Nearly four years ago, when I visited Bart Starr in his Birmingham, Alabama, home, he did not remember the five NFL championships he had won, or the Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, he had won them for. He could not place Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers, even though he studied Rodgers closely through the DirecTV package his wife and high school sweetheart, Cherry, had bought him as a Christmas gift.
Starr even asked me if I had played for Lombardi, the former coach at my New Jersey high school. We shared a small laugh over that before I brought up the 1967 Ice Bowl, one of football's most iconic games settled by one of football's most iconic players. Starr did not remember anything about that either.
The then-81-year-old former quarterback had suffered multiple strokes, a heart attack, four seizures, and significant brain damage within the previous year, and some doctors could not believe he was still alive. During one stay in the hospital, a doctor told Cherry her husband likely would not make it through the night. Bart woke up the next morning in much better shape.
He lost his memory long before he lost his life Sunday at 85. But Starr never lost his dignity while he reminded the world, in his last great comeback, that he was the toughest NFL player who ever lived.
When we think of old-school toughness on the football field, we often think of big and vicious hitters, fire-breathing defenders who played through injury and enjoyed cutting skill-position players in half. Chuck Bednarik, Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus. Mean Joe Greene, Jack Tatum, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary.
But at 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, the gentlemanly Starr made the most difficult championship play under the most difficult circumstances in a game that never should have been played. With the ball at the 1-yard line at Lambeau Field, down three points to the Dallas Cowboys with 16 seconds to go, Starr ignored his frozen hands and body, the subhuman Green Bay conditions (the wind chill was minus-48 degrees), and the fact that he was an aging, athletically-challenged quarterback who had already been sacked by Dallas eight times. Starr asked to keep the ball in a huddle with Lombardi, who ordered him to push it across the goal line. "And then let's get the hell out of here," the coach cried.
Starr scored, of course, behind Jerry Kramer's famous block on Jethro Pugh, and afterward his wife was stunned by the severe swelling in his face. No NFL player had ever been asked to give more on a single drive or a single play. Starr would be named Super Bowl MVP for a second straight time two weeks later, and he never again managed a winning record as a starter.
He would endure profound tragedy in his life, losing his son Bret to cocaine addiction at age 24 in 1988, when he found his boy's body on the floor of his home. Only Starr didn't quit, because he would never quit on anything. He was a fighter, the son of a tough-love World War II veteran and Air Force master sergeant who lost his favorite child, Hilton, to tetanus when the boy was 11, and who didn't think Bart would amount to much. Starr was the 200th overall pick in the 1956 NFL draft, a non-prospect who was benched during his final, winless season at Alabama and who was only drafted in the 17th round because the school's basketball coach had a connection with the Packers' front office.
Starr played 10 postseason games for Lombardi, and he won nine of them. He willed himself into the Hall of Fame; no quarterback has ever been drafted as late as Starr and still made it to Canton.
After the strokes and seizures, Starr tried to will himself back to health. Cherry and his personal aide and nursing assistant would wrap their arms around him and, on a count of three, lift him out of his chair and get him going through his day. He underwent stem-cell treatments, and rigorous exercise sessions with his trainer, Brian Burns, who kept reminding the old quarterback of his greatness to motivate him to keep a scheduled farewell appearance at Lambeau in 2015 for the halftime unveiling of Favre's retired No. 4.
Starr barely survived a bronchial infection in late summer to make that trip, and his trainer saw considerable gains in his physical and mental capacities. "I ask him what his number was, and he says, 'Fifteen,'" Burns told ESPN.com at the time. "I ask him who he played for, and he says, 'Vince Lombardi.' I ask him what position he played, and he says, 'Quarterback.' One time he said, 'Linebacker,' and we got a good laugh over that. But he's made incredible progress. He is really coming back."
On a desk in Starr's study stood a captioned photo with the Lombardi quote, "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence." By all accounts, the quarterback didn't just chase perfection on the field. Strangers from all over would show up at his Green Bay doorstep, and Starr was forever willing to pose for their pictures or even invite them inside. As a young boy at Packers training camp, Bart Jr. asked his old man why he had just spent so much time signing autographs for so many fans.
"Everybody who wants an autograph will get one as long as I'm not holding up the team," Starr explained to his son. "One thing you have to remember: These are the individuals who make this team possible."
Starr was the individual player who made Lombardi's dynasty possible. In the end, Cherry, his wife of 65 years, never stopped pushing him forward. She helped feed him and transport him from one appointment to the next. Even on nights when sundown syndrome dramatically altered his serene disposition, Bart asked Cherry to play him Il Divo's rendition of "Unchained Melody" before he fell asleep. Starr once asked her to promise she would play that song at his wedding. He meant to say his funeral, and his wife wouldn't stop teasing him about that.
Cherry believes that football contributed to her husband's decline; she saw too many concussive hits, and too much postgame pain, to think otherwise. His fingertips remained pale in later years, she thought, because of what he put himself through in the Ice Bowl. But Bart was not a man defined by regret, even if he had trouble finishing a sentence in the hours I spent with him in his home.
On exit that day in 2015, I told Starr that I thought he was the toughest man to play in the NFL.
He looked at the floor, as if the compliment embarrassed him. "Well," he responded, "I've been the luckiest football player ever."
Go look at the film of the Ice Bowl. When it came to Bryan Bartlett Starr, luck had absolutely nothing to do with it.