In the summer of 2012, my wife, daughter, and I walked into the Perkins restaurant in Green Bay for breakfast and saw Bart Starr and his wife enjoying their breakfast, looking right at me! We sat down, and I took the entire meal to build up the courage to talk to him.
When he was leaving to pay his bill I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Starr? Could I trouble you for a picture with my daughter and me?”
He said, “Sure. Bart…not Mr. Starr.”
I said, “It’s always Mr. Starr for me,” thinking it impossible to address such a legend with anything lees than the utmost respect.
He asked my name and where we live. He even chatted with my two year old daughter a bit. He said “Go Packers” and held up his hand with the championship ring, at which point I almost fainted.
It was an incredible experience meeting such a legendary person, but especially because he was so gracious and kind.
– An anonymous Packers fan
Perhaps Bart Starr had a repeat button in his mind with phrases like “That’s too formal. It’s not mister. It’s Bart.”
He probably had to push that repeat button thousands of times in his life when fans would address him like the encounter described above.
— Kendall Lewis (@TheBSKsays) October 4, 2014
He often found himself among those who near-idolized him, who often were nervous to speak to a 5-time champion considered a legend in pro football circles.
Fans would come up to Starr in restaurants, at events, in elevators, at church or any other possible place where his life travels took him.
Even within his own offensive huddle.
“How are you, Mr. Starr?” asked nervous Green Bay Packers rookie center Bill Curry upon bumping into Starr for the first time in 1965 training camp, as Curry said in his book “Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle: Lessons from a Football Life.”
“Bart,” he said. “None of this Mr. Starr stuff.”
– Packers legend Bart Starr dead at 85 years old
– Gene Mueller’s blog: Bart Starr – A legend passes, another link to glory gone
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 1: A chase for perfection
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 2: Winning, not stats, defined Starr
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 3: Competitive fire and comebacks
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 4: 1967- Ice in his veins, fire in his heart
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 5: Post-Lombardi – his coaching failure and a moment of forgiveness
– Bart Starr’s legacy, part 6: Kindness, presence, attitude, an impact of love
Starr would give you permission to relate to him on a human level.
He had the gift to make people feel like the most important person in his world in that moment. He used it. Often.
Starr used it in so many interpersonal moments in times of trouble and challenge. From befriending African-American players who came to Green Bay during the Lombardi era and standing up for them, in a time when there were only seven African-American men in Green Bay, a city of 62,888 citizens, in 1960.
He did it in talking to countless youth about the death of his son Bret to drugs – a tearful talk that affected more lives, and perhaps saved more lives, than Starr might ever know.
He did it in reaching out to Aaron Rodgers in the Brett Favre controversy of 2008.
“You are a strong leader,” Starr said to Rodgers, according to his interview on NBC Sports. “Cherry and I are admiring you because you are one of the finest men we have ever met.”
And of course, his incredible work with such charities that he started from his own heart, Rawhide Boys Rance and the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation.
It seemed as if it was a product of his intensely-rooted Christian faith, one which for him espoused discipline, priorities, humility and the dignity of all people.
“(Great leaders) provide the core of what people can see, feel, touch, believe about knowing how much God can do in their lives, and be the source of strength for them every single day, if they apply it that way,” he once told Vision for Life Radio.
Starr’s faith was long-established before he came to Green Bay, but head coach Vince Lombardi gave a powerful example to Starr on a daily basis.
“His own order of life, and his leadership and so forth…he was truly one of those strong men whose strength had grown initially, and was there every day because of how he began his day, and his devotion to God. He began his day with Mass every single morning,” said Starr.
From his faith came a one-word mantra for how he approached everyday situations, on and off the field – especially the toughest of challenges.
“Next to God, (attitude) is the strongest word in our vocabulary. I look at that word every day. It controls what we do…as we start to build our day, that word is key,” said Starr.
“It’s a powerful word. When you feel that way about it, then you come to appreciate using it. It’s a very vital part of our lives.”
And of course, the word devotion. The love he and his wife Cherry gave each other. A love affair and marriage of 65 years.
All these examples have led to an incredible combination of personal legacies that, when put together into the mosaic of his life, shine brighter than the championship trophies he won.
It’s why he was welcomed back to Lambeau Field in 2015 when Brett Favre’s jersey was retired, and the ovation for him was as loud as it was for Favre, if not louder.
It’s because of the love he tried to give everyone he met as best as he humanly could – all anyone can ask for out of a person.
“It’s hard not to respect everything, what he stands for, what he has done is amazing. No matter where you go. I still get called Bart by a lot of people. That’s one person I have no problem being called.” – Brett Favre
“The legacy Bart has as a man, as a football player, the winningest quarterback of all time…trying to live up to the standard he set…I’m very honored and blessed.” – Aaron Rodgers
In the end, that Starr legacy that has touched Rodgers, and so many other lives, was multi-fold:
First, it was little boys who saw Bart Starr dissect defenses and lead men to victory, and see the Packers winning as the most important thing in their world at that moment.
They would then say, “Mommy, daddy, I want to play quarterback like Bart Starr.”
Eventually, it was those same little boys, all grown-up, who would meet Bart Starr and be the most important person in Starr’s world at that moment.
Then, they would tell their daughters and sons, “I want you to grow up to live life like Bart Starr.”
As the man who learned the quarterback position under him, Lynn Dickey, said:
“He’s the finest human being, not the finest man, the finest human being I’ve ever met in my life.”