(Note to patrons: this should have been posted on Off-Topic Tuesday but the muse doesn’t always oblige.)
You are a young boy growing up in 1960s Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers have won five championships in seven years, but by the time you start watching, Vince Lombardi is no longer the coach, and the championship veterans are aging. The first year you can remember, they have a losing season. The next year they’re a little better. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the popular bumper sticker you see all over the state—the one that reads “The Pack Will Be Back!”—is more wish than prediction. Yet hope remains, because the gladiators of the Glory Years still remain: Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Carroll Dale, Boyd Dowler, Forrest Gregg, Dave Robinson, and others.
And Bart Starr. Your first-grade wardrobe includes a yellow jersey-style shirt with his number 15 on it, which your parents bought when you barely knew who Bart Starr was. And when you start watching the games, Bart becomes your favorite Packer.
It might be because he’s the most visible player, the quarterback, the one who gets the ball on every play. The leader, the alpha dog. Or maybe it’s that name. You learn fairly early on that his given name is Bryan Bartlett Starr, and because his middle name matches your last, there’s a connection. But those two snappy syllables, “Bart Starr,” are almost too good to be true. They’re like a name you’d find in a Frank Merriwell story. “Bart Starr” will not be a mountainous defensive lineman or a speedy wide receiver. He has to be a quarterback.
In a movie, “Bart Starr” would be an upright sheriff or a brave fighter pilot. He would be the hero. In the real world of football, he was also the hero, and he becomes mine.
I will respect many athletes over the years, but only one will ever be my hero.
Bart Starr died over the weekend at age 85. It’s nearly 50 years since he last played, but younger fans in Wisconsin know him and what the 1960s Packers accomplished because the Glory Years remain a living presence here, even as the men themselves pass away. On slow afternoons, dudes of a certain age find themselves watching 60s highlights on YouTube. Every year on December 31, we think of 1967, and the impossible story of the Ice Bowl, a game in which those men—Lombardi, Nitschke, Davis, Wood, Dale, Dowler, Gregg, Robinson, Starr, and their teammates—did not merely defeat the Dallas Cowboys but nature itself, did not merely win a football game but were transfigured into gods by the doing of it.
It was Bart Starr who won that game, driving the Packers down the field, seeing the opportunity to run a particular play on the goal line, and then executing it to secure victory as time ran out. If Bart Starr had never played another game after that day, his legend would loom just as large as it does today.
What came after, on the field, was not so glorious. After Super Bowl II (the anti-climax of all anti-climaxes, two weeks after the Ice Bowl), Vince Lombardi retired and less successful seasons followed. Starr himself played through the 1971 season, but was plagued by injuries and age. In 1972, he became a coach, calling the plays from the sidelines as he had done on the field, but only for a year. After two years away from the team, he was hired as the Packers’ head coach and general manager. But the team did not have much success apart from the strike-shortened 1982 season, and he was fired after his ninth season, in 1983.
Bart Starr’s greatness as a player erases our memories of his less-than-greatness as a coach. But his greatness as a player should be eclipsed by the man he was. His record of philanthropy is impressive, but the countless stories of simple human decency that are told about him remind us that whatever good each of us might do for others, there is more we could be doing.
Bart Starr was a great human being. Possibly the best one.