The Bart Starr interview
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 25, 2009
It's championship time in the NFL. And few names in football resonate with more resounding championship authority than Packers Hall of Fame quarterback and Cold, Hard Football Facts favorite Bart Starr.
When we started Cold, Hard Football Facts.com a few years back, our take on Starr reflected the conventional wisdom about him: a nice little caretaker quarterback who simply benefitted from great talent around him.
But as we dove deeper into the game, and studied the numbers more intently, a curious pattern in the data – the important data, the data that actually matters, the Cold, Hard Football Facts – began to emerge. In fact, there was Starr's name everywhere we turned.
He won the most titles (five), he boasted the best postseason record (9-1), and produced the highest postseason passer rating (104.8). We soon realized that these were not coincidences, that the dynastic Packers may have made Starr (as reputation would indicate) but that Starr also made the dynastic Packers (as Cold, Hard Football Fact would indicate).
The data far surpassed the humble nature of the Starr reputation.
And then there were others: We looked at passer rating leaders, and there was Starr – not Unitas or Jurgensen or Tittle – atop the leaderboard five times in the 1960s. We looked at all-time yard per attempt leaders and, lo and behold, there was Starr. It turns out he's among the most prolific passers who have ever played the game – at least when you look at him through the efficiency figures that we so value, and not at the volume figures that seem to get a rise out of the misguided pigskin "pundits" and the poor fantasy fans consumed by imaginary fake football.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts, as they so often do, were screaming to be heard. So it is that last year about this time, when we compiled our list of the greatest quarterbacks in history, that Starr's name was etched in cyber-granite atop the list.
It was probably the first and only QB compilation in history that listed Starr at No. 1. Of course, as we stated definitively at the time, only our list was correct and nobody has been able to refute it. (A new list, by the way, will be amended after the Super Bowl).
We got tons of feedback and publicity from the piece, especially in Wisconsin. Some months later, we got an email from Starr's son, Bart Jr.
"Thanks for such a thorough and well written summary," he wrote.
One thing led to another, and Starr was kind enough to carve time out of his schedule for an interview with us.
It was a pretty casual conversation. In fact, if you're looking for a hard-hitting, controversial interview, we're sorry to disappoint you. But we're sure there are plenty of hatchet men out there who can do it for you.
As far as the evidence tells us, there's not a lot to criticize. We just wanted to hear things in his words, about the view of accomplishment that continue to stand the test of time, through the eyes of the guy who orchestrated them from the limited protection of a single steel bar.
Along the way, we may have uncovered the reason why history, in the judgment of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, slights the legacy of Starr: he's an extraordinarily humble and grateful man who deflected every bit of praise thrown his way and attributed every accomplishment to others. It seems, in other words, that Starr is a better passer than a receiver.
For example, he repeatedly referenced Green Bay's great running game, even though CHFF readers know that the greatness of the Packers running game is vastly overstated, especially in the later years of the 1960s dynasty.
But here's another way of looking at it: maybe that humility and that desire to give the credit to others is simply further confirmation of what the Cold, Hard Football Facts have already told us: that Starr's the best. Selfish leaders don't share the credit. Selfish quarterbacks, quite frankly, don't win a ring for every finger.
Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
His life these days (Starr turned 75 on Jan. 9) ...
I'm cutting back actually, trying to spend more time with wife of 55 years (Cherry). She's the best teammate I've ever had. I met her in high school, we were married after sophomore year in college (Alabama). One reason I'm so indebted to her is that back then you lost your scholarship benefits when you got married, so she really worked to put me through school. She's a wonderful lady.
We live in Birmingham, Alabama today. I had the honor of living in Green Bay for 31 years. My business had taken us to Arizona in the late 1980s. I lost my son when I was living out there (Bret Starr died in 1988, reportedly of complications associated with cocaine addiction). We returned here to Birmingham afterward so we could be with Bart Jr.
I was in the healthcare real estate business. I still do consulting work with one of my former partners, but spend more time with my charitable efforts.
I had had the honor of founding a boys' organization more than 40 years ago (Rawhide Boys Ranch). I've been very privileged to work with them. I was a co-founder with partners (John and Jan Gillespie) who lived in Appleton, Wisconsin. I was honored to be invited by them to be a part of this start up.
It's grown into something very wonderful. The boys are from different backgrounds. They've had troubles in their families, all kinds of setbacks. Some were that close to going away to jail. So we've been able to help rehabilitate them and change their lives. It's so rewarding and so much fun.
Thousands of boys have come through and I'm pleased and honored that current executive director John Solberg has done a fabulous job. It's incredible what he's done with his staff and associates.
About players today ...
NFL players do a lot for their community. We don't hear enough today about the good players out there. You hear about the jackasses and the misfits. But the good ones still outnumber the bad ones. I'm still a part of the Athletes in Action effort (a Christian missionary run by athletes). Each year at Super Bowl time, we have a breakfast that honors a player who excelled off the field as well as on.
(Starr did not say this, but they honor an NFLer each year with the Bart Starr Award, given for "outstanding character." LaDainian Tomlinson, Tony Dungy and Derrick Brooks are recent winners. Here's a video from LT's teary-eyed ceremony last year.)
Derrick Brooks, the linebacker with the Buccaneers, is very, very impressive. Among other things, he takes kids to Africa to see how people live over there, which I think helps kids appreciate what they have here a bit more.
His greatest accomplishment ...
We're very proud of winning the three straight championships. I wear my second Super Bowl championship ring (which the Packers won after winning their third straight NFL championship) and when Coach Lombardi presented it to us he noted that some of us were lucky enough to have a number of rings, but that he'd wear this one.
'Nobody's ever done this,' he said, 'and I don't think anyone else will do it.' So that's why I wear that ring, because of what it means to everybody.
I wear it everyday. I wear it out of tribute to him, the memories of a great team and for the memory of the great accomplishments that we were a part of. Mostly it has to do with my memories of the team.
The loss of HOF running back Jim Taylor, on the eve of the team's effort to win a third straight championship ...
It was a tough loss, no question about it. But I think if you have the proper attitude, you can control circumstances around you. We control that attitude. We can work past those problems. I think it's one of those things you learn in football that you can apply to any business. The business will not be as good if you don't control the proper attitude and let issues control you. It's just a personal opinion. We've all seen it in different fields at different times, where people don't have the right attitude and everybody pays the price for it. So I think we were able to overcome a lot of circumstances that might have torn apart lesser teams.
On his childhood ...
I grew up in a military family. My father was a great leader and I benefitted from that. He was in the Army but transferred to the Air Force. He was over in the Pacific Campaign (during World War II).
The lessons my mother and father taught me, the discipline, it stays with you for a lifetime. You think later of how fortunate you were to be at a certain place and time and absorb those lessons he was teaching. You can't help but be pleased and grateful that you were in an atmosphere like that.
I was raised in a tough, strict environment. So maybe I was equipped to handle it (stern tactics) when Coach Lombardi came along.
On Vince Lombardi ...
He didn't have any negatives from my perspective. The man was so fundamentally strong and committed his life to the right priorities. It was God, family and then the others ... and we were the others. But he wanted us to live our lives that way, too. It was a joy to work with him. He was very, very bright, extremely committed and uniquely well organized.
Until he came, I was just one of the QBs there. We were being rotated and moved around.
It was my turn in a game, we had been together for a while and had rallied in a game and had won. From then on I was the starting QB. I think for him it was matter of him finding out who was going to be a leader.
And I can't say what he might have seen. But I was highly motivated to want to continue to improve and get and opportunity to show him. He gave us an opportunity and we were able to capitalize on it. I feel very fortunate to have him come along. He was everything I would have hoped for. A marvelous, marvelous teacher, coach and leader. So when you have someone like that, it's very inspiring.
I could hardly wait to go from one meeting to the next. He was such a great teacher and motivator. All of us who had the pleasure to play for him were richly blessed. I'll always be so grateful for those experiences.
On John Unitas-Bart Starr rivalry in the '60s ...
I didn't have a rival. I never looked at it like that with Unitas. We were just so honored to be competing against the Colts. Over the years, we became good friends. Bart Jr. and John Jr. and John and I played golf together. It was an honor to get to know him off the field, and an honor to compete against the greatest QB in the league at the time. Early on he was ahead of us in the number of championships (the Colts won titles in 1958 and 1959, Starr's Packers won their first in 1961), so we had some catching up to do.
On his greatest memory ...
I think we should always go back to the Ice Bowl, because of what was at stake at the time. We knew what we had the opportunity to accomplish (first team to win three straight championships) and that, over time, became the greatest game for us because of what was at stake. Roll in the weather, and it was a fabulous experience that I'll always remember.
I think we would be, we wouldn't be complete, if we didn't just begin by paying tribute to the Dallas Cowboys. They played in conditions that were just unbelievably cold. I think people need to recognize how well they played, they deserve a lot of credit. They were able to move the ball on us pretty well, and we couldn't move the ball on them very well until the last drive.
Obviously, the top line that I would note in the game from our perspective is the clutch performance. Or, the very, very strong performance that our team had when so much was on the line. (Starr, for his part, was an ultra-clutch 5 of 5 for 59 of the team's 68 yards on the game-winning drive, while punching the ball in himself for the game-winning score, on a day when the Packers otherwise could do little on offense.)
To go three straight, everybody wants a little extra piece of you. We were facing that all year. We faced a very difficult year. We had some injuries, but I think the guidance, direction and leadership of Lombardi was tantamount. The leadership on that team was superb. Talk to anyone who's in that situation when you're trying to build on something, people really want to get a little something from you. So it made it a little tougher on you.
The game-winning Ice Bowl TD from his perspective ...
The play call was that Chuck Mercein would get the ball. That was our lead play in the game in that situation. We had recognized that the Cowboys had a very strong solid approach on short yardage.
I don't know what they called it, but we labeled it the submarine technique. Their defensive linemen submarined down so well that you couldn't knock them back. But (Cowboys DT) Jethro Pugh was so tall, he couldn't get down as low as the other guys. So we thought we could get under him. We had run that play two other times in the game and got a minimum of two yards each time, so we knew it would work.
But at the end of the game, the ground had grown so hard, hard as this table (he knocks), because we were in the shadowed end of the field. So we ran a couple plays (handoffs) and (our runners) couldn't get back to the line of scrimmage. Everybody kept slipping.
So I asked the linemen if they could get their footing for one play, and then on the sideline I said to coach that there's nothing wrong with the play. I said I can shuffle my feet and slide in. I felt like I was under control and not slipping.
All he said to me was, 'Let's run it and get the hell out of here.' (Laughter on our end.)
So I'm chuckling like you just did, because of his reaction at this incredible moment for our team. But that was the man and that's what he said. So we accomplished what we needed to do. We didn't think about it. We just did it.
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What clicked for him in big games ...
I don't have a good answer. I think where you start, you start with great teammates.
I was richly blessed. I didn't have the talent of some who played before and since. But I was blessed with absolutely the greatest team that performed as a team. I look at that and I'm very grateful and have thought about it numerous times. The first thing that comes to mind is the great players around you. That's what wins championships, great teams.
You need a strong running game and a strong passing game. We had excellent defense. We had all the pieces. So that's how you win.
Go to the first Super Bowl. (Receiver) Max McGee hadn't played much that year. Boyd Dowler goes down early from an injury from a few weeks before. And McGee came in and played like gangbusters. He could have been MVP. I think that underlines what we meant by team. When you have that, you're tough to beat.
On McGee's legendary nightlife ...
It's all true. Everything you heard about him was true. He was so committed and so sharp and a great clutch team player, that you overlooked the other issues. He certainly didn't like curfew. But he was a wonderful teammate.
He and (Paul) Hornung were perfect teammates on the road. Neither liked curfew. But what clutch performers. They were unbelievable.
On Jerry Kramer's Hall of Fame qualifications ...
Jerry Kramer was a great player. But a player who never gets mentioned, and I want to mention him, is our offensive captain Bob Skoronski, our left tackle, my blindside tackle.
I don't think there's an offensive tackle in the Hall of Fame who's better than him. His grades were so close to (right tackle and Hall of Famer) Forrest Gregg's that you couldn't separate the two. I write a letter every year to the Hall of Fame committee. I don't know how they can't put him in.
(Defensive end and Hall of Famer) Willie Davis absolutely deserves everything he's got. But he had a linebacker playing right next to him, David Robinson, who's not in (the HOF) either. I write about him every year, too, and I'm going to continue to do so. Those are two guys who, in my opinion, deserve to be in the Hall of Fame and were critical pieces of our championship teams.
On the decline of the Packers after Lombardi's departure ...
The whole thing starting with him, the fabulous leader that he was, it's hard to put into words what that can mean. Look at any company that's successful, and you'll find that they had great leadership at the top. And we had that every day, in games, in meetings, during practice. It's hard to replace when it's gone.
Would he have liked to play in today's pass-happy NFL ...
No, I don't look at it that way. I was blessed to play with a team with a great running game, and I didn't have the physical talents of some of the passers back then. So that's why I was so blessed.
I wouldn't want to change anything.
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