To say that Bart Starr was, in my eyes, the definitive NFL player of his time actually understates the case.
That’s partly a measure of the greatness of Starr, who passed away Sunday at the age of 85 after a series of health challenges. It is also because his era came just as I was old enough to understand what NFL football really was.
As a seven-year old, I recognized Starr. He was the one whose picture was frequently on the cover of the Sports Illustrated magazine that came to our house, glossy and colorful, every week. He was the one who played on television more than anyone else. He was the one whose team always won, whether in a sunny Super Bowl or the frozen field in Green Bay, which I more or less considered a part of the Arctic, with Lambeau Stadium a near neighbor of Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude. Living in Tuscaloosa and so it seemed only natural that he had come from Alabama — in my child’s mind at the time, football players, or at least all the good ones, played for the Crimson Tide. It was years later before I understood that college was a complicated part of his career, and why he wasn’t an All-American.
The passage of time also helped me to understand that an era had changed and that Starr, along with his frequent (and usually unsuccessful) nemesis John Unitas were the pinnacle of one generation but would ultimately give way to another, one of brash, exciting quarterbacks like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, swashbucklers rather than stoic, precise field generals like Starr has been.
There will be countless eulogies of Starr today. All will mention his NFL greatness, which I got to see even without quite grasping what my youthful eyes were watching. Virtually all will mention his personal greatness, which I was privileged to see, sometimes up close, over the years — his endless patience with fans and media, his unflinching loyalty, his love for Cherry, his wife of over 60 years and their stoicism in the face of great personal tragedy with the death of a son at age 24. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Sunday that Starr would be most remembered for his “kindness and compassion,” and truer words have not been spoken.
Some tributes will mention his Alabama roots and his Crimson Tide career. He was a star recruit from Montgomery but his fame as a player came elsewhere, for a variety of reasons. He played at an unusual time in Alabama history, an era in between a stretch of glory that ran through the Rose Bowls until the end of Harry Gilmer’s career and an even more brilliant time that started with Bear Bryant’s return in 1958. There were great players in the early 1950’s and some fine teams, but the legends largely come from other times.
Starr seemed well on his way to a stellar career, playing well as a freshman (who were eligible in 1952) and leading Alabama to a Cotton Bowl in 1953 as quarterback, safety and punter. But a back injury in 1954 — years later, Cherry Starr said that Bart’s injury had come from hazing that was a part of A-Club initiation at that time — changed his trajectory. Starr himself never complained. By the time “Ears” Whitworth became head coach in 1955, he had little use for Starr as a player, opting for a youth movement. (Whitworth is the least fondly-remembered Alabama coach of all time and while his tenure was more complex and contentious than some people realize, finding no role for Bart Starr is not a ringing endorsement.) The Green Bay Packers, partly because of Starr’s earlier exploits and partly on a tip from Alabama basketball coach Johnny Dee, took Starr with the 200th pick in the 1956 draft. (Starr’s only peer at winning championships, Tom Brady, was the 199th pick in 2000, missing an amazing cosmic coincidence by a single choice.)
Once Starr was drafted, he spent a couple of years as a backup, then was eventually chosen as the starter by the distinctly un-Whitworthian Vince Lombardi. The rest, as they say, is history.
Revered in Green Bay, even though his coaching tenure there did not match Lombardi’s, Starr eventually came home to Alabama. He was an active businessman — who would rather have bought a Lincoln Continental from than Bart Starr? — and a philanthropist. He loved his alma mater, not because his student years had been perfect, but because it was home. His last visit to campus came last August. He talked with Nick Saban. He gave signed jerseys to Jalen Hurts and to Tua Tagovailoa. What greater passing of the torch could be imagined?
One can argue about Alabama’s greatest quarterback, going back to Dixie Howell and including Namath and Stabler and all the rest, right up to Tua. All were great, are great, will be great. None will be Bart Starr, the symbol of the NFL in its early days of greatness, and the epitome of the southern gentleman for an entire lifetime.