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A Starr is Unborn

Legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr died over the weekend following a long battle against various illnesses. He was 85.

For reasons that can be difficult to pin down, Starr has long been overlooked on lists of the game’s all time great quarterbacks. Perhaps the answer lies in Vince Lombardi’s long shadow, the sheer talent of his teammates on the great Packers teams of the 1960s, or maybe it is because Starr was famously chosen in the 17th round of the NFL draft.

Whatever the case, Starr’s accomplishments are not repeated often enough. Along with Lombardi, Starr collected five championship rings while with the Packers ( winning three NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowls), a feat not matched until the duo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady surpassed it 50 years later. The 1962 Packers are often listed among the best teams ever assembled, a 13-1 monster that outscored opponents 415-148 throughout the season for a differential of 267 (and a 19.1 point margin of victory that has only been surpassed once, by the 16-0 New England Patriots of 2007, at 19.7). Starr was in his prime that year, at 28 years old, and led the league in completion percentage for the first time. He would do so on three other occasions, and lead the league in rating on four occasions. For context, Peyton Manning led the league in rating three times, Aaron Rodgers twice, and Drew Brees and Tom Brady twice each.

Beyond the numbers, Starr’s relationship with Vince Lombardi is legendary. After backing up Tobin Rote in 1956 and splitting time with other quarterbacks in 1957 and 1958, Lombardi made Starr his starter in the ninth game of 1959 (Lombardi’s first year as coach). Lombardi had questioned Starr’s mental toughness and confidence, along with perceived physical limitations. It took nearly two full years, but after Starr was beaten and battered by George Halas’s Chicago Bears in 1961, stayed in the game, and led Green Bay to a 24-0 victory, the team, and Lombardi, had confidence in their field general. In the end, Lombardi called Starr the “smartest quarterback I ever saw.”

Those smarts mattered, as Starr called the plays while leading Green Bay (then the norm around the NFL). The most famous such example happened in the iconic Ice Bowl. Down 17-14 to the Dallas Cowboys, with just 16 seconds remaining, on the two-yard line, and temperatures by then at -20, Starr spoke with Lombardi on the sideline. He suggested a basic wedge play, but rather than hand off to to Chuck Mercein, Starr planned on running it in himself. Having enough of the bitter cold weather, coach Lombardi said, “Then do it, and let’s get the hell out of here!” The quarterback sneak play worked and the Packers went on to beat the Cowboys 21-17. It remains one of the keystone plays in the history of the league.

All told, Starr-led teams were 9-1 in the postseason. “There’s nobody who could put a team in a better position with what Vince wanted to do,” the former Packers running back Paul Hornung said of Starr in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2013. “He gave him control of the team. He gave him authority to do whatever he wanted to do. And that’s pretty strong.”

But for all his on-field accomplishments, Starr stands out just as much for being the consummate gentleman. He remains beloved by the organization and generations of players, and is talked about in only the most reverent and respectful terms by his teammates. Starr was married to his wife, Cherry, for over 60 years, and had two sons (one of whom died by overdose). He started the Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London, Wisconsin, which helps at-risk boys throughout the state, and helped start the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation raising funds for cancer research and care in honor of the his late coach. He and Cherry later launched the Starr Children’s Fund within the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation to continue their legacy of work supporting pediatric cancer research and care. He did this although by comparison to today’s players, salaries were extremely modest in Starr’s time. Perhaps no one said it better than the Ol’ Sexter himself:

So it is that Starr is synonymous with winning, like Joe Montana after him, and with being a good man. RIPIP.