Bart Starr could never be as good as his older brother in his father’s eyes. As a college senior who harbored NFL dreams, Starr wasn’t good enough to play for an Alabama team that finished 0-10. Because of Starr’s physical limitations and understated manner, Vince Lombardi considered trading for Don Meredith.
In the face of all of those doubters, Starr led the Packers to five championships in a seven-year span and is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Author Keith Dunnavant lends fresh perspective on Starr, and what he meant in NFL history, in “America’s Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League,” which was released this month and is available at all the usual retailers.
“When you’re writing sports books, you’re always looking for something that hasn’t been done or hasn’t been done right,” Dunnavant told Packer Report in a recent magazine story. “I felt like Starr was a terrific story that had not been told fully or told through the right prism. You’re talking about a guy who, on the one hand, is this classic overachiever. He was doubted by his father, he was benched by his college coach, Lombardi at first didn’t want him. Media across the league doubted him, dismissed him for so long. Yet, he’s the winningest quarterback in the history of the NFL. Even serious students of the NFL, how many of them know that? On a deeper level, I like to write sports books that kind of reflect the culture of who we were and who we are. Starr was a guy who really was a reflection of late-20th century America and what we valued. He was this squeaky-clean embodiment about so many things we believed about ourselves, and yet he was the real deal."
Starr and the Packers came along at the perfect time, with their rise to greatness paralleling the NFL's rise to dominance in the American Sporting scene.
America's Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of The National Football League
By Keith Dunnavant
"Everybody talks about the 1958 championship game, which, of course, was the moment of awakening for the NFL and Johnny U became this huge star and the Colts became this national phenomenon," Dunnavant said. "And then the Packers take it to an entirely different level. The Packers were America’s Team long before the Cowboys. All of these things were happening, and also the fact that Pete Rozelle comes along at just the right time. He goes out and sells the national television package for the NFL, and out of that, lifts the NFL and, by the way, that’s the best thing that could have possibly happened to the Packers. Who knows what would have happened if that disparity in income with television had continued. It helps the Packers prosper financially. And then you have the competition with the AFL. There’s nothing quite like having a rival. So, yeah, it was a perfect storm and the Packers became this gold standard. Of all the great teams that we’ve seen since then, we haven’t seen anybody equal what Lombardi’s team accomplished."
The following is the start of Chapter 4. It is printed below, courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.
The first clue was sealed in his memory.
When Bart Starr picked up a copy of the Green Bay Press-Gazette on the morning after Vince Lombardi was introduced as the new head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, the name did not immediately register. Like the vast majority of Green Bay fans, Starr knew little about his new boss beyond the most recent line on his resume: offensive coordinator for the New York Giants. But when he saw a photograph of Lombardi in the paper — his piercing eyes smiling through eyeglasses, exposing the gap between his two front teeth — something clicked in his mind.
The memory was still fresh and vivid: After leading the Packers to a touchdown in a preseason game against the Giants at Boston’s Fenway Park in 1958, Starr was jogging off the field when he noticed a burly assistant coach with graying hair screaming “at the top of his lungs” toward the New York defense, castigating the unit for allowing the score. The man’s intensity was hard to miss — even in a meaningless preseason game eventually won by the struggling Packers — and Starr was struck by the fact that an offensive coach could be so animated about the defense.
The face was unmistakable.
It was him, a realization that landed “like a lightning bolt.”
When Starr suddenly realized the same figure who caught his eye in Boston was staring out from the front page of his morning paper, he knew the Green Bay Packers, burdened by the weight of eleven consecutive nonwinning seasons, by the accumulated gloom produced by all those years of futility, poor discipline, and low expectations, were in for a rude awakening.
Several weeks later, the new coach convened his quarterbacks and a few other offensive players for a three-hour meeting inside a classroom on the second floor of the Packers’ headquarters, the first session of what amounted to a spring mini-camp.
“Good morning,” he said, scanning the room where the athletes sat quietly in folding chairs. “I’m Vince Lombardi.”
Nothing about the Packers would ever be the same.
From the first moments, Starr and his teammates could tell the new man was different, which was good because they desperately needed a large dose of different. His demeanor was direct, confident, cerebral, commanding. He never raised his voice. The way he spoke and comported himself reminded Starr of a military officer, and for a young man shaped in such a mold, this seemed like a very good sign.
“Immediately you had a strong feeling about the quality of the man,” Starr said.
After Lombardi walked around the room handing out new playbooks and took up a position near the blackboard, chalk in hand, he said, “We’re going to take a giant step backward, gentlemen.”
The first milestone in the transformation was a dramatic simplification of the offense. As he asked the players to empty their skulls full of Scooter McLean’s mush, they noticed that the new playbook was less than half the size of the old one. The point was clear: They were going to do a few things and do them all well.
In contrast to McLean’s unnecessarily verbose wording, which often left his quarterbacks overwhelmed, Lombardi introduced a new play-calling terminology boiled down to two digits: one number for the formation, another for the hole. The new system transferred the calling of blocking assignments from the quarterback to the offensive linemen and gave the quarterback much greater latitude to react to the defense.
“This was such a radical change,” Starr said. “He threw out all the crap. And you’re thinking: Man, does this make sense or what?”
As he diagrammed several plays, Lombardi was able to manipulate the chalk without losing eye contact with his players, a little detail that impressed Starr.
Then, in what amounted to a verbal mission statement, he clarified the purpose of his Green Bay Packers.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “we are going to relentlessly chase perfection ... knowing full well that we won’t catch it, because nobody is perfect ...”
Starr was on the edge of his seat, soaking up the message like a sponge.
“... but we’re going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process, we will catch excellence.”
The words tumbled in Starr’s mind as Lombardi paused and moved closer, close enough to see the fire in his eyes. Starr would always remember the pause, the perfectly timed theatricality of it, the way it heightened the sense of anticipation pervading the room.
“I’m not remotely interested in being just good.”
In a moment pregnant with possibility, gleaming with the sort of ambition the Packers had sorely lacked, the pulsating life force of Vince Lombardi reached deep inside Bart Starr and grabbed him in a way no one had ever grabbed him before. He was so fired up he wanted to stand up and cheer.
“We were all just blown away,” he said. “It was so inspiring ... such an exciting moment.”
When they took a break for lunch, Starr rushed downstairs to a pay phone and placed a long-distance call to Cherry at their off-season home in Birmingham. “Honey,” he said excitedly, “we’re going to begin to win.”
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