Bart Starr is gone. The Green Bay Packers legend died Sunday at 85 in Birmingham, Alabama, near his hometown of Montgomery.
Even though we disliked him when he was tormenting our beloved Chicago Bears in the ’60s, I join with my Packer friends in mourning the loss.
He was a class act, and a true quarterback who won through his decision-making as much as physical ability. He was fortunate to be surrounded by talented teammates and coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi. But he played that hand to perfection.
When I say ``true quarterback,’’ let me explain. . . In the 1960s, the NFL abounded with heroic quarterbacks. Even the average and flawed quarterbacks were out there putting their bodies and their decision-making on the line.
This was in the day before rules protected quarterbacks. Getting treated like a punching bag after making a throw was part of the deal. It was also a time when many quarterbacks called their own plays.
For those two reasons, I take it under advisement when subsequent ``modern’’ QBs are called The Greatest. Yes, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Brett Favre are/were wondrously talented and accomplished quarterbacks.
And yes, I am Old School. My Pandora list relies heavily on Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, Bod Dylan and the Grateful Dead.
It’s not an accident that I chose to write The Run Don’t Count, an historical novel about the 1908 Chicago Cubs. Which is destined to be an under-appreciated tome that puts a contemporary light on a bygone era.
Part of this passion for the past is a love of history.
And a big part of my esteem for Bart Starr and his contemporaries is that we always over-value the athletes who were our heroes when we were 10 years old.
Johnny Unitas remains the gold standard among quarterbacks in my mind. I won’t argue that he was better than Brady and Manning and others that came after him. Because there’s no question that modern QBs are far better athletically. They have stronger arms, better mobility, all those things. And they have great minds for the game.
But what Unitas and his contemporaries did—even the ones who were not great by any standard—was provide great drama and great sport. What they did in the ’60s paved the way for the NFL to become the national obsession it is today.
If Unitas—with his high shoes, his pinpoint arm and his insistence that his coaches would never intrude on his play-calling—was the best, Bart Starr was next in line. He was more understated but he won. In bunches.
For those of you too young to remember, here’s his bio, (from the AP obit). . .
``Starr was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro. He won NFL titles in 1961, ’62, ’65, ’67 and ’68. He was the 1966 NFL MVP and was named to the 1960s All-Decade team. He also was named MVP of the first two Super Bowls.’’
I can still hear Ray Scott, a fabled and understated broadcaster, saying, ``Starr to [Carroll] Dale, Touchdown.'' . . . Or ``Starr to [Boyd] Dowler. Touchdown.''. . . And then Scott would say nothing else.
Here’s a quote from Starr: “If you work harder than somebody else, chances are you’ll beat him though he has more talent.”
A lot of athletes say stuff like that. With Lombardi’s guidance, Starr lived it.
He was a 17th-round(!) pick in 1956, which made him the 200th player selected in a 12-team NFL . . after a modest career at Alabama. In his first two seasons at Green Bay, the Packers went 4-19-1.
And then Lombardi arrived.
That enabled Starr to elevate himself. The NFL of the ‘60s was filled quarterbacks whose names I still remember. Strong-armed names like the Rams’ Roman Gabriel and the 49ers John Brodie on the West Coast. Fran Tarkenton scrambling for the Vikings at a time when QBs were supposed to stay at home. Journeymen like Earl Morrall, Milt Plum, Norm Snead and Sonny Jurgensen, who took the beatings that were part of the job in the 1960s NFL.
And of course, there was our beleaguered Bears tandem of Billy Wade and Rudy Bukich, who had their moments but never were going to be confused with Unitas or Starr or the Giants' fabled Y.A. Tittle.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for the return of open season on quarterbacks. All I am saying is, give the old-timers their due.
I believe that is more true than ever now, when the heroes of my youth only seem to be recalled when they are leaving us.
RIP, Bart Starr. We loved to boo you—and despise your coach—back in the day.
I salute you with all my heart today. You were Lombardi on the field. You were an NFL great in every way.