Starr will be remembered for championships -- and character

Jeff Neal

I'm a lifelong Jets fan, but my first football helmet bore the colors of the Green Bay Packers.

My dad soured on the Cleveland Browns when Paul Brown was fired from the franchise he built -- so dad latched on to Vince Lombardi's 1960s juggernaut, and his field general, Bart Starr. When I turned 6, a Packer helmet it was.

While counter-culture phenom Joe Namath would become my hero, I always respected the quiet, conservative Starr. Guys like Joe Willie, Sonny Jurgenson, Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Unitas were certainly more flashy back in the day, but Starr was uniquely solid.

Because Starr engineered Lombardi's run-oriented, sledgehammer of an offense, his passing numbers never jumped off the page at you by any means.

In 1967, the year Namath became the first quarterback to eclipse 4,000 yards passing, and Jurgenson came close with over 3,600 yards, Starr passed for a little over 1,800 yards.

Incredibly, Starr never passed for more than 2,438 yards in a season. By today's standards, 2,400 yards equals about half a season for the gunslingers in the pass-first NFL.

But I don't imagine that personal numbers meant all that much to Starr. He wasn't in it for the gaudy statistics.

He was in it to win. And as the Packers' extension of Lombardi on the field, no quarterback in his era won more than Bart Starr.

The 17th-round draft pick out of Alabama led Green Bay to NFL championships in 1961 and 1962, and then three straight titles from 1965 to 1967. Those final two NFL crowns culminated with the first two Super Bowl games, in which Starr was named the MVP in victories over Kansas City and Oakland, the champions of the old AFL.

Starr's level of play declined after Lombardi departed following the 1967 season, and the championship team around began to erode. But after the 1971 season, Starr began a coaching career in Green Bay -- first as a quarterbacks coach, and later as the franchise's head man from 1975-1983.

Unfortunately, Starr's success as a player did not translate to a stellar career as a coach. He was under .500 and had only one playoff win when he was ousted after the 1983 season.

But no one ever booed Bart Starr.

His quiet, confident leadership cemented him as a Lambeau Field legend long before he left the Packers.

He was respected as a player -- but as good as he was on the field, he was an even better human being.

One of his biggest fans was President Richard Nixon, who made it a point to venture to Green Bay in October 1970, for a testimonial reception honoring Starr.

"We honor him as a very great practitioner of his profession, the proud profession of professional football," Nixon said. "And as we honor him for that, we honor him not only for his technical skill but, as I've indicated, also for something that is just as important: his leadership qualities, his character, his moral fiber ... But I think the best way that I can present Bart Starr to his friends is to say very simply that the sixties will be described as the decade in which football became the number one sport in America, in which the Packers were the number one team, and Bart Starr was proudly the number one Packer."

When the NFL wanted to select a player of outstanding character to be recognized each year, they called it The Bart Starr Award. It is a fitting tribute to one of the great people to ever play the game.

Bart Starr died last weekend at the age of 85. The old quarterback's health had failed over the past few years. Although his death was imminent, fans, coaches and players who were touched by Starr mourn his passing.

Bart Starr will no longer shine brightly as one of the grand old greats of pro football -- but his contribution to the game will never be forgotten ... particularly in the Land of the Frozen Tundra.

JEFF NEAL is the editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.