In his last interview—and that is a stretch, really, because the “interview” was 23 courageous and arduous words long, and it lasted well over an hour—Bart Starr tried to accomplish his goal just as hard as he tried to burrow in for the biggest touchdown in the history of the Green Bay Packers in the Ice Bowl. Two strokes, a heart attack and a brain-scrambling disease called aphasia can make uttering 23 words like climbing Kilimanjaro. I know. I witnessed it, late last August in Starr’s office south of Birmingham, Ala.
The effort that day said so much about Starr the man. I had come to Birmingham to convey the level of the relationship between Rodgers, 34, and Starr, 84. Though they were a half-century apart in age, they had a bond. When Rodgers took over the Packer QB job in 2008, Starr wrote Rodgers a letter, and Starr kept writing him. Encouraging things. “It meant so much, coming from a man who had been in my shoes with this team,” Rodgers told me a few days later. “I was a big football fan, and big Packer fan. Here was Bart Starr, writing to me. It always meant a lot to me, because I knew I had the support of one of the greatest players of all time.”
Bart Starr died Sunday morning at 85. He was a great player, a Hall of Fame player, quarterbacking the Packers to the NFL championship in 1961, 1962 and 1965, and the larger Super Bowl championship in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. Pretty good for the 200th pick in the NFL draft in 1956, exactly 44 years before Tom Brady was the 199th pick in the draft.
You know what I really wanted to ask Starr that afternoon in Birmingham? You completed 14 of 24 throws in minus-46 wind chill in the Ice Bowl, against that great Dallas defense, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and a rating over 110. How? How’d you do it? But it wasn’t the place or the time; the memory bank just wasn’t there. But I did want him to know how good he was if no one reminded him about it much anymore—his 104.8 career rating in NFL playoff games has never been surpassed in the last half century by the greatest of the quarterback greats. But he didn’t care.
What he cared about that day was doing something nice for his friend. These 23 words were his Bob Lilly, his big foe.
I, and an NBC crew, had come to Birmingham, and would proceed to Green Bay a few days later to speak to Rodgers, for an NBC story on the warm relationship between the great Green Bay quarterback of the sixties and the great Green Bay quarterback of modern day. Starr and his personal assistant, Leigh Ann Nelson, had written a short note for this story. Starr would tell of his relationship with Rodgers. Nelson knew the message had to be short, because Starr simply didn’t have the ability to say much, at any volume, because of the strokes.
When Starr walked in, steadied by Nelson, he sat down on a couch and I told him how much I appreciated him making this effort.
He stared at me, opened his mouth. “Glad,” he said, and then it took a few seconds, “for Aaron.”
This was for Aaron. Anything for Aaron. Bart and Cherry Starr, his wife of 64 years, loved Aaron Rodgers.