An Appreciation: Bart Starr Part 1

(Painting by Robert Hurst)

Before I had the privilege of meeting Bart Starr, I repeatedly heard the same things from his teammates and others who had met him. “Oh, he’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.” “Bart’s the perfect man.” “Salt of the earth.”

Bart’s one of those rare people that all those good things you hear about him beforehand turn out to be true. I first met him at a Tri-Star autograph show in Houston, hoping to interview him for The Game before the Money. He didn’t have time that day to interview, but gave me a number to reach him at later. He did, however, have time to chat with everyone who wanted to meet him. He granted everyone who wanted to meet him a good amount of time, and was kind and respectful to all. He and I had a pleasant conversation about Wisconsin, the people and the weather there.

I could do a post on how great a quarterback Bart was, the record number of NFL championships, and the rest of his football accolades, and I will in a future post. Today, however, I think it’s important to appreciate Bart Starr the man. The day I met him in Houston I keep thinking, “You know what? He is the nicest guy.

Nice doesn’t always have the best reputation for a compliment, especially in football. More to the point, Bart’s respectful and considerate to all. So much so that you realize it immediately upon meeting him. Like the Dalia Lama of sports, he is present with every person he interacts with.

When Bart survived two strokes and a heart attack recently (how’s that for toughness?), the comments beneath the news articles often noted instances of Bart’s kindness, something he had done for a child or a neighbor. Indeed, he raffled off the Corvette he won as MVP of Super Bowl 1 to raise funds towards establishing a ranch for at-risk youth.

People talk a lot about character and leadership these days. The epitome of such things is Bart Starr. In an age where it’s easy to spot a football star or other celebrity getting in trouble and setting a bad example, Starr continues to be the man he always was and always will be. He looks for ways to assist, ways to lead, ways to give. He’s the classic example of prioritizing what you contribute over the recognition you receive for those contributions.

There’s a reason why Brett Favre postponed his number retirement ceremony in Green Bay so that Bart could attend. When you think about it, that’s pretty incredible. Here’s a man, one of the greatest quarterbacks and largest personalities of his generation, shelving his own party until the man he respects most can attend. That’s respect, and an excellent example how when a man like Starr is so respectful of others, the amount of reverence he himself garners is immense.

Read the stories of 40 NFL legends including Bart Starr in The Game before the Money.

ORDER AN AUTOGRAPHED COPY PLUS BART STARR PRINT BY ARTIST ROBERT HURST FOR $50 HERE (GREAT GIFT IDEA!)

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This Might Surprise You — The NFL’s Coaching Elite (Pt 1)

In “QB Reality – Why Most Teams Stand No Chance,” I pointed out that a small number of quarterbacks own the majority of championship rings. Today I’ll tell you about an even grander elite class – the championship coaches club.

Of the first 30 Super Bowls, only 4 winning coaches won only one Super Bowl. Free Agency seemingly levels that statistic out at first glance — with the next 19 Super Bowls handing the Lombardi award to 11 one-time winners. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll find that very few coaches even make the Big Game, let alone win it.  A total of 49 coaches have coached in the 49 Super Bowls, averaging one compounded appearance per game.

The vast majority of coaches who make a championship game make multiple appearances, or they played for or worked under one of those frequenting Super Bowl Sunday. When I say vast majority, I mean just about every single head coach. The trend dates back to when the Detroit Lions were the Portsmouth Spartans. Sounds crazy? We’ll take a quick look in this post before fully submerging next week.

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Potsy Clark coached the Portsmouth Spartans in the first NFL Championship Game.

Vince Lombardi’s name symbolizes championship football. He won 5 championships in 7 years with the Green Bay Packers, leading them to 6 championship games in 8 years. Lombardi didn’t just pop out of nowhere to land the Packers in championship games. Lombardi previously served as an assistant on the New York Giants, who won the NFL Championship in 1956, and made the NFL Championship Game in 1958.

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Lombardi on top of the world with Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg.

The Giants head coach was Jim Lee Howell, who won the NFL championship as a player in 1938 under the great Steve Owen. Owen’s Giants earned 7 NFL Championship Game appearances, Howell’s 3. Owen’s playing career also included a title with the 1927 Giants. Tracing Lombardi’s championship bloodlines date back to the league’s first decade. Tom Landry’s do likewise,  serving with Lombardi on the same Giants coaching staff.

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Lombardi and Landry with the Giants.

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Steve Owen with Frank Filchock.

Turns out that nearly every single coach to win an NFL title – or even finish second – meets at least one of three criteria. The phenomenon dates back to the 1920s. In our next post we’ll point out the criteria, go over NFL champions by decade, and demonstrate the resilient stranglehold a superior set of coaches have on NFL title games.

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Paul Brown.

 

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Chuck Noll.

 

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Don Shula.

READ THE INSIDE STORIES OF SUPER BOWLS AND NFL CHAMPIONSHIPS FROM THE MEN WHO PLAYED THE GAME.

THE GAME BEFORE THE MONEY: VOICES OF THE MEN WHO BUILT THE NFL

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“Entertaining and Engrossing.” — Library Journal

A Brief History of — The NFL Draft

Enormous media coverage surrounds today’s NFL draft. It wasn’t always that way. Bob Griese told us he didn’t know the draft had taken place – even though he was the fourth-overall pick. Players from The Game before the Money era often learned their pro football destinations through newspapers, college coaches, and friends. It apparently wasn’t until the 1970s that teams called players during the draft.

YEARS BEFORE THE DRAFT

Chaos often surrounded acquiring talent before the draft existed. Don Hutson signed with both the Green Bay Packers and the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers after his college career at Alabama ended. NFL President Joe Carr awarded Hutson to the Packers since the Packers mailed their contract just a few minutes before the Dodgers. Hutson helped lead the Packers to 3 NFL titles and still holds NFL receiving records 8 decades later.

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Don Hutson.

The Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers both highly desired Minnesota All-American Stan Kostka in 1935. Kostka deftly fueled a bidding war, signing a sparkling $5,000 contract with Brooklyn. Philadelphia owner Bert Bell didn’t like being outbid, and scoffed at a rookie’s salary rivaling superstar Bronko Nagurski’s. Bell proposed a player draft to keep rookie salaries down, and to give lower-tier teams a better chance at top-tier talent.

Bell’s draft proposal passed, and the NFL held its first draft in 1936. The Eagles selected Heisman winner Jay Berwanger, who opted for a higher salary in foam-rubber sales. The Boston (now Washington) Redskins selected Riley Smith.

The draft succeeded in keeping salaries down. Smith signed for $250/game, far below Kostka’s deal. The draft, however, failed to balance out talent. The Packers, Giants, and Bears won 7 out of the last 9 championships before the draft, and also won 7 out of the first 9 championships after the draft’s initiation. Curly Lambeau apparently scouted players at bowl games, as Nolan Luhn and Bob Kahler told us he approached them after the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl, respectively. Other teams didn’t scout as well, some drafting ineligible players who were still in college.

The first NFL draft netted 4 Hall of Famers – Wayne Millner, Tuffy Leemans, Dan Fortmann, and Joe Stydahar. Brooklyn selected coaching icon Paul “Bear” Bryant in the fourth round.

NFL DRAFTS AFRICAN AMERICAN ATHLETES

Pro football integrated in 1946, with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode playing for the Los Angeles Rams, and Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley suiting up for the Cleveland Browns of the AAFC. They all, however, signed as undrafted free agents. The Chicago Bears made George Taliaferro the first African American to be drafted in 1949. “I thought it was the most incredible thing that could happen,” Taliaferro said when interviewing for The Game before the Money.

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George Taliaferro.

Taliaferro signed with the AAFC’s Los Angeles Dons before the NFL draft, however, and honored that contract. He earned AAFC Rookie of the Year honors. The NFL later held a dispersal draft of AAFC players after the AAFC’s demise, and Taliaferro was the second-overall pick. The Lions snatched future Hall of Famer Lou Creekmur in the dispersal draft.

 

THE BONUS PICK

The NFL instituted the “Bonus Pick” in 1947. Paul Hornung explains in The Game before the Money: “First pick of the draft in those days was a bonus pick. Each team put their name in a hat, and you drew them out. Four­teen teams; here comes the bonus pick. After that the draft starts in predetermined order: 1, 2, 3, 4. Next year, the thir­teen remaining teams were eligible for the bonus pick.”

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“The Golden Boy” at Notre Dame.

Congress investigated the NFL, among other pro sports leagues, for antitrust violations in the 1950s. Congress declared the “Bonus Pick” too close to a lottery and suggested the NFL halt the practice. The NFL did so after the 1958 draft, conveniently after each team had selected one “Bonus Pick.”

The Congressional pressure demonstrates societal changes. What was unacceptable in 1958 is now celebrated as part of today’s NBA draft. Teams covet “Lottery Picks” and sports fans eagerly watch the “NBA Draft Lottery.”

AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE EFFECTS

The American Football League held their first draft in 1960. Some players were drafted by both leagues, and the two leagues warred over players.

Teams used scouts as “babysitters” to protect their draft interests. The babysitters would travel to a prospective draft pick’s college, wine and dine them, and do their best to keep the athlete from signing with the rival league. Walt Garrison said a Rams scout took him and his friends out to dinner, bought him a pair of boots, and then stayed in a hotel room with him during the NFL draft. The scout left the instant the Cowboys beat the Rams in drafting Garrison.

Tony Lorick signed with the Baltimore Colts, although the Colts hesitated in drafting him. The Colts heard a rumor that Lorick had already signed with the Oakland Raiders as their first-round pick. Unsurprisingly, Raiders owner Al Davis proved to be the source of the rumor.

Davis wouldn’t lose out on Fred Biletnikoff the next year, however. He signed Biletnikoff on the field at the Gator Bowl, national television cameras all around. Fred’s Florida State team had just defeated Oklahoma. It wasn’t the first time Davis signed a Hall of Famer on the field. He signed Arkansas standout Lance Alworth to a contract beneath the goal posts following the 1962 Sugar Bowl.

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Biletnikoff flying high in the Gator Bowl.

The shenanigans surrounding Chiefs legend Otis Taylor depict the lengths babysitters would go to protect draft interests. A group of NFL scouts took Taylor and several other draft prospects to a motel in Richardson, Texas, checked in under assumed names, and hoped to keep the draft picks there to keep them from signing with the AFL. A Chiefs scout close to the Taylor family learned Taylor’s whereabouts, and tried to sneak into the hotel as a journalist, using a camera as part of his disguise. An NFL scout recognized the Chiefs scout, and subsequently called police reporting the Chiefs scout as a suspicious person. Despite threats from the police, the Chiefs scout snuck Taylor out of the NFL scouts’ motel at 3:30 in the morning, promising a new Ford Thunderbird.

The battles changed the course of destiny for teams. Imagine Taylor playing alongside Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald, catching passes from Eagles quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Picture Hall of Famer Ron Mix next to Jim Parker on the Baltimore Colts offensive line. The Bills won back-to-back AFL titles after losing Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Paul Warfield to the NFL. Would the championship run have lasted longer and into the Super Bowl era?

The two drafts provided leverage to rookies drafted in both leagues. Some players, like Joe Namath, Donny Anderson, and Jim Grabowski, negotiated huge contracts. Namath famously collected over $400,000, Anderson scored $600,000.

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Namath and the Bear.

Not all players based decisions on money. Garrison said he wanted to stay close to his Texas roots, and preferred the Dallas Cowboys to the Kansas City Chiefs. Eller enjoyed Minnesota, and was happy to sign with the Vikings rather than create a bidding war between Minnesota and Buffalo.

The two leagues merged in 1966. Grappling over draft picks stood as a large contributing cause.

SUMMARY

The draft now gets dissected and diced in ways Bert Bell would have never imagined. The NFL Combine tests prospects where a mere index card asking for player stats in the 50s and 60s served the same purpose. Bob Griese learned the Dolphins drafted him when an assistant coach off-handedly mentioned it while crossing paths in the hallway. Now players sit by the phone with their agents and friends, watching the draft unfold on ESPN.

Some teams built their dynasties and legends around drafts. The Steelers 1974 draft produced Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster – all Hall of Famers. The Packers scored Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr and Bob Skoronski in 1956, then Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, and Jerry Kramer in 1958. The Bears netted Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus with back-to-back first round picks in 1965. Dallas selected Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes, and Mel Renfro in 1964.

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Staubach quarterbacking the Navy Midshipmen.

Drafts remembered for being especially rich include the 1983 draft. Known for producing legendary quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly in the first round, Hall of Famers Bruce Matthews, Darrell Green, Eric Dickerson and Richard Dent also entered the league. The 1957 draft launched 9 Hall of Famers, including 4  of the first 8 picks. The 1964 draft contained a record 10 Hall of Famers. Many declare the 1989 draft the best modern draft. Four of the first five picks – Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders – all found their way to Canton.

 

READ THE NFL DRAFT STORIES OF NFL LEGENDS IN THE GAME BEFORE THE MONEY

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Legendary Insights — An Afternoon with Cotton Davidson

 

Saturday December 6th was a great day for fans at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame’s Lone Star Tailgate preceding the Baylor/Kansas State game at nearby McLane Stadium. Besides hearing live music and downing tasty barbeque, fans were treated to an opportunity to meet Baylor and NFL legend Cotton Davidson.

Cotton graciously greeted fans, including the rival Kansas State fans who sauntered in. He spun stories of his outstanding 12-year pro football career. Originally a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Colts in 1954, Cotton lost his opportunity to be the Colts franchise quarterback before the 1955 season when the U.S. Army drafted him. Cotton claimed he didn’t do much in the service other than play football and baseball.

While Cotton marshalled Uncle Sam’s football squads, the Colts signed Johnny Unitas. Before Cotton returned to the Colts, Unitas cemented himself as a NFL star. Can you imagine Andrew Luck or Johnny Manziel drafted into military duty while the Colts and Browns found superstar quarterbacks, closing down their opportunities?

Such was the scenario between Davidson and Unitas. Cotton and Johnny U became roommates and good friends, and Cotton speaks nothing but praise for Unitas both as a quarterback and a person.

Lamar Hunt signed Cotton in 1960 to quarterback Hunt’s new startup – the Dallas Texans of the American Football League. Cotton played two seasons in Dallas before being traded to the Oakland Raiders. He and Tom Flores split time as the Raiders starting quarterback for several seasons, Cotton’s career came to a close in training camp entering the 1968 season, as a teammate injured Cotton’s shoulder. The Raiders subsequently traded for Daryle Lamonica, and Cotton’s career came to a close.

Many at Saturday’s event greeted Cotton as, “Coach.” Cotton served as an assistant under Baylor coaching icon Grant Taeff. Other attendees stated that their father or gra.ndfather played with Cotton.   The warm personal nature of those interactions underscores the fact that many of football’s best elements happen off the field. As Walt Garrison states at the beginning of The Game Before the Money, “When you leave, you got your friends and your memories. That’s it.”

An added surprise to Saturday’s fun was the presence of Louie Kelcher’s junior high school football coach. He spun a yarn about teaching Kelcher the importance of pressing on and refusing to quit. “Quit’s the worst word in the English language,” he said. He also noted that if you quit once, you’re in danger of turning quitting into a habit.

On Thursday, December 11, we were in Houston, Texas with Oiler greats Elvin Bethea and Garland Boyette. They traded stories about the old days and signed copies of The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL. We’ll recall that event in our next post.

NOTE: You can read both Cotton Davidson‘s and Louie Kelcher‘s stories, along with those of 40 NFL legends in The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL. AVAILABLE HERE

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Legendary Insights — An Evening with Doug English

An excited crowd of football fans congregated at BookPeople bookstore in Austin, Texas on November 13, 2014, celebrating the release of The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, and relishing a chance to meet NFL All-Pro and College Football Hall of Fame inductee Doug English. English shared tremendous stories about his days at the University of Texas and his outstanding 10-year career with the Detroit Lions. Fans were given an opportunity to ask Doug questions, and a chance to purchase a copy of The Game before the Money autographed by English and author Jackson Michael (that’s me).

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About 75 people turned out for the signing at BookPeople in Austin, TX

COLLEGE CAREER

English arrived at Texas in 1971, immediately after the Longhorns were voted national champions in back-to-back seasons. When asked what he learned from legendary Texas head coach Darrell Royal, English recalled a time that Royal pulled him aside to discuss Doug’s on-field personality.

“Doug, you’re a nice guy,” Royal said. “You know what happens to nice guys? Not a damn thing.”

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English played meaner and earned All-American honors. His senior year, the Longhorns welcomed a freshman from Tyler, Texas, named Earl Campbell. “Coach Royal was looking for a way to get Earl on the field, and put him on the punt block team. He basically told Earl to line up over the ball and follow it.”

Campbell was so quick, “he nearly beat the ball to the punter” in a game against Arkansas. The ball squirted loose, and English scooped it up. “I then took it all the way – about three steps,” Doug amusingly stated about his only career touchdown. I pointed out that very few people could claim Earl Campbell helped get them into the end zone.

Texas Longhorn tradition dictated that English provide his teammates with a keg of beer on the day of the 1975 NFL Draft, for a “draft” party on Draft Day. English remembered waiting and waiting, disappointed that he’d been passed up for the first several rounds. A few friends prank called him, claiming to be Tom Landry or Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys. After several hours, Doug’s attorney finally got a hold of him to relay the news that the Detroit Lions selected Doug in the second round.

PRO CAREER WITH THE DETROIT LIONS “SILVER RUSH”

The audience asked several questions about Doug’s NFL experience. When asked who the toughest running back to tackle was, Doug noted how Walter Payton kept pushing his legs until after you pinned him all the way to the ground. Conversely, John Riggins fought hard for the first five yards, but often eased up afterward.

Doug also addressed the touchy subject of steroids when asked. He stated that certain teams promoted a steroid culture. He recalled a friend being traded from the Lions, and later telling Doug about a knock on his door during training camp. The rest of the offensive line brought in vials of liquid, instructing their new teammate to take four on Monday, three on Tuesday, etc. Doug said steroid users could be easily identified by “big muscles and pimples.” He also doubted their necessity in today’s era of advanced training knowledge and athletes starting to train at a young age.

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Al Baker (aka Bubba Baker) and Doug being honored in Detroit

Doug then told the story of his final NFL game – a contest against the Bears at Soldier Field. He suffered a spinal injury that doctors said probably would have paralyzed him had he stayed in the game like he wished. Doug lauded the Ford family, owners of the Lions, for providing him with a breakthrough surgery for the time which allows him to live pain-free from the incident. The fact the surgery wasn’t available to most patients until many years later encouraged English to head the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation.

Doug concluded by expressing his feeling that America perhaps places too high of an importance on football and its athletes. He sees the only important part of football as making a difference off the field. He remembered being exhausted after a game, and after signing dozens of autographs, he finally made his way toward the locker room. A child asked him for one more autograph. While signing, Doug asked the child if he made good grades.  Doug later received a letter from the child’s mother stating the boy’s school performance greatly improved after meeting Doug. “It took me 15 seconds to make a difference,” English said.

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Doug English, Tommy Richard and me

 

SUMMARY

The family members of two other players who interviewed for The Game before the Money were on hand, making the night extra special. The daughter of Tony Lorick and the granddaughter of Nolan Luhn both took part in the evening. Tony and Nolan have sadly both passed away and are noted in our “In Memoriam” section. Tony played fullback for the Baltimore Colts, sharing the huddle with Hall of Famers John Mackey, Johnny Unitas, Jim Parker, and Raymond Berry. Nolan played end opposite Don Hutson in Hutson’s final season. Packers founder Curly Lambeau coached Nolan in Green Bay.

Two other The Game before the Money events are scheduled – one with Baylor star quarterback and 1961 AFL All-Star Game MVP Cotton Davidson in Waco, Texas, and another with Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea and Houston Oiler and Grambling legend Garland Boyette in Houston. More information can be found on our “Events” page. We hope to see you.

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From left to right: Me, my wife Lisa Jackson, Doug and his wife, Claire

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Good friends, Robyn and Karl, in line for the signing!

 

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Joann Knox was first in line.

Earlier that day, I interviewed on Good Day Austin on KTBC Fox 7.

 

MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

We’d like to thank Saint Arnold Brewing Company for providing amazing craft beer, and Z Tejas for providing delicious appetizers.