized bed he sees a picture of the Hogs on the opposite wall. A more appealing choice might have been one of the racy photos that hang in his office; it shows, among other things, a pair of elegant, black-stockinged legs propped provocatively on a staircase railing. The setting for the photo was Starke's house; the photographer, Starke.
Near that picture is a map of the Atlantic with an arrow pointing to the small island of Bequia, the northernmost of the Grenadines and not exactly a tourist stop. Starke spends about six weeks a year on Bequia, where he owns a second house—a seven-story cement and stone edifice built into a cliff overhanging the water. "There's much to admire in George's life-style," says Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard with a heavy sigh.
It may seem illogical for an "urban personality" like Starke to take refuge on a remote island like Bequia, but then Starke is a complex man who's difficult to categorize. Consider:
He's an outspoken and active member of the NFL Players Association—he acts as sort of an unofficial assistant to Washington player rep Mark Murphy—yet while he battles for group rights, he seems blasé about his own contract. Though he considers himself underpaid, he doesn't have an agent and has had only one publicized set-to with the Washington front office, and that in 1977. "I just don't like to nitpick about money," says Starke.
Like most bachelors who appreciate women and who aren't outright teetotalers, he is regarded as a bon vivant. "We're supposed to follow George's example on the field and stay away from it off the field," says May, only half-kiddingly. Yet Gibbs and Offensive Coordinator Joe Bugel praise Starke for his physical conditioning. At last month's minicamp Starke beat all the Hogs, including the loafing Riggins, in the dreaded 12-minute run, just as he did last year. He's a regular at several D.C. watering holes, particularly The Childe Harold near DuPont Circle, where one can order a George Starke sandwich (corned beef, paté, cole slaw on rye), and he's well acquainted with a fellow named Jose Cuervo, but Starke stays in shape because he has mastered the art of moderation. On the evenings during minicamp, for example, he left The Childe Harold well before midnight. He didn't necessarily go home alone, but he went home.
He's an ardent supporter of black candidates and black causes (pinned to a visor in Starke's car is a button that says ATTICA is ALL OF us), yet most of Starke's steady women friends have been white. They have included Sophie Engelhard, the fabulously rich daughter of the late Charles Engelhard, who made a fortune in platinum and other precious metals, and Eleanor Mondale, the 22-year-old daughter of presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
Starke still sees Engelhard, whom he dated for nine years, on a casual basis. "We just decided mutually to break up," he says. Of Mondale, who recently moved to Los Angeles, where she's an aspiring actress working as an account executive with a film production company, he says, "We're still friends." Starke will work for her father if he gets the Democratic nomination next year. Starke is certainly the only lineman in America to have called Joan Mondale with Mother's Day wishes.
Starke's association with Eleanor, whom he met in the summer of 1982 when she tended bar at The Childe Harold, has received considerable attention. It was mentioned by Gary Smith in his article on candidate Mondale in the May 26 issue of Rolling Stone: "I have a fine and strong daughter, a free person. She's got a lot of friends, and George is one of them," Mondale told Smith. In a recent item about their relationship in a gossip column in The Washington Times, Starke was called a "divine and decidedly dusky Redskin." Not willing to be merely racist, the item was also careless, spelling Starke's last name without the "e." "I don't care about the 'dusky' thing," says Starke, "but I think I'll sue them for spelling my name wrong."
In private Starke carps about the ignorance of the football press, yet he gets along quite well with sportswriters, probably because he frequently talks with them about things other than sports. He claims he doesn't like football any better than basketball, bike riding or tennis, yet he'll wax positively rhapsodic over what he calls "the moments when it's mano a mano, eyeball-to-eyeball, when there are great plays, fortitude, response to pressure, great men going against great men, Redskins against Cowboys." Side by side on his coffee table lie copies of Mother Jones, and Handbook of Winning Football, by George Allen.
As one might expect, Starke's football career began unconventionally. He was climbing into the New Rochelle (N.Y.) High swimming pool hoping to become the world's first great 200-pound black freestyler when the football coach spotted him and dragged him off to the practice field. He played defensive end, pulling guard, fullback and, when football powers like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Illinois and Syracuse came around, hard to get. Virginia chose him from a nationwide search to become, in his words, "its athletic James Meredith" and integrate its athletic program. Thanks, but no thanks, said Starke, and he signed at Columbia. "I honestly thought I'd be tired of football after two years," he says, "and the Ivy League's the only place I could've gone where they wouldn't have taken my scholarship away if I quit playing."
At Columbia Starke lobbied successfully for the tight end position even though at 245 pounds he was the Lions' biggest lineman. He did not even make All-Ivy, though he enjoyed a reputation on campus as a bit of a Renaissance man. He left Columbia between his freshman and sophomore years for a year of study at The Institute of Design and Construction in Brooklyn, during which time he became what he called a "commuter to the student riots" of 1968. In his junior and senior years he was the starting center on nationally ranked Columbia basketball teams that, led by Jim McMillian and Heyward Dotson, finished 20-4 and 20-5. He audited graduate courses in filmmaking and received a liberal arts degree in 1971.
"George alienated some people at school because things came so easily to him," says Stuart Reid, his Columbia roommate and still a business partner. "The only thing jocky about him was his size."
The NFL apparently didn't see much jocky about Starke, either. The Redskins didn't draft him until the 11th round, and gave him a modest $3,500 signing bonus. Starke immediately spent the bonus on a 1971 Datsun 240Z and vowed never to get rid of it; he still drives it. The Redskins weren't as faithful to Starke—they traded him during training camp to Kansas City. He was then released by the Chiefs, taught junior high history and math in Yonkers, N.Y., was signed by Dallas in the following off-season, was dropped by the Cowboys in August of '72 and was claimed by Washington. Commuting to the riots was easier than this. He spent the Redskins' 1972 Super Bowl season on their taxi squad before finally getting his shot at right tackle in 1973. He has been a consistent starter since '74; he played in 65 consecutive games before injuring a knee midway through the '78 season. He has missed only five games since. "If he continues to take care of himself, he can play for another four years," says Bugel.
Starke formed his first business, a production company called Starke-Reid Televideo, in the off-season of 1973 in New York. Its first success came within a year—a series of commercials, some of which still air in the New York area, for Edwin Gould Services for Children. Starke was executive producer and also had a speaking part in those ads. "No use being producer if you can't hire yourself to act," he says.
A business he set up more recently is George Starke Communications, which he formed specifically for the purpose of applying to the FCC to own low-powered television stations, a new type of medium that may or may not become a reality. Getting the company off the ground has cost him $50,000 of his own money, and, as yet, he has received nothing in return but frustration. KSR Group is a company that creates programming for television. He is the S, former roomie Reid is the R and Eric Kulberg, a veteran of the D.C. area television and radio scene, is the K.
KSR's major achievement has been the filming and distribution of segments of Reggae Sunsplash '82, a live music festival from Jamaica. It earned Starke a mention in the "Random Notes" section of a recent issue of Rolling Stone. The picture that accompanied the item wasn't the one that Rolling Stone's editors initially envisioned. "They wanted me to wear a football helmet with a dreadlock wig sticking out of the bottom while I was smoking a three-foot-long joint," says Starke. "Could you imagine how Pete Rozelle would've reacted to that?" Starke says neither the Redskins nor the NFL has questioned him about reggae's frequent association with marijuana. "They're too worried about cocaine to think about a little ganja," says Starke.
Starke is serious about advancing reggae music. KSR has raised about $1.2 million from investors and has sunk that sum into the project. The company has sold segments of the festival in a number of countries but still needs to crash the U.S. market to avoid a financial disaster. "My cash is in Splash" is Starke's most familiar lament these days. He showed the Mondales some of the tapes, and while Fritz was noncommittal, Joan was enthusiastic about Yellowman, an albino reggae star. Starke is close to many of the Jamaican performers; last month Eek-a-Mouse, a 6' 6" singer, visited Starke's house in Washington.
Despite his elevated position in the reggae world, Starke has failed to alter the standard R & B-for-blacks, C & W-for-whites musical orientation of the Redskins. He listens mainly to jazz at home and can be comfortable riding around in Grimm's jeep and listening to cowboy music. But he's encouraging a local group called Black Sheep to record the Redskin fight song to a reggae tempo. The working title is Hail to the Dreadskins.
Even with all those projects, Starke's life would've been incomplete without Washington's Super Bowl XVII victory. "He's got inner peace now that he's won it," says Taft Snowdon, a D.C. attorney and one of Starke's closest friends. "No matter how he pretends it didn't mean that much, it did. It was a kind of vindication for all the years he never made the Pro Bowl or any All-Star teams."
Starke knows it was his association with the Hogs that provided him with the fullest measure of his fame. He thought of that as he approached the podium at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington on April 19 to receive Columbia's John Jay award for distinguished professional achievement. The only athlete to earn the award, he had worked four days in the Georgetown University library researching the life of Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, the better to make a meaningful speech and a suitable impression, but now he suddenly decided to change gears. "Ladies and gentlemen," he began. "I'm Head Hog." A standing ovation followed.