GREEN BAY — What always impressed Aaron Rodgers about Bart Starr, the legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback and Rodgers’ longtime friend and mentor, was not his five NFL championships. It wasn’t his two Super Bowl titles, or his 1966 NFL MVP award, or his four Pro Bowl selections, or his 1977 first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.
No, whenever you asked Rodgers about Starr — not only his quarterbacking hero, but his role model for how to carry himself as the face of the Packers’ storied franchise — he was in awe.
Not for what Starr accomplished as a player, but for the person he was.
“Here’s a guy who has won more championships than anybody. And people talk about the kind of person he is,” Rodgers once said. “I think there’s no greater compliment than a guy who’s accomplished so much on the field and the first thing people talk about is the kind of person that he is.
“Bart has been a great friend and somebody who’s meant a lot to me during my time here.”
On Sunday morning, Bryan Bartlett Starr, 85, died in his native Alabama, his family said in a statement released through the Packers.
“The Packers family was saddened today to learn of the passing of Bart Starr,” Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said in a statement. “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.”
Said Pro Football Hall of Fame president/CEO David Baker in a statement: “The game has lost a true Hall of Famers, but we have all lost a truly great man. Bart Starr was an American icon whose legendary football career transformed Green Bay, Wisconsin into Titletown U.S.A. More importantly, he lived a life of character defined by his grace, poise, respect and commitment. The Hall of Fame will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration to future generations.”
Starr had been battling health problems since a suffering a stroke, heart attack and seizures in autumn 2014, although through stem-cell treatments in recent years he had seemingly been on the mend. He and his wife of 65 years, Cherry, had appeared in a video during the annual Packers Hall of Fame induction ceremony earlier this month. In the video, Bart was shown tossing a football from his recliner, and Cherry said that they were planning a return trip to Lambeau Field this fall to see a game.
“We are saddened to note the passing of our husband, father, grandfather, and friend, Bart Starr," the family statement said. "He battled with courage and determination to transcend the serious stroke he suffered in September 2014, but his most recent illness was too much to overcome.
“While he may always be best known for his success as the Packers quarterback for 16 years, his true legacy will always be the respectful manner in which he treated every person he met, his humble demeanor, and his generous spirit.
“Our family wishes to thank the thousands of friends and fans who have enriched his life — and therefore our lives — for so many decades and especially during the past five years. Each letter, text, phone call, and personal visit inspired him and filled him with joy.
“His love for all of humanity is well known, and his affection toward the residents of Alabama and of Wisconsin filled him with gratitude. He had hoped to make one last trip to Green Bay to watch the Packers this fall, but he shall forever be there in spirit.”
Born Jan. 9, 1934, Starr’s football life was a remarkable one. After suffering a back injury during a hazing incident before his junior season at Alabaman, he barely played during his junior year, and when J.B. Whitworth replaced Red Drew as the Crimson Tide’s head coach, Starr became an afterthought and rode the bench as a senior.
Nevertheless, on the recommendation of Alabama basketball coach Johnny Dee, then-Packers personnel director Jack Vainisi chose Starr in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL Draft, with the 200th overall pick. He served as a backup to Tobin Rote as a rookie and was in-and-out of the starting lineup thereafter until coach Vince Lombardi's arrival in Green Bay in 1959.
From there, Starr led the Lombardi era Packers to five championships, including victories in the first two Super Bowls — earning Super Bowl MVP honors in each game. His teams were 9-1 in postseason play, and his playoff passer rating of 104.1 remains the best in NFL history.
The Packers have been beyond fortunate to have three legendary quarterbacks during the Super Bowl era. Starr quarterbacked the team from 1959 until 1972, when he retired in February of that year. Brett Favre, acquired in a 1992 trade from the Atlanta Falcons, was under center for 16 seasons before being traded in the summer of 2008. He joined Starr in the Hall of Fame in 2016. And Rodgers, who succeeded Favre in 2008 after three years as his understudy, will be in Canton someday, too.
“He set the bar so high with the success he had here as a player winning all those championships,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t get to watch him play, but he’s been a great supporter of mine, and I’m just blessed to know a guy like that. That’s one of my role models.
"He's been such a great encouragement to me since I was drafted here, and I really have appreciated all of our conversations over the years. It has always been tough to follow him speaking (at events) because he's had such incredible stories, whether he's talking about Super Bowls or NFL championships or the Ice Bowl. It's always fun being around him, because he's such a positive, encouraging person.”
Rodgers will get no argument from Favre, who insisted on having Starr by his side on Thanksgiving 2015 when the Packers unveiled Favre’s No. 4 on the Lambeau Field façade — just a few yards down from Starr’s No. 15.
And Starr, showing the same determination he’d exhibited as a player under the stern taskmaster Lombardi was, made sure he was there — despite his health challenges. That night at Lambeau Field, while Favre might’ve been the guest of honor, it was Starr who received the loudest ovation — and deservedly so — when he came out of the Packers’ tunnel in a golf cart but stood and embraced Favre once he reached midfield where the celebration was taking place.
As he later did with Rodgers, Starr had mentored Favre after Favre’s arrival in that 1992 trade. There is a famous photo of the two quarterbacks in their jerseys, standing inside Lambeau Field, each with an arm around the other.
“I felt compelled to include him,” Favre said after the ceremony. “As I saw Bart earlier in the day — the first time I'd seen him in I couldn't tell you how long — I was worried. I was worried. But (on the field) was a totally different man. I talked to Bart Jr. right before, I saw him here, but I didn't get a chance to see him up close, and I said, 'Is your dad ready?' And he said, 'Oh, he's ready.'
"So you're thinking, 'Hmm ... OK.' But he was gritting his teeth, I mean — it was awesome. I got more of a thrill out of that than what I was there for. I mean no disrespect (to having your number retired), but to see him that excited at 81 years old (at the time) was pretty awesome."
In a statement with his wife Deanna that he posted Sunday afternoon on his Twitter page, Favre wrote, “Bart Starr was the most kind, thoughtful and classiest person you could ever know. I consider myself extremely lucky to have called him friend and to have been mentioned in the same breath. Deanna and I are praying for Cherry and the Starr family.”
For everything he accomplished, Starr was always self-effacing about what he did as a player and self-aware of his shortcomings. Several years ago, when asked about his playing career, he spoke instead about his regret that he kept playing despite a bad throwing shoulder.
“Looking back on it, in hindsight, I should have retired three years earlier,” Starr admitted at the time. “I had a bad shoulder, and my performance just went downhill those last three years.”
He kept playing because the Packers didn’t have a clear-cut successor at quarterback, and his loyalty to the organization — something that would lead to another decision he would later rue — got the better of him.
Starr’s greatest regret was his time as head coach. He took over for Dan Devine in 1975, despite having just one year of coaching experience (as quarterbacks coach in 1972 under Devine) and went 52-76-3 with one playoff appearance in nine seasons. The Packers’ only playoff berth during his tenure was during the strike-shortened 1982 season.
“The greatest mistake I made in my life was to coach,” Starr said in an ESPN Wisconsin interview in 2013. “It’s a great lesson that could apply to any of us. Because I didn’t plan to, I hadn’t prepared to. And I didn’t have the guts to say to the Green Bay Packers, ‘Thank you, but no thank you. I’m not going to do it.’ I wasn’t prepared, and it showed over the first few years. I felt very, very badly about that.
“I think we can all learn lessons from others if we listen closely to why they did or didn’t do something. That would be the biggest error of my life.”
In another interview that year, the humble Starr spoke glowingly of Rodgers, saying he “didn’t have any of the qualities that he has. He’s far superior to the qualities that I possessed. He’s a very, very special player.
“He’s always in control of the system that he’s operating. You can see the confidence factor, I think, and the way he conducts himself. I believe that it’s just a great example of leadership.
“I’ve mentioned to him on several occasions how I feel about the way he has led his life, conducted his actions. It’s a great thrill when you look inside and you see the type of person (Rodgers is) and you get to know the person. He is just an unbelievable man.”
To Rodgers, it was Starr who was unbelievable.
“I’ve grown up here in Green Bay, learned a lot about myself, learned from Bart Starr what a legacy really is. And, what a well-rounded player looks like,” Rodgers said. “Like I always say, Bart Starr has always been my model of what success really looks like — as more than just as a football player. When you live in Green Bay, you know about the Lombardi years and Bart Starr and all the guys that made those teams special, and you’d like to be a part of something special yourself.”