Bart Starr, the first quarterback in history to win five National Football League championships and hero of the most memorable game in the storied history of the Green Bay Packers, died today in Birmingham, Ala. He had been in failing health since suffering a serious stroke in 2014.
Starr, 85, played for the Packers from 1956 to 1971, and was beloved by fans of not only his generation, but also succeeding ones. Along with being a Pro Football Hall of Famer and among a small pantheon of Packers’ all-time greats, he was the franchise’s nonpareil role model in the eyes of many.
Maybe the most popular player in Packers history, Starr will be eulogized for being a consummate professional, a Good Samaritan and an exemplary role model.
“The Packers Family was saddened today to learn of the passing of Bart Starr,” said Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy. “A champion on and off the field, Bart epitomized class and was beloved by generations of Packers fans. A clutch player who led his team to five NFL titles, Bart could still fill Lambeau Field with electricity decades later during his many visits. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Cherry and the entire Starr family.”
As a player, Starr will be remembered for being the only quarterback ever to lead his team to five NFL titles in a decade and for that frozen-in-time moment where he was lying face down under a pile of bodies in the south end zone of Lambeau Field, the hero of the Ice Bowl.
To this day, a half-century later, Starr’s game-winning quarterback sneak in that Dec. 31, 1967, game remains the signature moment in Packers history and personified what the Packers franchise is all about: Perseverance against all odds and unmatched success among all NFL teams.
A look back at the life and career of former Packers QB and Head Coach Bart Starr
With the Packers trailing by three points, 16 seconds remaining and the ball at the 1-yard line, it was Starr who suggested to coach Vince Lombardi during the Packers’ final timeout that he run a quarterback sneak for the first time that season.
When Starr squeezed between the blocks of right guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman and landed in the end zone, he not only sealed the Packers’ 21-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, but also climaxed the Lombardi Era.
What made it such a timeless moment in pro football history besides the last-minute drama were the conditions – a frozen field, temperatures that hovered around -16 degrees and a brutal wind chill that dipped to a -46 – and the stakes.
To this day, the Lombardi Packers are the only team to win three consecutive NFL titles since post-season play was introduced 85 years ago.
The game also epitomized Starr’s contribution to pro football’s greatest dynasty.
He always seemed to deliver in the clutch.
“He called the right thing at the right time and he executed it,” said Boyd Dowler, Starr’s favorite receiver during the nine years they played together under Lombardi. “He never made a bad read. He never made a stupid throw.
“If somebody was open, he’d get you the ball. He knew what it took to win and he went about doing it. He was a tremendous competitor and he was so consistent.”
Starr played 16 years for the Packers, a club record for service that he shares with Brett Favre. He was MVP of Super Bowls I and II. He was MVP of the NFL in 1966.
He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. He had his No. 15 jersey retired by the Packers on Nov. 11, 1973, two years after he retired.
He also served as head coach of the Packers from 1975-’83, compiling a 52-76-3 record.
The backdrop of Starr’s professional success also was one of the more improbable in sports history.
He was drafted in the 17th round, the 200th player overall, in 1956 after four uneven seasons at the University of Alabama.
As a sophomore, he led the Crimson Tide to the Southeastern Conference championship and was called “the best passer” in the school’s history by his coach, Red Drew. The next year, his playing time was limited by a back injury and Drew was fired. As a senior, Starr played in an offense where the quarterback needed to be more runner than passer, struggled and wound up sharing the job with a converted halfback.
Two days into his first training camp with the Packers in 1956, Starr impressed coach Lisle Blackbourn enough to earn his praise, despite his less than lofty draft status. Blackbourn presciently told the press, “The boy has a lot of poise.”
Starr backed up veteran Tobin Rote as a rookie and split playing time with Babe Parilli the next two seasons as the compiled an 8-27-1 record. In 1959, Lombardi took over as coach of the Packers, traded for Lamar McHan and made him the starting quarterback. In fact, at one point, Starr was third string behind McHan and Joe Francis.
With five games remaining in the season, Starr was given his chance to showcase his talents for an injured McHan and went 4-1. Four years into his NFL career, Starr finally had his first victory as a starting quarterback.
But he still didn’t have Lombardi’s full confidence. When Starr played poorly in the 1960 opener, a loss to the Chicago Bears, Lombardi gave the job back to McHan.
Then, five games into the season, Lombardi changed his mind again. He benched McHan late in the third quarter at Pittsburgh and Starr led the Packers to the winning touchdown with a nearly four-minute, fourth-quarter drive.
This time the job was Starr’s for good.
He started the final seven games, led the Packers to the NFL title game for the first time in 16 years and then to NFL championships in 1961, ’62, ’65, ’66 and ’67. Under Lombardi, Starr had a record of 73-21-4 in regular-season games and a 9-1 record in the post-season.
Once he had earned Lombardi’s confidence, Starr also soon gained it from his teammates. That watershed moment occurred on Oct. 1, 1961, in a game against the Chicago Bears at what is now Lambeau Field.
Up until that point, there were those who still questioned if Starr wasn’t too nice, too polite, too unassuming to be a winning quarterback.
But he took a brutal pounding that day, including one or two flagrant late hits, needed stitches to stem the bleeding from his mouth and yet unfazed threw two touchdown passes and led the Packers to a 24-0 victory.
“I think it was a moment where everybody on the team understood Bart Starr had a lot of steel in his back,” said guard Jerry Kramer.
The Packers went on to finish the regular-season 11-3, their best record in 17 years, and beat the New York Giants, 37-0, in the NFL title game.
Starr is survived by his wife, Cherry; and his oldest son, Bart Jr. He was preceded in death by his youngest son, Bret.
Bart and Cherry were generous benefactors to many organizations and causes, most notably Rawhide Boys Ranch, which was established in 1965 near New London, Wis., to serve at-risk youth and families.
Starr suffered two strokes and a heart attack in early September 2014.
His last visit to Lambeau Field came in October 2017 for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 championship team. He also was in attendance on Nov. 26, 2015, the night Brett Favre’s name and retired No. 4 were unveiled on the stadium’s façade.
In another treasured moment in Packers history, Starr rode a golf cart from the stadium’s tunnel in a steady rain to center stage where he greeted and embraced Favre in a moment that no doubt brought cheer, chills and tears to many in the crowd of nearly 80,000.
Funeral arrangements are pending.