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 a child born unto greatness in America's Game. But Bryan Bartlett Starr, known forever as Bart, was nearly cast aside by football both in college and early in his professional career. By dint of tireless study and repetition—and with the support of a legendary coach—he became one of the most successful NFL quarterbacks and carried that resolve through a long and challenging life that rarely offered him an easy path.
Starr died on May 26 at 85. He had struggled since two strokes and a heart attack in 2014 diminished his physical and intellectual self but not his uncommon spirit. Starr will be remembered and revered by Packers' fans as the steady, on-field leader of the 1960s Green Bay dynasty that won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls, in 1967 and '68.
His lifetime statistics are modest in comparison to those of modern quarterbacks, whose numbers are propelled by the evolution of the modern passing game. He ranks just 77th in career passing yards and 67th in passer rating (80.5). But those figures are overwhelmed by Starr's championship résumé. He started 10 postseason games, and Green Bay won nine of them. 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 is that he was at his best in the most important games.
It's likely that none of this would have happened if Starr had not crossed paths with Vince Lombardi, who was hired as the Packers' coach in 1959. Starr had come to Green Bay as the 200th player selected in the 1956 draft, after an undistinguished career at Alabama, and he'd been an occasional starter on three poor Packers teams that had a combined 8-27-1 record. But Lombardi saw something in Starr. In Run to Daylight, which Lombardi authored with journalist W.C. Heinz in 1962, the coach wrote, "[Starr] was a top student at Alabama ... and after looking at the movies that first preseason, I came to the conclusion that he did have the ability ... what he needed was confidence."
June 3, 2019
Together they prospered: From 1961 through '67, Starr started all but seven games and the Packers went 74-20-4. 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 Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, a game played in temperatures that reached --13 with a brutal windchill. It is one of the most famous touchdowns in NFL history.
Starr retired after the 1971 season. His later life was by turns cruel and inspiring. He became the Packers' coach in '75, a legend brought back to resurrect a franchise that had floundered since Lombardi's departure after that '67 season. But Starr struggled: In his nine years the Packers had four nonlosing seasons and made the playoffs only once. He was fired after the '83 season. After the death of his youngest son, Bret, of a drug overdose five years later, he became involved in antidrug advocacy.
Starr suffered his first stroke on Sept. 2, 2014. Against long odds, he learned to walk, with assistance, and to communicate. On Nov. 26, 2015, he returned to Lambeau Field for the ceremony retiring Brett Favre's number 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 that day, and the crowd roared its adoration, celebrating their quarterback, number 15 forever, and promising in full throat that he will never be forgotten.