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Bart Starr – Green Bay Packers Legendary Quarterback

Painting by Robert Hurst

Bart Starr was the man who was Vince Lombardi’s quarterback. Starr played his entire NFL career with the Green Bay Packers. He scored the winning touchdown in the 1967 NFL Championship Game, a game most often referred to as the Ice Bowl. He led the Packers to five NFL championships. The Packers retired jersey number 15 in his honor. Bart Starr coached the Packers for nine seasons after his playing career ended.

Bart Starr’s Hometown and Childhood

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Bart Starr grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. He started playing football in the ninth grade.

Bart and his family endured the loss of his younger brother to tetanus when Bart was 13 years old.

Starr led Sidney Lanier High School to a state high school football championship. His high school team once travelled to Kentucky to play another high school in Louisville. Bart led his team to victory. Watching from the stands was a young Louisville native who would later become Bart’s teammate with the Green Bay Packers – Paul Hornung. (You can read more about this story in The Game before the Money.)

Bart Starr Alabama College Career

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Bart was offered chances to play football at Kentucky and Alabama. He wanted to play for Bear Bryant at Kentucky but preferred to stay close to his future wife, Cherry, who attended Auburn. Starr therefore chose Alabama.

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) allowed freshmen to play varsity during Bart’s freshman year of 1952, an unusual rule for its time. Bart had a strong freshman year at Alabama. He caught a touchdown pass from running back Bobby Luna on a trick play in a victory over a Maryland Terrapins team that would win the national championship the next year (in 1953). Starr also threw a touchdown pass in the Orange Bowl as the Crimson Tide routed Syracuse.

Bart’s sophomore season continued in upward fashion. He threw for 8 touchdowns as the team’s primary quarterback. He also played safety on defense. He led Alabama to an SEC championship and a berth in the Cotton Bowl. Alabama fell to Rice in the Cotton Bowl, in a game that featured one of the strangest plays in college football history. Alabama finished the season ranked 13 th in the AP Poll.

Bart and Cherry Morton soon married in the spring of 1954. The marriage stood as a bit of a risk in its day, as football coaches were known to pull scholarships from players who were married. Coaches feared players couldn’t focus properly on football after marriage. Starr’s college coach (Harold “Red” Drew) either never found out about the marriage or didn’t care. Either way, Starr retained his scholarship. The couple remained married over 60 years, throughout the remainder of Bart’s life.

Starr missed most of his junior season due to a back injury. The accepted story for decades was that Starr suffered the injury while punting in practice. Starr’s wife later acknowledged that Starr sustained the injury during a hazing incident that was part of a ritual once held by Alabama football players. The back injury not only held back Starr’s junior season but also prevented Bart from serving in the Air Force after failing a physical.

Bart didn’t play much his senior season either. This was due to an entirely different reason – a coaching change. The new Alabama football coached benched most of the seniors before the 1955 season. Starr sat on the bench and watched the Crimson Tide suffer a horrifying 0-10 season.

So Bart Starr — a man who would became one of the winningest quarterbacks in pro football history – held a college football resume that listed a missed junior year to injury that and a senior year riding the bench for a winless team.

How did Bart Starr get noticed the Green Bay Packers? The gist of the story is that the Alabama basketball coach, Johnny Dee, knew the personnel director for the Green Bay Packers, Jack Vainisi. Dee recommended Starr to Vainisi. The Packers rolled the dice and selected Starr in the 17 th round of the 1956 NFL Draft. You can dig much deeper into the story as remembered by Bart Starr in football history book, The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL available here.

Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers

Starr beat the odds and made the team as a 17 th round draft pick. Only 7 of the team’s 30 draft picks made the team that year. Two of them became great offensive lineman during Bart’s career with the Packers – Bob Skoronski and future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Forrest Gregg. Gregg had played college ball at SMU with Baltimore Colts great Raymond Berry.

Although Starr made the team, Tobin Rote was the Packers regular starting quarterback in 1956 and the Packers won only four games. Rote then played for the Detroit Lions in 1957 and helped lead the Lions to the 1957 NFL Championship.

Starr, meanwhile, alternated with Babe Parilli (a former All-American quarterback at Kentucky who tried to help Bear Bryant recruit Starr) as the Packers starting quarterback during the 1957 NFL season. In 1958, Starr traded playing time with Parilli and rookie Joe Francis.

The Packers struggled and only won 8 games in those 3 seasons. The team also burned through
two head coaches.

The Green Bay Packers then hired New York Giants offensive assistant Vince Lombardi as their head coach.

Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers and Quarterback Bart Starr

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Vince Lombardi did not think of Bart Starr as his starting quarterback at first. Lombardi thought that the Packers lacked a solid quarterback and traded for Chicago Cardinals quarterback Lamar McHan before the 1959 season.

McHan earned the Packers starting job. Starr beat out Parilli for the backup quarterback job, a move that surprised some onlookers. (Parilli ended up facing Tobin Rote in the 1963 AFL Championship Game as the starting quarterbacks of the Boston Patriots and San Diego Chargers, respectively.)

The Packers surprisingly won their first three games in 1959, with McHan at the helm. McHan suffered an injury during the season, however, and Starr played well enough to battle for the starting position upon McHan’s return. The Packers finished 7-5 that season — the franchise’s best record since the Packers won the 1944 NFL Championship.

McHan and Starr traded off as the Packers starting quarterback during the 1960 NFL season. Starr earned the starting job in training camp but didn’t play well enough in Week One to hold it. McHan started the next three games but was benched in favor of Starr during the second half of a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Starr retained the top spot on Lombardi’s depth chart for the rest of Lombardi’s career with the Packers.

The Packers won their division and played in the 1960 NFL Championship Game. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Packers, but it would be Green Bay’s only playoff loss with Coach Lombardi as head coach and Bart Starr as quarterback.

Bart Starr led the Packers to back-to-back titles in the 1961 NFL Championship Game and the 1962 NFL Championship Game. He later led them to wins in the 1965 NFL Championship Game, the 1966 NFL Championship, and the 1967 NFL Championship Game, famously known as the Ice Bowl. Starr scored the winning touchdown in the Ice Bowl on a quarterback sneak. Starr’s touchdown stands as one of the most iconic plays in NFL history and he did it at the end of one of the most famous games in NFL history.

The NFL Championship Game wins in 1966 and 1967 came over the Dallas Cowboys and their head coach Tom Landry, who once worked with Lombardi on the New York Giants staff. Those two wins also placed the Packers in the first two Super Bowls. The Packers won both games and Bart Starr was the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl 1 and also the MVP of Super Bowl 2.

Bart won a Corvette as a result of being named MVP of Super Bowl 2 and donated it to raise funds for the Rawhide Boys Ranch, (now known as Rawhide Youth Services) a charity to assist at-risk youth. Starr and his wife helped found the non-profit organization that helped hundreds of kids.

Bart Starr Summary and Legacy

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Much of Bart Starr’s success came through consistency and hard work. He was a longshot to make the Packers as a 17 th round draft pick. He also wasn’t Vince Lombardi’s first choice at quarterback.

Starr, however, executed Lombardi’s game plans at a high level. He often led the NFL in completion percentage. He also limited turnovers. Starr only threw 3 interceptions in his playoff career, as opposed to 15 touchdowns. (See Bart Starr’s playoff statistics below.)

Bart Starr also exhibited a high level of character. He earned the respect of his teammates through his leadership. He is often remembered as an exceptional person on top of being one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Bart Starr NFL Career Stats and Bio

• MVP of the first Super Bowl
• Scored the winning touchdown in the Ice Bowl
• Won 5 NFL Championships
• 1966 NFL MVP
• 1977 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class (with Frank Gifford, Gale Sayers, Forrest Gregg, and Bill Willis)

Bart Starr NFL Playoff and Super Bowl Stats (Courtesy Pro-Football Reference)

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