Starr Shines Bright for Packers

Updated: January 20, 2006, 6:06 PM ET
By Mike Puma | Special to ESPN.com

"He always wanted to be the best. And he never quite felt he was the best. And that's why he worked so hard," says former teammate Gary Knafelc about Bart Starr on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

If Fantasy Football existed in the 1960s, Bart Starr wouldn't have topped your wish list for quarterbacks. Not that he wasn't capable of producing huge numbers, but under coach Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers were a run-oriented team that asked the quarterback to lead and forget about statistics.

In that sense, few were better than Starr. The proof exists in the five championships he won, the most by any NFL quarterback. Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw are second with four.

The winner of the first two Super Bowl MVP awards, he also made the Pro Bowl four times and was voted MVP once. He finished his 16-year career with 24,718 yards passing, 152 touchdowns and 138 interceptions while completing 57.4 percent of his passes. A mainstay under center, Starr played in 196 games. In 1977, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Bart Starr stands for what the game of football stands for: courage, stamina and coordinated efficiency," Lombardi said. "You instill desire by creating a superlative example. The noblest form of leadership is by example and that is what Bart Starr is all about."

One place Starr didn't find success was on the sidelines. In nine years as Packers head coach, his teams went 52-76-3 and had only two winning seasons.

But it's Starr the player who is remembered in Titletown USA. "Earlier in my career, many fans misinterpreted my calm demeanor for lack of imagination," Starr wrote in his autobiography. "They believed that Lombardi programmed me to follow his orders and not worry about originality. But & I [became] a creative and confident leader who could stand beside, not behind, our admired coach."

The older of Ben and Lulu Starr's two sons, Bryan Bartlett Starr was born on Jan. 9, 1934 in Montgomery, Ala. The family moved often in Bart's youth; Ben bounced between jobs before his National Guard unit was activated for World War II. During one stretch, Bart went four years without seeing his father, who served in the Pacific and became a career military man after joining the Army Air Corps.

The family finally returned to Montgomery, where Bart entered Sidney Lanier High School. In his junior year, he became the starter when another quarterback suffered a broken leg. He earned All-State honors as a senior and was recruited by every Southeastern Conference school except Tennessee.

Starr chose Alabama to appease his father, but also in part because it afforded him the opportunity to continue seeing his high-school sweetheart, Cherry Morton, who would attend Auburn.

In his sophomore season he helped the Crimson Tide reach the 1954 Cotton Bowl, where it lost to Rice. He also shared punting duties, finishing second nationally with his 41.1-yard average.

In the spring, he eloped with Cherry, keeping the marriage secret for months.

Starr was not so successful as a junior and senior on the football field as he was a sophomore. A back strain kept him sidelined for most of his junior season. In his senior year, the offensive scheme changed, calling for a more mobile quarterback. Starr sat for an 0-10 team. His punting duties were curtailed because of a severe ankle sprain.

Still, Starr held hope he would receive a look in the NFL. His chance came when the downtrodden Packers selected him with their 17th pick, No. 200 overall, in 1956. Starr signed for $6,500.

After being a backup as a rookie, he shared the position the next season before becoming the starter for a 1-10-1 team in 1958.

Then everything changed in 1959. Lombardi, an offensive assistant coach with the New York Giants, was hired as the Packers' head coach and general manager. He quickly made Starr a believer.

"I remember going downstairs after one of our first practices," Starr said. "I called my wife in Birmingham. All I said was, 'Honey, we're going to begin to win.' " In 1959, Starr didn't start until the final five games, but he led the Packers to a four-game winning to end the season. They finished 7-5, only their second winning record in 11 years, as Starr completed 70-of-134 passes for 972 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions. The next season, Starr became a Pro Bowl quarterback as he helped Green Bay win the Western Conference before it lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 17-13 in the NFL championship game.

Starr had another Pro Bowl season in 1961, surpassing 2,000 passing yards for the first time (he finished with 2,418 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions). The Packers walloped the Giants 37-0 for the NFL championship as Starr threw three touchdown passes.

The Packers were champions again in 1962, a season in which Starr made another Pro Bowl appearance and threw for a career high 2,438 yards. He led Green Bay to a 16-7 victory over the Giants for the title.

Starr's Pro Bowl streak and the team's championship run ended in 1963, the first of successive years the Packers missed the playoffs. They rebounded in 1965, when Starr had a Pro Bowl season, tying a career high with 16 touchdown passes. The Packers beat the Cleveland Browns 23-12 in the NFL championship game.

In 1966, Starr was named league MVP after throwing for 14 touchdowns and a career-low three interceptions. After beating the Dallas Cowboys 34-27 in the NFL title game, the Packers routed the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in Super Bowl I as Starr won MVP honors by passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns.

Before the Packers could reach Super Bowl II, they had to beat the Cowboys in the NFL championship game. The "Ice Bowl" was played on Dec. 31, 1967 in sub-zero temperature in Green Bay. Starr scored the decisive touchdown with 13 seconds left, lunging across the goal line on a quarterback sneak that gave the Pack a 21-17 win. Then he led Green Bay to a 33-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders for the championship. Throwing for 202 yards and one touchdown, Starr was again the Super Bowl MVP. The next season, with Lombardi retired to the front office, Starr completed a career high 63.7 percent of his passes, but the Packers missed the playoffs with a 6-7-1 record.

Starr remained the starter two more years. He played four games in 1971 and announced his retirement in training camp the following summer. He accepted an offer to become the Packers' quarterbacks coach, staying one season before returning home to Alabama, where he became part owner of several car dealerships throughout the Southeast. In December 1974, he signed a three-year contract to become the Packers' head coach and general manager. The franchise was in the same disarray as when he had arrived as a player. But this time, Starr couldn't work magic. In his nine years, the Packers made the playoffs only once, in the strike-shortened 1982 season. He was fired after an 8-8 campaign in 1983.

After moving to Phoenix, he attempted to land an expansion franchise as part of a perspective ownership group. But that deal failed to materialize.

In 1988, Starr's youngest son, Bret, who had a cocaine addiction, was found dead in his home in Tampa. Authorities concluded the 24-year-old died of heart failure caused by drug abuse. The next year, Starr moved back to Birmingham, where he could be close to his grandchildren and older son Bart Jr.

In 1994, Starr took another shot at returning to the NFL as part of a group of investors interested in buying the Tampa Bay Bucs. Again, a deal wasn't struck.

Starr remains in high demand as a motivational speaker and is chairman of a company that develops medical centers for groups of doctors. Since 1965, he and Cherry have supported a home for wayward boys in Wisconsin called the Rawhide Foundation.

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