Brett Favre was the second Green Bay Packers quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Today, he mourns the death of Bart Starr, the first.
“Such a nice, nice man,” Favre said Monday. “Bart Starr sent me a personal letter of congratulations after every – and I mean every – accomplishment I ever had. He was just a very, very thoughtful person.”
Starr, who quarterbacked the Packers to five NFL Championships and victories in the first two Super Bowls, died Sunday in Birmingham, following a long illness, at the age of 85.
Such was the warmth of Starr’s personality and strength of his character, many have remembered him more for his humble nature and human kindness than for his football skills. And those skills were considerable. He was Vince Lombardi’s quarterback and leader on the field, an NFL MVP once and also MVP of the first two Super Bowls.
Said Archie Manning: “For quarterbacks of my era, Bart Starr was the guy you wanted to be like. Well, he and Johnny Unitas were the two hero quarterbacks of that era and Bart won the most championships. He was the ultimate leader of some of the greatest football teams in the history of the sport.
“To me, Bart Starr covered all the bases,” Manning continued. “I’m talking about as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, as a teammate, as a leader, as a role model, as a friend. He was such a great man, a great, great man.”
Starr was a native of Montgomery, who played his college football at Alabama, shunning the recruiting efforts of then-Kentucky coach Bear Bryant. He was a solid, if unspectacular player for the Crimson Tide. Indeed, the Packers did not draft him until the 17th round of the 1956 NFL Draft.
Lombardi saw him as the leader he needed, an extension of Lombardi, himself, in the huddle. Steve Wright, an offensive tackle on those championship Packer teams, saw Starr as even more. Said Wright, “The dirty little secret of those days was that during the week it was Lombardi’s team, but on Sunday it was really Starr’s team.”
Former Ole Miss running back and Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Mike Dennis saw Starr’s leadership abilities first-hand in 1967, when he spent that season as a reserve running back with the Packers.
“I had been hurt the season before with the Rams, and Lombardi brought me in for insurance because the Packers had a lot of injuries at running back,” Dennis said. “I practiced every day and was learning the Packers system. Bart would stay after practice and work with me. He knew his business and he had everybody’s respect. He wasn’t flashy or showy, but everybody respected him and wanted to do whatever they could for him. Plus, he was just so nice to everyone.”
Dennis never got in a game for the Packers and was back with the Rams the next season.
“We played the Packers and I had a good game, caught a couple of passes,” Dennis said. “After the game, I’m walking off the field and all the sudden there’s Bart. He sought me out to congratulate me. I’ll never forget that.”
Hamp Cook, another Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, grew up in Georgiana, Alabama, not far from Starr’s hometown of Montgomery. Starr was a heralded recruit. Cook, who weighed 155 pounds as a high school senior, made his way to then-Mississippi Southern College, where he muscled up and became a Little All American guard and linebacker. In 1953 and 1954, Cook helped Southern stun the college football world with back to back upsets of Alabama and Starr. In the second, Cook sacked Starr on the last play of the game to preserve a 7-2 victory. Said Cook 50 years later, “It was a big deal at the time, but it would have been bigger if I had known Bart Starr was going to become Bart Starr.”
Manning first met Starr in 1971 after his senior year at Ole Miss when both were receiving awards at a football banquet in Columbus, Ohio. The banquet as emceed by the ABC Monday Night Football triumvirate of Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and (Dandy) Don Meredith.
Manning said Starr could not have been nicer to him, and gave an inspiring, yet humble acceptance speech. Said Manning, “I’ll never forget what Meredith said after Bart’s speech. He got up there and laughed and said, ‘Just once, I’d love to hear Bart cuss and just say a word like shit.’”
A year later, Manning was playing as a rookie for the Saints near the end of the season and New Orleans was playing the Packers at Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Starr was at the end of his career.
“I think – I’m not positive – but I’m pretty sure it might have been the last game Bart ever played in,” Manning said. “The neat thing about County Stadium was that both team benches were on the same side of the field. What I remember is that neither one of us was in the game at the end. And I remember I went and stood as close to the middle of the field – as close to the Packers – as I could. I just wanted to stand close to him.”