As consequential to the history of the Green Bay Packers as Vince Lombardi was, it’s impossible to think his teams would have dominated as much as they did without the leadership and skill of Bart Starr.
Starr was the team’s quiet humble spearhead. He was a Hall of Fame quarterback, the MVP of the first two Super Bowls, and the one who helped bring the concepts Lombardi designed come to life.
Starr died on Sunday in Birmingham. Alabama at age 85. The NFL has lost another piece of its great history.
The Packers won five NFL championships on Starr’s watch from 1961 to 1967. He was capable and flawless, a study in quiet determination. He didn’t have the mobility or the arm of the great quarterbacks who would follow him, but he had the instinct to overcome it all.
Starr was not well lately. He suffered a pair of strokes, a heart attack and several seizures in September 2014. He then survived a bronchial infection in August 2015 and later broke his hip in December.
“We are saddened to note the passing of our husband, father, grandfather, and friend, Bart Starr,” read a statement from Starr’s family. “He battled with courage and determination to transcend the serious stroke he suffered in September 2014, but his most recent illness was too much to overcome.
“While he may always be best known for his success as the Packers quarterback for 16 years, his true legacy will always be the respectful manner in which he treated every person he met, his humble demeanor, and his generous spirit.”
The most famous play of Starr’s career, certainly the one that will live forever in the league’s video archive, happened during the “Ice Bowl,” the NFL Championship Game between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field on New Year’s Eve 1967.
The wind chill was minus 48 when the Packers, trailing 17-14, moved the ball to the Dallas 1 with 16 seconds to play. Starr called “31 Wedge,” for fullback Chuck Mercein. But he had another plan in mind.
Starr did not tell his teammates that he instead intended to keep the ball and follow the block of guard Jerry Kramer into the endzone for the win. Lombardi thrust his fists into he air on the sideline.
Starr was Green Bay’s 17th-round draft pick out of Alabama in 1956 and he didn’t begin to bloom until the 1960 season. He was 3-15-1 in his first three seasons with twice as many interceptions as TD passes. He might have never played regularly for the Packers had Lombardi not arrived in 1959.
“(Starr) didn’t start out like he was going to be the greatest player,” said Bob Schnelker, a Packers assistant coach under Lombardi and Starr told USA Today, “But toward the end, he was as good as there was. Look at all the championships.”
Lombardi was enamored with Starr’s personality and elevated him. He took over as starter over the last five games in 1959 and went 4-1. In 1960, Starr was benched after losing the opener, but took pack the job four weeks later, From 1961-67, Starr helped the Packers to a 69-18-4 record. He was the NFL’s MVP in 1966.
Although he never threw for 4,000 yards or 40 touchdowns in any season, he led the league in passing three times, threw for 24,718 yards and 152 touchdowns in his 16-year career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
His 9-1 record (.900) in the postseason is the greatest in NFL history. His only loss was in the 1960 NFL Championship Game to the Philadelphia Eagles. And his postseason passer rating of 104.8 is also the best in NFL history,
“There’s nobody who could put a team in a better position with what Vince wanted to do,” Hall of Fame back Paul Hornung told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “He [Lombardi] gave him control of the team. He gave him authority to do whatever he wanted to do. And that’s pretty strong.”
Starr, whose No. 15 was retired by the team, became quarterback coach of the team in 1972 after his retirement but went to work for CBS for two seasons because of a disagreement with then-Packers coach Dan Devine. He later replaced Devine after the 1974 season. Starr was also the general manager, but the Packers made the playoffs only once (1982) in his nine seasons at the helm.
“Our family wishes to thank the thousands of friends and fans who have enriched his life – and therefore our lives – for so many decades and especially during the past five years. Each letter, text, phone call, and personal visit inspired him and filled him with joy,
“His love for all of humanity is well known, and his affection toward the residents of Alabama and of Wisconsin filled him with gratitude. He had hoped to make one last trip to Green Bay to watch the Packers this fall, but he shall forever be there in spirit.”