Almost four years ago, when I visited Bart Starr at his home in Birmingham, Alabama, he did not remember the five NFL championships he had won, or Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, for whom he had won them. He could not locate Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers, even though he studied Rodgers closely through the DirecTV package that his high school wife and girlfriend, Cherry, had purchased for him as a Christmas present.
Starr even asked me if I had played for Lombardi, the former coach of my New Jersey high school. We shared a small laugh about that before I mentioned the 1967 Ice Bowl, one of the most emblematic games of football solved by one of football's most iconic players. Starr did not remember any of that either.
The 81-year-old former field marshal had suffered multiple strokes, a heart attack, four seizures and significant brain damage in the previous year, and some doctors could not believe he was still alive. During a hospital stay, a doctor told Cherry that her husband probably would not stay overnight. Bart woke up the next morning in much better condition.
He lost his memory long before He lost his life on Sunday at 85 years old. But Starr never lost his dignity as he reminded the world, in his last great comeback, that he was the toughest player in the NFL that ever existed.
When we think about the hardness of the old school on the football field, we often think of big, vicious hitters, fire-breathing defenders who played through an injury and enjoyed cutting players with skill skills in half. . Chuck Bednarik, Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus. It refers to Joe Greene, Jack Tatum, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary.
But at 6 feet-1, 196 pounds, Knight Starr made the championship game more difficult in the most difficult circumstances in a game that should never have been played. With the ball on the 1-yard line at Lambeau Field, three points below the Dallas Cowboys with 16 seconds to go, Starr ignored his frozen hands and body, the inhuman conditions of Green Bay (the heat sensation was less than that). 48 degrees), and the fact that he was an aging quarterback with athletic problems who had already been fired by Dallas eight times. Starr asked to keep the ball in a group with Lombardi, who ordered him to push her through the goal line. "And then let's get out of here," the coach yelled.
Starr scored, of course, behind the famous Jerry Kramer block in Jethro Pugh, and then his wife was stunned by the severe swelling on his face. No NFL player had been asked to give more in a single unit or in a single play. Starr would be named Super Bowl MVP for the second time in a row two weeks later, and never again achieved a winning record as a starter.
He would suffer a profound tragedy in his life, losing his son Bret to cocaine addiction at the age of 24 in 1988, when he found his son's body on the floor of his house. Only Starr did not resign, because he would never give up anything. He was a wrestler, the son of a World War II veteran and an Air Force master sergeant who lost his favorite son, Hilton, to tetanus when he was 11 years old, and who did not think Bart would contribute much. Starr was the 200th pick in the 1956 NFL draft, a non-prospect who stayed on the bench during his last season without victories in Alabama and who was only drafted in the 17th round because the school's basketball coach had a connection to the Packers' main office.
Starr played 10 postseason games for Lombardi, and won nine of them. He turned himself in to the Hall of Fame; no field marshal has been recruited as late as Starr and still came to Canton.
After the blows and convulsions, Starr tried to recover his health. Cherry, his personal assistant and his nursing assistant wrapped his arms around him and, counting to three, they lifted him from his chair and took him to his day. He underwent stem cell treatments and rigorous exercise sessions with his trainer, Brian Burns, who reminded the old quarterback of his greatness to motivate him to maintain a Scheduled farewell appearance at Lambeau in 2015 for the inauguration of the No. 4 retired from Favre.
Starr barely survived a bronchial infection in late summer to make that trip, and his trainer noted considerable gains in his physical and mental abilities. "I asked him what his number was and he says: 'Quince,'" Burns told ESPN.com at the time. "I ask who he played for, and he says:" Vince Lombardi. "I ask him what position he played, and he tells me:" Quarterback. "He once said & # 39; Linebacker & # 39; and we laugh a lot about that, but he has made incredible progress, he is really coming back. "
On a desk in Starr's studio there was a photo with subtitles in Lombardi's quote: "You can not achieve perfection, but if we seek perfection we can achieve excellence". By all accounts, the field marshal not only pursued perfection in the field. Strangers from all over the world appeared at their door in Green Bay, and Starr was always willing to pose for their photos or even invite them in. As a child in the Packers training camp, Bart Jr. asked his father why he had spent so much time signing autographs for so many fans.
"Everyone who wants an autograph will get one as long as he's not holding the team," Starr explained to his son. "You have to remember one thing: these are the people who make this team possible."
Starr was the individual player who made the Lombardi dynasty possible. In the end, Cherry, his 65-year-old wife, never stopped pushing him forward. She helped feed him and transport him from one appointment to another. Even on the nights when the sunset syndrome dramatically altered his serene disposition, Bart asked Cherry to interpret Il Divo's rendition of "Unchained Melody" before he fell asleep. Starr once asked her to promise that she would play that song at her wedding. He wanted to say his funeral, and his wife would not stop bothering him for that.
Cherry believes that soccer contributed to the decline of her husband; she saw too many concussive blows, and too much pain after the game, to think otherwise. His fingers remained pale in recent years, he thought, because of what he did in the Ice Bowl. But Bart was not a man defined by repentance, even if he had trouble finishing a sentence in the hours he spent with him at home.
When I left that day in 2015, I told Starr that he thought he was the toughest man to play in the NFL.
He looked at the floor, as if the compliment embarrassed him. "Well," he replied, "I've been the luckiest soccer player of all time."
Go see the Ice Bowl movie. When it came to Bryan Bartlett Starr, luck had absolutely nothing to do with it.