GREEN BAY — Bart Starr was an ordinary quarterback until teaming with Vince Lombardi and serving as the catalyst for the powerhouse Green Bay Packers teams that ruled the 1960s and ushered in the NFL as America’s most popular sport.
The quarterback’s graceful throws helped turn a run-heavy league into a passing spectacle, yet it’s a run for which he’s most famous: the sneak that won the famed “Ice Bowl” in 1967.
Starr died Sunday, May 26 at age 85 in Birmingham, Alabama, the Packers said. He had been in failing health since suffering two strokes and a heart attack in 2014.
A statement from the Packers is as follows:
“Bart Starr, the first quarterback in history to win five National Football League championships and hero of the most memorable game in the storied history of the Green Bay Packers, died today in Birmingham, Ala. He had been in failing health since suffering a serious stroke in 2014.
Starr, 85, played for the Packers from 1956 to 1971, and was beloved by fans of not only his generation, but also succeeding ones. Along with being a Pro Football Hall of Famer and among a small pantheon of Packers’ all-time greats, he was the franchise’s nonpareil role model in the eyes of many.
Maybe the most popular player in Packers history, Starr will be eulogized for being a consummate professional, a Good Samaritan and an exemplary role model.
As a player, he will be remembered for being the only quarterback ever to lead his team to five NFL titles in a decade and for that frozen-in-time moment where he was lying face down under a pile of bodies in the south end zone of Lambeau Field, the hero of the Ice Bowl.
To this day, a half-century later, Starr’s game-winning quarterback sneak in that Dec. 31, 1967, game remains the signature moment in Packers history and personified what the Packers franchise is all about: Perseverance against all odds and unmatched success among all NFL teams.
With the Packers trailing by three points, 16 seconds remaining and the ball at the 1-yard line, it was Starr who suggested to coach Vince Lombardi during the Packers’ final timeout that he run a quarterback sneak for the first time that season.
When Starr squeezed between the blocks of right guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman and landed in the end zone, he not only sealed the Packers’ 21-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, but also climaxed the Lombardi Era.
What made it such a timeless moment in pro football history besides the last-minute drama were the conditions – a frozen field, temperatures that hovered around -16 degrees and a brutal wind chill that dipped to a -46 – and the stakes.
To this day, the Lombardi Packers are the only team to win three consecutive NFL titles since post-season play was introduced 85 years ago.
The game also epitomized Starr’s contribution to pro football’s greatest dynasty.
He always seemed to deliver in the clutch.“He called the right thing at the right time and he executed it,” said Boyd Dowler, Starr’s favorite receiver during the nine years they played together under Lombardi. “He never made a bad read. He never made a stupid throw.
“If somebody was open, he’d get you the ball. He knew what it took to win and he went about doing it. He was a tremendous competitor and he was so consistent.”
Starr played 16 years for the Packers, a club record for service that he shares with Brett Favre. He was MVP of Super Bowls I and II. He was MVP of the NFL in 1966.
He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. He had his No. 15 jersey retired by the Packers on Nov. 11, 1973, two years after he retired.
He also served as head coach of the Packers from 1975-’83, compiling a 52-76-3 record.
The backdrop of Starr’s professional success also was one of the more improbable in sports history.
He was drafted in the 17th round, the 200th player overall, in 1956 after four uneven seasons at the University of Alabama.
As a sophomore, he led the Crimson Tide to the Southeastern Conference championship and was called “the best passer” in the school’s history by his coach, Red Drew. The next year, his playing time was limited by a back injury and Drew was fired. As a senior, Starr played in an offense where the quarterback needed to be more runner than passer, struggled and wound up sharing the job with a converted halfback.
Two days into his first training camp with the Packers in 1956, Starr impressed coach Lisle Blackbourn enough to earn his praise, despite his less than lofty draft status. Blackbourn presciently told the press, “The boy has a lot of poise.”
Starr backed up veteran Tobin Rote as a rookie and split playing time with Babe Parilli the next two seasons as the compiled an 8-27-1 record. In 1959, Lombardi took over as coach of the Packers, traded for Lamar McHan and made him the starting quarterback. In fact, at one point, Starr was third string behind McHan and Joe Francis.
With five games remaining in the season, Starr was given his chance to showcase his talents for an injured McHan and went 4-1. Four years into his NFL career, Starr finally had his first victory as a starting quarterback.
But he still didn’t have Lombardi’s full confidence. When Starr played poorly in the 1960 opener, a loss to the Chicago Bears, Lombardi gave the job back to McHan.
Then, five games into the season, Lombardi changed his mind again. He benched McHan late in the third quarter at Pittsburgh and Starr led the Packers to the winning touchdown with a nearly four-minute, fourth-quarter drive.
This time the job was Starr’s for good.
He started the final seven games, led the Packers to the NFL title game for the first time in 16 years and then to NFL championships in 1961, ’62, ’65, ’66 and ’67. Under Lombardi, Starr had a record of 73-21-4 in regular-season games and a 9-1 record in the post-season.
Once he had earned Lombardi’s confidence, Starr also soon gained it from his teammates. That watershed moment occurred on Oct. 1, 1961, in a game against the Chicago Bears at what is now Lambeau Field.
Up until that point, there were those who still questioned if Starr wasn’t too nice, too polite, too unassuming to be a winning quarterback.
But he took a brutal pounding that day, including one or two flagrant late hits, needed stitches to stem the bleeding from his mouth and yet unfazed threw two touchdown passes and led the Packers to a 24-0 victory.
“I think it was a moment where everybody on the team understood Bart Starr had a lot of steel in his back,” said guard Jerry Kramer.
The Packers went on to finish the regular-season 11-3, their best record in 17 years, and beat the New York Giants, 37-0, in the NFL title game.
Starr is survived by his wife, Cherry; and his oldest son, Bart Jr. He was preceded in death by his youngest son, Bret.
Bart and Cherry were generous benefactors to many organizations and causes, most notably Rawhide Boys Ranch, which was established in 1965 near New London, Wis., to serve at-risk youth and families.
Starr suffered two strokes and a heart attack in early September 2014.
His last visit to Lambeau Field was Nov. 26, 2015, the night Brett Favre’s name and retired No. 4 were unveiled on the stadium’s façade.
In another treasured moment in Packers history, Starr rode a golf cart from the stadium’s tunnel in a steady rain to center stage where he greeted and embraced Favre in a moment that no doubt brought cheer, chills and tears to many in the crowd of nearly 80,000.
Funeral arrangements are pending.”
Starr is the third of Lombardi’s dozen Hall of Famers to die in the past eight months. Fullback Jim Taylor died in October and offensive tackle Forrest Gregg died last month.
“A champion on and off the field, Bart epitomized class and was beloved by generations of Packers fans,” Packers President Mark Murphy said in a statement. “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.”
The Packers selected Starr out of the University of Alabama with the 200th pick in the 1956 draft. He led Green Bay to six division titles, five NFL championships and wins in the first two Super Bowls.
Until Brett Favre came along, Starr was known as the best Packer ever. The team retired his No. 15 jersey in 1973, making him just the third player to receive that honor. Four years later, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
After losing the 1960 NFL title game in his first playoff appearance, the Packers never lost another playoff game under Starr, going 9-0, including wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders in the first two Super Bowls.
Starr’s college career wasn’t very noteworthy and it wasn’t until Lombardi’s arrival in Green Bay in 1959 that Starr, living by his motto “desire and dedication are everything,” began to blossom.
Lombardi liked Starr’s mechanics, his arm strength and especially his decision-making abilities. Under Lombardi’s nurturing, Starr became one of the league’s top quarterbacks.
“If you work harder than somebody else, chances are you’ll beat him though he has more talent than you,” Starr once said. He credited Lombardi for showing him “that by working hard and using my mind, I could overcome my weakness to the point where I could be one of the best.”
The gentlemanly quarterback’s status as a Packers icon was tested by his struggles as the team’s head coach. In nine seasons from 1975-83, he won just 41 percent of his games, going 53-77-3, including 1-1 in the playoffs, part of three decades of futility that followed the glory years.
After football, Starr, became a successful businessman in Birmingham, Alabama, not far from his hometown of Montgomery, where he was born on Jan. 9, 1934.
Starr was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro. He won NFL titles in 1961, ’62, ’65, ’67 and ’68. He was the 1966 NFL MVP and was named to the 1960s All-Decade team. He also was named MVP of the first two Super Bowls.
When Starr retired following the 1971 season, his career completion rate of 57.4 percent was tops in the run-heavy NFL, and his passer rating of 80.5 was second-best ever, behind only Otto Graham.
But the play he was most famous for was a run.
In the NFL championship on Dec. 31, 1967, Starr knifed into the end zone behind guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman with 16 seconds left to lift the Packers over the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 in what became known as the “Ice Bowl.”
The Packers had spent $80,000 for a heating coil system that was to have kept the field soft and warm, and forecasters said not to worry because the approaching cold front wouldn’t arrive until after the game.
“It was 20 degrees the day before,” the late Tom Landry once recalled. “It was great. Vince and I were together that night and we talked about how good the conditions were and what a great game it would be.”
They were half-right. When the grounds crew rolled up the tarpaulin, a layer of condensation had formed underneath and, with 40 mph wind, the field promptly froze like an ice rink. Packers running back Chuck Mercein would later compare the ground to “jagged concrete.”
With a temperature of minus-14 and a wind chill of minus-49, it was the coldest NFL game ever recorded. The wind chill had dipped another 20 degrees by the time the Packers got the ball at their 32 trailing 17-14 with five minutes left.
With one last chance for an aging dynasty to win a fifth NFL title in seven seasons, Starr took the field as linebacker Ray Nitschke hollered, “Don’t let me down!”
Starr wouldn’t, completing all five of his passes and directing one of the most memorable drives in NFL history.
“We all have a capacity to focus and to concentrate to a unique degree when we’re called upon to do it,” Starr said on the 30th anniversary of that game. “That’s exactly what I did that day. And I think the same was true of the Cowboys. Let’s face it, they obviously were not accustomed to something like that and yet they were the team which had surged and come back in the second half and were in a position to win it.”
With 1:11 remaining, tackle Bob Skoronski opened a hole and Mercein charged through the middle for 8 yards to the Dallas 3.
Halfback Donny Anderson slipped twice on handoffs, so Starr called timeout, went to the sideline and suggested a sneak because of the poor traction.
“Then run it and let’s get the hell out of here,” Lombardi barked.
The play worked perfectly, a flawless finish to that coldest of games so frozen in time.
“I’ve never been in a huddle where there was greater composure and where there was a higher level of intensity and concentration,” Mercein once told The Associated Press.
Mercein is the one in the famous photograph of the play diving into the end zone behind Starr with his hands held high, as though he’s signaling “Touchdown!”
“But what I’m actually doing is I’m showing the officials that I’m not assisting or aiding Bart into the end zone,” Mercein said.
That would have been a penalty and it would have negated history’s most famous quarterback sneak.
Mercein and the rest of his teammates thought he was going to get the handoff on the play. Nobody knew but Starr and Lombardi that it was to be a quarterback sneak. So, Mercein dug in, thinking he was getting the ball, and he got a great takeoff on the frozen field.
“As a matter of fact too good because after a couple of steps I realized I wasn’t going to get the ball. But I couldn’t really pull up because it was so icy,” Mercein said. “So that’s why I dive over the play and I have my arms upraised, which appears to everyone in that famous picture that I’m signaling touchdown.”
Two weeks later in sunny Miami, the Packers defeated the AFL champion Raiders 33-14 in Lombardi’s final game as head coach of the Packers.
Starr replaced Dan Devine as Packers head coach in 1975 and would be replaced himself by former teammate Forrest Gregg in 1984 after failing to lead the franchise to the kind of success he did as a player.
In 1965, Starr and his wife, Cherry, helped co-found Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London, Wisconsin, a facility designed to help at-risk and troubled boys throughout the state.
The couple dealt with tragedy in 1988 when their son Brett died at 24 due to complications from cocaine addiction. They also had another son, Bart Jr.
“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,” Starr’s family said in a statement.
“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.”
Starr has an NFL award named after him, given annually to a player of outstanding character.
Starr’s family released the following statement on Twitter:
“We are saddened to note the passing of our husband, father, grandfather, and friend, Bart Starr. 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 last 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.”