Yes, Vince Lombardi tried to trade Bart Starr for Don Meredith

Lamar McHan’s brush with Lombardi ended his days in Green Bay

Former Packers Head Coach Vince Lombardi and QB Bart Starr

Steve from Alpharetta, GA
Excellent and timely post about patience regarding football and life. I look forward to your story every week. I seem to remember hearing a story that as late as around 1960, Vince Lombardi had so little confidence in Bart Starr that he offered any two players on the Packers' roster to the Cowboys in exchange for Don Meredith. Is there any truth to that story? I read "The Greatest Story in Sports" in its entirety and if it was in there, I missed it (or forgot – shame on me) so maybe it's not true? On a side note, I grew up in Kewaunee (KHS 1972) and remember your reporting of high school sports during your tour of duty with the Green Bay Press-Gazette. In September, we did the Lambeau Field/Heritage Trolley Tour/Packers HOF combination package. Our Lambeau Tour guide happened to be none other than longtime rival Algoma HS football coach Steve Mayheu! We had a very interesting discussion. Unfortunately, Algoma now plays 8-person football so there is no longer a "War on the Shore" for football. Thanks again for the great work on the "The Greatest Story," the Heritage Tour and your history postings.

Thanks for your interest in Packers history.

Yes, Lombardi tried twice to trade Starr to Dallas for Don Meredith based on what seemed liked irrefutable reporting from that time and a reliable interview I had with one of Lombardi's close friends in Green Bay. And, yes, I wrote about it in "The Greatest Story in Sports," in Volume II, page 434.

The original source for the story was Jim Kensil, who basically ran daily operations in the NFL office from 1961-77 under Commissioner Pete Rozelle and later served as president of the New York Jets from 1977-88. Around the time he left the Associated Press to go to work for the NFL, Kensil said he went to dinner with Lombardi, who told him the story almost exactly as you spelled it out in your question, including the Cowboys having the pick of any two players on the Packers' roster in exchange for Meredith. The deal was discussed following the completion of Meredith's rookie year in 1960 when he backed up Eddie LeBaron.

The presumption was that the Cowboys would have chosen Starr as one of the two players, considering he was 27 and four years younger than LeBaron.

Jack Koeppler, a frequent golf partner of Lombardi's and longtime Packers board member, told me in a 2009 interview that Lombardi confided to him a few years later during a round of golf at what was then Oneida Golf & Riding Club that he was trying again to deal Starr for Meredith, this time straight-up. Koeppler couldn't remember the exact year but believed it was likely after the 1964 or '65 season.

"He (Lombardi) tried his hardest to trade for Meredith," Koeppler told me. "He didn't deal with (Tom) Landry. He dealt with Tex Schramm. He really, really wanted Meredith. He said, 'I think I can win it all if I got Meredith.' It was towards the end. He called (Schramm) two or three times a day during the summer. They didn't have cell phones, but there was a phone call that came in when we were on the golf course. (Lombardi) never took a phone call on the golf course, but he did that time. He thought maybe that was it."

Koeppler's recollection was that someone from the clubhouse found them on the course, told Lombardi that Schramm wanted to talk to him as soon as possible and that Lombardi actually left the course for the only time in all their years of golfing to call Schramm back. When Lombardi returned to the course, according to Koeppler, he expressed disappointment that Schramm had turned him down.

Meanwhile, Dave Anderson, sports columnist for The New York Times and one of the many New York writers that Lombardi frequently confided in, wrote a column in 1974 about how Lombardi had once coveted Meredith. And Keith Dunnavant, author of "America's Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League," wrote that Starr knew of Lombardi's first effort to trade him and used it as a motivating tool.

Glad you had a chance to talk to Steve Mayheu. I see Steve around the office on occasion and we, too, reminisce about the Kewaunee-Algoma rivalry. Steve was coaching when I wrote an in-depth story on it for The Milwaukee Journal in 1993.

You can probably relate to my lead:

Kewaunee, Wis. – There are people in these parts who claim that the Algoma-Kewaunee football rivalry isn't as bitter as it once was. And that may be true. But today's coaches, combatants and fans don't exactly treat the game as a lovefest.
The 10-mile stretch of Highway 42 that connects – make that separates – these two communities along the Lake Michigan shoreline in northeastern Wisconsin is still paved with bad blood, just as it was in the 1940s and '50s.

Lou from Kohler, WI

Nice job again. Early on, who would have guessed Starr's and Nitschke's numbers would be retired? Wasn't Lamar McHan's ticket out of Green Bay his referring to Lombardi as an (Italian epithet) SOB? He was a No. 1 pick for the Chicago Cardinals and a solid starter before coming to Green Bay.

Yes, that was the final outburst that led to McHan being traded after the 1960 season. I wrote about that, too, and in much more detail in "The Greatest Story in Sports." Volume II, pp. 378-381. The confrontation started on the sideline in Pittsburgh on Oct. 30, 1960, and came to a head that night at Manci's Supper Club in Green Bay. A drunk McHan called Lombardi a racist name and also might have poked a finger in his chest as he was venting his frustrations.

McHan was clearly more physically talented than Starr. A single-wing tailback at Arkansas, McHan finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior in 1953 and then started for the Cardinals his first four years in the NFL, plus part of his fifth. "Mac physically was a fantastic quarterback," Packers end Gary Knafelc told me in 2007. "Big, strong. But he was emotionally unstable. He was psycho."

Knafelc played briefly with McHan with the College All-Stars and the Cardinals before they spent two seasons together in Green Bay. Knafelc also was one of Starr's best friends on the Packers.

Anyway, Lombardi had a hard time giving up on McHan's raw talent, although Starr was clearly blessed with more intangibles. In fact, Knafelc told me if not for the encounter at Manci's that he thinks Lombardi would have started McHan again the next week. And, actually, when Starr was playing poorly in a 23-10 Thanksgiving Day loss to Detroit, Lombardi benched him again and gave McHan another shot. But that also was McHan's last chance.

Brian from Sugar Land, TX

In reading your May 11 post, you discussed Bart Starr's collegiate and early professional career and noted he was a good punter and defensive back but lost his starting quarterback position at Alabama. Somehow Starr survived as a quarterback with four others on the Packers' roster, although I don't believe he showed any particular promise even after Lombardi's arrival. What do you see as the key to his early professional survival as a quarterback and progression to Hall of Fame status?

Great question, and a short answer would include many of the intangibles that I referenced in response to Lou from Kohler.

Lisle Blackbourn, the coach who drafted Starr, said of him after only a week of pre-camp workouts before his rookie season: "The boy has a lot of poise." Similarly, Lombardi suggested during training camp in his first season as coach that he had seen something in Starr during his exhaustive offseason film work to consider him the frontrunner for the starting job. After each of the four candidates had been given a preseason start in 1959, Lombardi said, "Bart knows what the situation is. We wanted to get a good look at the others. Now Starr will have a chance to get ready. He'll play in the next two and so will (Joe) Francis for sure."
So even if Starr didn't measure up to Tobin Rote in 1956, Babe Parilli in 1957 and '58, and McHan and maybe even Joe Francis in 1959 in terms of arm strength and mobility, he possessed qualities that had somehow caught the eye of his first three coaches. I'm including Scooter McLean because he started Starr over Parilli, a former No. 1 draft pick, in his first four games as coach in 1958.

Blackbourn mentioned Starr's poise. That obviously was one of his greatest strengths.

Hereafter, I'm basically echoing what Lombardi wrote about Starr in his book, "Run to Daylight." Starr's commitment to his craft probably was unmatched compared to his competition his first three to five years. He studied film and his playbook religiously at a time when many of his peers among NFL quarterbacks were spending their nights quaffing beers with their teammates, Bobby Layne being the most famous of that bunch.

Lombardi recognized before the Packers' first preseason game in 1959 that Starr obviously had studied his playbook more than his other quarterbacks. "… there is no one on this team who is more conscientious and dedicated than Bart Starr," Lombardi said in 1962 while working on his book with W.C. Heinz, one of the great writers of all time.

Although I think Starr's confidence was easily shaken in his early years based on what Lombardi said about him and as evidenced by the crying spell that Alex Hawkins wrote about in his book, I also believe Starr's mental toughness was one of his best attributes. He took a horrific beating in an era when quarterbacks were subjected to countless late hits and even blatant cheap shots, yet was a fearless on-the-field leader.

But, in the end, it was Starr's play-calling that drew the most praise from opposing coaches and players at a time when quarterbacks largely called their own plays. And I'm speculating here based on what Starr's close friend and backup Zeke Bratkowski told me, but I sense that was why Starr largely credited Lombardi with his success. Both he and Bratkowski believed the genius of Lombardi was largely reflected in his game preparation and, in turn, his game plans.

Something I've often wondered about is how Starr would have fared under a lesser coach and what if Milt Plum and Frank Ryan, two of his contemporaries, had played in Green Bay for Lombardi instead of Cleveland and Detroit in Plum's case, and Los Angeles and Cleveland in Ryan's case.

Plum and Ryan were cut from a similar cloth as Starr and had modestly successful careers. They were both smart and serious about their jobs. Both played in two Pro Bowls compared to Starr's four. Ryan won an NFL title in Cleveland, had a 57-27-3 record as a starting quarterback and twice led the NFL in touchdown passes with 29 and 25, numbers that Starr never came close to matching. Plum had a 33-16-2 record in his first five NFL seasons, all with the Browns, and led the league in completion percentage three straight years before Starr dd it for the first time in 1962.

Still, the fact is that Starr is in the Hall of Fame, and the other two aren't. And that's all that matters.

Marin from West Lawn, PA

In his book about Starr, "America's Quarterback," Dunnavant stated that Lombardi offered to resign in the wake of Paul Hornung's suspension for gambling. This was the first time I read of such a claim. Could you verify if there is any truth behind it? On a different note, you may be interested to learn the stadium where the Packers took on the Philadelphia Eagles in a 1954 preseason game is still in existence.

Here's what Dunnavant wrote on page 146 of his book: "The news (of Hornung's suspension) exploded off the sports pages, becoming a huge national news story and causing Lombardi to consider resigning from the Packers." Perhaps Dunnavant should have included more context, but what he wrote was basically true.

Less than a month after Rozelle handed down the suspension, Lombardi was in New York for Time magazine's cover dinner and admitted as much to Jack Hand of the Associated Press. "I thought that I had fallen down somewhere along the line," Lombardi said. "Nobody bears down more than I on warning the players about gambling and questionable associations. And then to have it happen to my club, I told Pete (Rozelle) I wanted to quit."

There's a big difference between offering to resign and giving mere thought to it, especially if it was nothing more than a brief, knee-jerk reaction. I've read all the Packers' executive committee and board of directors minutes from the Lombardi years and don't recall seeing any mention of him offering to resign in the wake of Hornung's suspension.

Thanks for the tip about the stadium in Hershey, but I have stopped there in my travels and taken my own mini-tour of it. I did the same at Latrobe, Pa., where the Packers played Pittsburgh in a preseason game in 1952.

Derek from Lexington, KY

Besides the players you mentioned in the column of players who played for Green Bay and two other NFC North teams, I think you are missing: Abdullah Anderson (2019-Current), Darius Holland (1995-2004) and Duke Hanny (1923-30). Others who played with Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota were Mike Rabold, Mark Rodenhauser and Walt Williams. Pro Football Reference actually has a tool to look this up, which is what I did.

Derek, thanks much. As you noted, Hanny played for the Portsmouth Spartans, predecessors to the Lions. That makes him the first to play for three of the four current NFC North teams, not Connie Mack Berry, as I speculated. So that name from the past is particularly appreciated. Hanny played end for the Bears from 1923-27 and then played in two games for the Packers and four for the Spartans in 1930.

Dan from St. Paul, MN

I, too, was surprised that there's never been a player who spent time with all four NFC teams. Here's another: Dave Simmons, a linebacker with the Packers, Lions and Bears.

Dan, your contribution is appreciated, as well. And to credit you appropriately, I'll note that you also listed Hanny and the others, just as Derek did. Simmons played for the Packers in 1979.


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