Bart Starr, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Green Bay Packers when they dominated the National Football League in the 1960s and was known for his “Ice Bowl” heroics, has died. He was 85.
Starr’s death was reported Sunday by the Packers on Twitter. In a statement, his family referred to a recent, unspecified illness. Starr, who lived in Birmingham, Alabama, had two strokes and a mild heart attack in 2014 and received experimental stem cell treatment.
“His true legacy will always be the respectful manner in which he treated every person he met, his humble demeanor, and his generous spirit,” the Starr family said.
Starr won five NFL championships, all in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls. It took until this year for a quarterback – the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady – to better that record.
Named Most Valuable Player in those two early Super Bowls, he recorded a 9-1 record in career postseason games. Calling his own plays under Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi, Starr was on Green Bay’s roster from 1956 to 1971 and then coached the team from 1975 to 1983.
His most memorable game was the NFL championship against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 31, 1967, known as the “Ice Bowl.” The temperature on the Packers’ Lambeau Field, in Wisconsin, was -13 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 Celsius) at kickoff. After taking an early 14-0 lead, Green Bay trailed 17-14 late in the fourth quarter. Driving more than 60 yards on the frozen turf against the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense,” the Packers were inches from their opponent’s goal line with 16 seconds remaining. Starr ran a quarterback sneak, tumbling into the end zone to secure his team’s third straight title.
“No quarterback has ever performed so well, so consistently in pressure situations,” former NFL Films president Steve Sabol said, according to Keith Dunnavant’s 2011 biography, “Bart Starr: America’s Quarterback and the Rise of the National Football League.”
Starr was the NFL’s MVP in 1966 and was inducted in the league’s Hall of Fame in 1977. During his tenure, the Packers won championships in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967.
President Richard Nixon, speaking at a testimonial dinner for Starr in 1970, said: ”The ’60s will be described as the decade in which football became the No. 1 sport in America, in which the Packers were the No. 1 team, and Bart Starr was proudly the No. 1 Packer.”
Bryan Bartlett Starr was born Jan. 9, 1934, in Montgomery, Alabama. His mother, the former Lulu Tucker, was a homemaker, and his father, Benjamin Starr, joined the U.S. Air Force after serving in the military during World War II. When he was 13, Starr’s younger brother, Hilton, died of tetanus poisoning. Badgered by his father, a strict disciplinarian, to match his dead brother’s toughness and aggressiveness, Starr told Dunnavant, “I was determined to show him that I could be a good athlete.”
Playing quarterback at Montgomery’s Sidney Lanier High School, Starr led the team to an undefeated season. Courted by several colleges, he settled on the University of Alabama’s, in part to be near his girlfriend, Cherry Morton, who attended Auburn University. They married in 1954.
At Alabama, Starr was a punter and defensive back, moving to quarterback his sophomore year. Injuries and coaching schemes limited his starts as a junior and a senior and he was not highly touted in the pro football draft of 1956, the year he graduated. Green Bay, then one of the NFL’s weakest teams, picked him in the 17th round.
A third-string quarterback, Starr did little to improve Green Bay’s prospects as the team posted a record of 8-27-1 over the next three seasons. Then, in 1959, the Packers hired Lombardi as head coach. Lombardi, one of the best teachers and motivators who ever paced a sideline, at first questioned Starr’s arm strength and toughness. Yet he was impressed by the young player’s work ethic and play-calling skill, and so began one of pro football’s most storied player-coach relationships.
In 1960, with Starr as starting quarterback, Green Bay won its first Western Conference title in 16 years, losing the NFL championship game to the Philadelphia Eagles. A year later, he led the Packers to a title by crushing the New York Giants, 37-0.
”Everything I am as a man and a football player I owe to Vince Lombardi,” Starr said, according to a 1970 Sports magazine story.
Starr retired as a player in 1972. He stayed with Green Bay as quarterback coach and in 1975 was named head coach, compiling a 52-76-3 record before he was dismissed at the end of the 1983 season.
Since 1989, Starr focused on developing and acquiring health-care real estate, most recently as vice chairman of the Sanders Trust, based in Birmingham, Alabama, a successor firm of Starr Sanders Properties.
Starr and his wife were also involved with Rawhide Boys Ranch, a faith-based charity for at-risk teenagers in New London, Wisconsin, which opened in 1965.
With his wife, Cherry, he had two sons, Bart Starr Jr. and Bret Starr, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 at age 24.