Like many kids growing up in Wisconsin and around the country in the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers were the team that I closely and religiously followed when I watched NFL football.
And Bart Starr was the player on the Packers I idolized most.
For me, it was Starr in football and Hank Aaron in baseball, as my dad took me to see Aaron play over two dozen times at County Stadium when he was a member of the Milwaukee Braves.
My dad would also take me to see the Packers, as Green Bay used to play three games per season in Milwaukee while I was growing up.
It was a special time.
When I wasn’t at games, my dad would educate me about the Packers and Braves, mostly at the dinner table.
Dad talked about the history of those great franchises as well. When talking about the Packers, he would talk to me about Curly Lambeau, Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell and Don Hutson. He also talked to me about the tough times for the Packers in the 1950s before Vince Lombardi arrived.
But nothing perked my interest more than when dad talked about Starr.
That’s what happens when a quarterback leads a NFL team to multiple championships like Starr did while I was getting my upbringing.
I was only four years old in 1961 when the Packers won their first NFL championship under Lombardi with Starr leading the team at QB. My memory is a bit faint regarding that team.
My recollection was better in 1962, as that was the year I went to kindergarten, plus I’ll always remember the anxiety at our house during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So when the Packers behind Starr won the title again in ’62, my reflection about that was more in focus.
But when the Packers won three straight NFL titles, which included the first two Super Bowls from 1965 through 1967, my memory is as clear as a bell. Especially about the way Starr played in those championship games.
Starr was the MVP of both Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II, plus is the highest-rated quarterback in NFL postseason history with a 104.8 mark.
Starr led the Packers to a 9-1 record in ten postseason games. Starr threw 15 touchdown passes versus just three picks for 1,753 yards in those 10 games, seven of which were championship victories.
No. 15 wasn’t bad in the regular season either, as he led the Packers to a 94-57-6 record in the games he started. Starr also won three passing titles and was the NFL MVP in 1966.
Overall, Starr threw 152 touchdown passes versus 138 interceptions for 24,718 yards in his career. All of that led to Starr being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, when he was part of the same class with his former teammate, Forrest Gregg.
It wasn’t so easy for Starr when he first came to Green Bay out of the University of Alabama when he was selected in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL draft (there were 30 rounds back then).
As Jerry Kramer told me when he played with Starr early in his career, “Bart was like methane. He was colorless, tasteless, odorless and virtually invisible. I don’t remember anything he said or anything he did.”
If one looks back at the 1958 season, which was Kramer’s rookie year with the Packers, one can see why No. 64 did not have a distinct memory of No. 15. The Packers were 1-10-1 that season under head coach Ray “Scooter” McLean. Starr started seven games that season and was 0-6-1 in those games.
For the season, Starr threw just three touchdown passes versus 12 interceptions for 875 yards. Starr’s passer rating was just 41.2.
In 1959, Vince Lombardi was brought in to become the new head coach of the Packers. Starr’s performance at quarterback in 1958 didn’t exactly excite Lombardi, so he traded for Lamar McHan of the Chicago Cardinals.
Over the next two years, both Starr and McHan received significant playing time at starting quarterback. McHan started 11 games, while Starr started 13.
By the middle of the 1960 season, Starr became the full-time starter at quarterback. Led by Starr, the Packers won their last three games of the season and Green Bay won the Western Conference title.
Kramer mentioned an incident which occurred around this time which showed that Starr was the clear leader for the Packers. “We were playing the Chicago Bears,” Kramer said. “Bill George was their middle linebacker at the time. On a deep pass attempt, George thought he would try to intimidate Bart.
“Bill took about a five-yard run and he gave Bart a forearm right in the mouth. George timed it perfectly and put Bart right on his behind. He also cut Bart badly, from his lip all the way to his nose. After that, George said, ‘That ought to take care of you Starr, you pu**y.’ Bart snapped right back at George and said, ‘F— you, Bill George, we’re coming after you.’
“My jaw dropped after that exchange, as I was shocked. Meanwhile Bart was bleeding profusely. I told Bart that he better go to the sideline and get sewn up. Bart replied, ‘Shut up and get in the huddle.’
“Bart took us down the field in seven or eight plays and we scored. That series of plays really solidified Bart as our leader and we never looked back.”
Indeed, the Packers with Starr as their leader, never looked back and won five NFL championships, plus the first two Super Bowls along the way.
I was able to have my first personal experience with Starr in 1980, when I was an intern at WTMJ, Channel 4 in Milwaukee. My main duties at that time were to cover the Milwaukee Brewers, but I also went to Green Bay for training camp a couple of times when Starr was then the head coach, plus covered a preseason game in Milwaukee when the Packers played the Baltimore Colts.
The game against the Colts was abysmal from the standpoint of the Packers, as the Packers had barely 100 yards of total offense, as they lost 17-3.
Starr had his usual postgame press conference after that game, but unfortunately for me and WTMJ, our cameraman didn’t make it down in time for Bart’s presser. However, we were able to talk the PR guy of the Packers into letting Starr give me a one-on-one interview, seeing as WTMJ was the flagship station of the Packers radio network.
The interview happened just as Starr was about to get on the team bus and head back to Green Bay. He had just finished shaving when he approached me about doing the interview. I saw that during Starr’s press conference that he was none too happy about the way the Packers performed that night.
I was expecting short and curt answers in the interview. Instead, Starr was as classy and as courteous as one could be during our question and answer session. That friendly encounter with Starr emboldened all the other early impressions I had of him.
After dabbling in the media for a while after college, I began a career in sales in which I worked at places like Xerox. But even then, I longed to get back into the media, at least in terms of writing.
In 2002, I started writing for Packer Report, which then led to other opportunities like Bleacher Report and now my own web site.
Because of that, I have been able to gain access to a number of Lombardi-era Packers, most notably Jerry Kramer. I have written over 100 articles about Kramer in one form or another, but I have also written about other teammates of No. 64.
Starr is definitely one. As is Bart’s very close friend Zeke Bratkowski, who I have talked to on many occasions. Others include Paul Hornung, Boyd Dowler, Willie Davis, Donny Anderson, Dave Robinson, Don Horn, Herb Adderley, Willie Wood, Chuck Mercein, Carroll Dale, Doug Hart and Bob Hyland.
I have also written about players who have passed on like Ray Nitschke, Jim Taylor, Henry Jordan, Emlen Tunnell, Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo, Bob Skoronski, Max McGee, Fuzzy Thurston, Gale Gillingham, Ron Kramer, Dan Currie, Lee Roy Caffey, Tommy Joe Crutcher and Travis Williams.
I attempted to talk with Starr over that time, but I never did get the opportunity. Then in 2014, Starr was debilitated in September of that year by two strokes and a heart attack. But after Starr received stem cell treatment, No. 15 made remarkable progress. Starr was once again able to speak and also to walk, after being confined to a wheelchair due to the effects of the stroke.
That procedure and rehabilitation allowed Starr to travel from Alabama to Wisconsin to honor Brett Favre on Thanksgiving night at Lambeau Field in 2015.
When Starr made his appearance at halftime of the game between the Bears and the Packers, it was a very emotional setting, especially knowing what Starr had overcome to just to be in Green Bay.
Kramer talked about that emotion at the time.
“The thing about that setting at Lambeau on Thanksgiving that made my heart go pitty-pat, was when Bart got out of the cart to say hello to Brett,” Kramer said. “And he said, ‘Hey Mister. How are you doing, Brett?’
“That term Mister, was what Coach Lombardi you to say when he wanted to chew our ass. As in, “Mister, what in the hell are you doing?’ In the last 10 years or so, Bart has adopted that Mister term as a greeting.
“To me, hearing him say that to Brett, told me that not only was his mind working, but his memory was working as well. That really got me pretty emotional.”
It also got me very emotional. My dad had passed away earlier in 2015 and my mind raced to the thoughts about all the stories dad had told me about the Packers that night. Plus, my dad, like Starr, was struggling with his mobility at the end of his life. When I saw Bart that Thanksgiving night, I immediately thought of my dad and starting sobbing.
But going ahead to 2017, as Kramer was a senior nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I was able to talk to Bart Starr Jr. to talk about the perception by some that his dad did not fully endorse Kramer for a place in Canton.
Bart Jr. said that his dad wholeheartedly endorsed Kramer for a place among the best of the best in pro football history. I wrote a story about our conversation and I believe that it played a key factor in Jerry getting his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
You have often heard that God talks to people in strange ways. I believe that happened to me over the past couple of days. Yesterday, because NFL Network was running it’s great series called America’s Game about Super Bowl champions, I re-posted three stories that I had written about the 1967 Packers on Facebook.
Starr obviously played a key role in each of those articles. I had no idea regarding the health status of Bart when I put those pieces out there.
Then today, because I had taped the 1966 and 1967 America’s Game about the Packers on DVR, I was watching the ’67 special when I heard the news of Bart’s passing. The news hit me hard.
But my sadness can’t compare with those of his family, friends and former teammates. When I talked to Kramer earlier today about Bart’s passing, one word comes to mind thinking about how Jerry felt while we conversed…heartbroken.
The same holds true to so many others, but especially Bratkowski, who was without a doubt Starr’s closest friend in the world. Besides playing with Starr for several years with the Packers, Zeke also coached under Starr for a number of years. They, along with their wives, were often in each other’s company.
I want to end this story by sending my most sincere condolences to the entire Starr family. Especially Cherry and Bart Jr.
Bart Sr. is now with Bret Starr, his youngest son who passed away in 1988.
Just know this, Bart Starr was not only a champion on the field, but also one off the field.
The on-the-field distinctions are there for all to see. No. 15 had a backbone of steel when it came to overcoming any adversity he faced as a professional football player. That perseverance led to five NFL titles in seven years.
The off-the-field behavior is there to easily find by talking to anyone who ever encountered Starr.
They will use words like kind, cordial and humble to describe the man named Bryan Bartlett Starr.