BART STARR | A REMEMBRANCE

The legend who forgot he was great

BY BILL HORNER III, Publisher
Posted 5/29/19

Trained my mind on only one track

Hit the ground running and never looked back

Steered my eyes to the mission ahead

And I burnt that bridge

— From the song “Bridges Burn” by Paul …

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BART STARR | A REMEMBRANCE

The legend who forgot he was great

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Posted

Trained my mind on only one track

Hit the ground running and never looked back

Steered my eyes to the mission ahead

And I burnt that bridge

— From the song “Bridges Burn” by Paul Otten

Football season is months away, but on the third Sunday in September, the Green Bay Packers will host the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL’s second week of the 2019 schedule. It’ll be the Packers’ home opener in the team’s 100th season, and the very first time they’ll play a regular season game at Lambeau Field since the death of Bart Starr, who passed away Sunday at age 85.

And here’s one more thing: in the choicest location in Lambeau, straddling the 50-yard line about 25 rows up from the visiting Chicago Bears’ bench, a lucky foursome will watch the game from Bart Starr’s own seats — the very same seats my friend John Bussian and our sons and I occupied on a frigid December Sunday back in 2003 against the Chicago Bears.

I’ve barely told anyone I sat in Bart Starr’s seats at the home of the Packers because, frankly, looking back, even I scarcely believe it. Packers home games have regularly sold out since 1959, so tickets are extraordinarily scarce, particularly for a few nobodies from North Carolina. So to go to a game there, and to plant our rear ends in the season-ticket seats of a Packers legend in a game against the league’s oldest franchise, the Bears, in a December game with the playoffs on the line?

Even dreaming that seems far-fetched.

***

I’m a marginal football fan now, but I was obsessed with sports as a boy. We played a lot of pick-up football, and I have vivid memories of collecting and trading football cards with neighbor kids in the McLeod Drive area of Sanford — the Harden boys, the Pittmans, the Haleses, the Palmers.

Many Saturday mornings, we’d round up whatever quarters we could find and cajole one of our moms to take us “downtown” to shop. We’d buy as many packs of football cards as we could afford, then wait until getting home to open them excitedly, tossing the wrappers aside and filling our mouths with the pink slabs of gum found inside.

There was something about sitting on the front steps of our houses on cool fall afternoons and trading football cards that was special. Finding a quarterback mixed among the linemen and running backs and tight ends and safeties in the 10-cent packs of cards we got at a department store on Steele Street, or in the rare convenience store that carried them, was like stumbling onto buried treasure in the early 1970s. This was the game’s golden era. It seemed like every team’s quarterback was a stud, men with rifle arms and outsized personalities. The old and not-quite-so-old greats like Unitas and Jurgensen and Tarkenton and Dawson were still making headlines. The young up-and-comers and emerging veterans like Namath, Griese, Gabriel, Brodie and Staubach were turning heads every Sunday.

Then there was Bart Starr. Even his last name set him apart from the others, elevated him. He won five pro football titles — more than any other quarterback before or since — and the first two Super Bowls. His steely eyes and his regal bearing and leadership of the seemingly invincible Green Bay Packers ­— football’s first real juggernaut, commanded by the coach against whom all other coaches are still measured, Vince Lombardi — put Starr in a unique place among the other great names of the game.

How big was Bart Starr, especially to kids?

Someone named Jeffrey Barta tweeted to a Packers fan website a few years ago that, “Growing up in Green Bay, when I misbehaved my parents would threaten to tell not Santa Claus, but Bart Starr. Yes, in 1966 Green Bay, he meant THAT MUCH.”

***

As a 12-year-old, back in 1975, my card-collecting days had mostly ended. Still, I devoured Jerry Kramer’s groundbreaking memoir “Instant Replay,” the diary of the Packers’ offensive lineman’s 1967 season. The book finishes with the story of football’s “Ice Bowl,” the league championship game between Green Bay and the Dallas Cowboys played in perhaps the coldest weather in NFL history.

How cold was it? Temperatures were minus-15 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff. The wind chill was more than 40 degrees below zero. It was so cold that seven members of the collegiate band playing the pre-game show were hospitalized for hypothermia. An elderly fan in the stands died from exposure, and CBS announcer Frank Gifford joked at one point during the broadcast, “I’m going to take a bite of my coffee.”

In “Instant Replay,” Kramer tells the story of Starr leading the improbable 68-yard drive in the game’s final five minutes. With 14 seconds on the clock — and the thermometer now reading minus-20 degrees — and the Packers seemingly stymied at the Cowboys’ one-yard-line, Starr went to the sidelines to tell Coach Lombardi that his running backs were slipping on the frozen field. They couldn’t get enough momentum, enough grip, to break through Dallas’ line. Starr had asked Kramer if he could get enough traction for one more try, for a wedge play with Starr trailing behind him. Starr thought he could make a stab at the goal line in his upright position behind. Kramer said he’d make the block. So, on the sidelines, Starr suggested to his old coach that he could tuck in behind Kramer and get the ball over the goal line.

“OK, run it then, and let’s get the hell out of here,” Lombardi told Starr.

Starr’s quarterback sneak won the game for the Packers, setting them up for the team’s second straight Super Bowl win two weeks later — with you-know-who winning the game’s MVP award for the second straight year.

***

There’s no doubt in my mind that Starr, always a kind and generous soul, had no recollection of giving away his seats for the 2003 Packers-Bears game in Green Bay. He suffered a series of strokes and other illnesses beginning in 2015. And even had the illnesses not felled him, I wouldn’t in a million years have expected him to recall the letter I wrote him on December 15, 2003, thanking him for the privilege of sitting in his seats a week before, getting the rare opportunity to take in a Packers-Bears game on a frigid December afternoon.

Or remembering writing the nicest letter back to me in response.

Here’s how it happened: in the summer of 2003, my friend John Bussian — a first amendment attorney who represents newspapers all over the southeast in libel cases and lobbies in the General Assembly on free press issues — was walking through the airport in Nashville during a series of college visits with his daughter Brittany.

John played football at Duke and knows the game, so when he spotted Starr walking alone through the terminal he had to introduce himself. John had actually encountered Starr once before, back in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the week of second Super Bowl — again, just 14 days after the Ice Bowl.

“I was in middle school, after delivering newspapers for what was then the afternoon paper, the Fort Lauderdale News, when we would stop by the Packers’ hotel,” John recalled for me. “Starr was as fan-friendly a player as the NFL had at the time, signing autographs for what seemed like hours and happily tolerating the stream of kids who followed him everywhere. The Packers won that Super Bowl — his last — against the John Madden-led Oakland Raiders, and Starr was MVP.”

At the airport in Nashville, John walked up to Starr and re-introduced himself as a lifelong fan, feeling what he remembered as an “overwhelming sense of obligation not only to introduce my daughter to an NFL Hall of Fame legend, but to tell the story of the game for which Starr is best known: the Ice Bowl.”

With Starr listening politely, John described the key plays of that final drive against the Cowboys to Brittany, and then the Hall of Fame quarterback’s plunge for the winning score.

“As I told the tale of the Ice Bowl in front of the man who made it famous, I watched Starr,” John said. “He only smiled. And at the end, he asked me, ‘John, have you ever been to Lambeau Stadium?’ When I replied that I had not, Starr said, ‘Then I’ll send you the Packers’ schedule for next season, you pick a game that you’d like to see, and you can be my guest and have my seats.’”

True to his word, Starr reached out to John a few weeks later to make good on his promise. And a day after that, John called me in my office and asked a question that at first I had a difficult time grasping.

“Bill, how’d you like to go to Green Bay in December to see the Packers and the Bears play, and sit in Bart Starr’s seats?”

***

The experience was magical to say the least. John took his son Adam and I took my younger son Addison. My older son Zachary and I had been on some hockey road trips together that Addison didn’t make, and because Adam and Addison were closer in age, I asked Addison to go. John and I had been good friends for years, and Adam and Addison got along like long-lost friends.

One irony of the Chicago-Green Bay game is that we actually flew into Chicago and spent the night there. We toured the Field Museum with the boys on Saturday afternoon, then awoke early Sunday morning to catch a prop plane to Green Bay, where John had arranged for a limousine to take us to the field. Our flight — full of fans going to the game — was delayed slightly, but we arrived and settled in Bart’s seats just in time for the “flyover” and the National Anthem.

It was a frigid, gray day, but — a bit to our disappointment — it didn’t snow. We self-consciously thought people were eyeing us with suspicion — “who are THOSE guys?” — but we had the day of a lifetime, being at historic Lambeau, touring the team’s Hall of Fame, eating the famous brats served there. The sun even came out around halftime, just in time for a fourth-quarter rally that saw the Packers win, 34-21.

A fitting end to a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

***

So I got Bart’s address from John and wrote him a letter of thanks. Bart’s reply back to me is dated December 19, meaning this son of a strict military man and this student of Vince Lombardi’s disciplinary approach probably responded on the same day he received my letter.

“I am delighted,” Bart Starr wrote to me, “to know that the four of you enjoyed the experience of seeing the Packers/Bears game and, although obviously very biased, you were truly in a unique setting at a great time of year for a great game there.”

A typical understatement for the grounded Starr.

He enclosed an autographed picture for my son — “To Addison – A Great Young Fan – Best Wishes, Bart Starr” — and ended his letter with this: “I hope that you, your family and friends have a blessed Christmas and a very special New Year of 2004.”

For me, 2004 is something of a distant memory. My years now number 50 and five, and the sheer weight of my experiences, the days’ to-do lists, and the pressures of the world sometimes make it difficult to remember something from a year ago. But certain circumstances and events cause my synapses to fire, and when I think about Bart Starr the images and scenes from that Sunday in December in 2003 form from the cloudbank and recesses of my past and crystalize.

I clearly remember December 8, 2003.

The way football fans all over will remember Bart Starr.

John Bussian tells me that at the airport in Nashville, he introduced Starr to his daughter Brittany as “an NFL legend.”

“I’m hardly a legend,” Starr responded.

He was wrong, of course. In the four or five years before his death on Sunday, with his memory gone and his health having deteriorated, he didn’t remember how great he was, and how he shaped the game. Or how good a man he was.

Me?

I’ll never forget.

Oh and I can’t help

But think I’m losing it

Am I losing it

As I watch, I watch

My bridges burn to ash

Maybe my heart’s trying to give me a hint

Maybe it’s time I start listening in

Maybe I’m too far into the thick

And I can’t turn back

— “Bridges Burn”
by Paul Otten

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