Bart Starr, a Hall of Fame quarterback who helped build the Green Bay Packers dynasty in the 1960s and was named the Most Valuable Player of the first two Super Bowls, died Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama. He was 85.
Starr won an unprecedented five NFL championships as the Packers' starting quarterback, leading the club to titles in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967.
Starr battled a series of health setbacks recently. In September 2014, he suffered two strokes, a heart attack and several seizures. His condition improved after undergoing experimental stem cell treatments. He then overcame a life-threatening bronchial infection in August 2015 and broke his hip in December.
"We are saddened to note the passing of our husband, father, grandfather, and friend, Bart Starr," read a statement from Starr's family. "He battled with courage and determination to transcend the serious stroke he suffered in September 2014, but his most recent illness was too much to overcome.
"While he may always be best known for his success as the Packers quarterback for 16 years, his true legacy will always be the respectful manner in which he treated every person he met, his humble demeanor, and his generous spirit."
After losing to the Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship Game, the Packers never lost another postseason contest with Starr at the helm.
That was certainly true at Lambeau Field on Dec. 31, 1967, the date of the NFL Championship Game, better known as the Ice Bowl. The game was the signature moment of Starr's career. Fighting a wind chill of minus-48, the Packers trailed the Dallas Cowboys 17-14 late in the fourth quarter. After advancing the ball to the 1-yard line with 16 seconds left on the clock, Starr called "31 Wedge," a running play designed for fullback Chuck Mercein. Telling none of his teammates, he decided to keep the ball himself. Following a block by guard Jerry Kramer, Starr plowed into the end zone, giving the Packers a 21-14 victory and a date with the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II.
Starr was credited for using his mind as much as his arm. Still, he led the NFL in passing three times and was named the league's MVP in 1966. He played his entire 16-year career with the Packers, finishing with 24,718 passing yards and 152 touchdown passes. His No. 15 jersey number was retired by the Packers in 1973. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
"The Packers Family was saddened today to learn of the passing of Bart Starr," said Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy in a statement. "A champion on and off the field, Bart epitomized class and was beloved by generations of Packers fans. A clutch player who led his team to five NFL titles, Bart could still fill Lambeau Field with electricity decades later during his many visits. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Cherry and the entire Starr family."
After being the University of Alabama's starting quarterback, safety and punter as a sophomore in 1953, Starr suffered a back injury in a hazing incident in the summer of 1954 and scarcely saw the field his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide. The Packers used a 17th-round draft selection on Starr in 1956 after Alabama basketball coach Johnny Dee recommended him to his friend Jack Vainisi, the Packers' personnel director.
Starr did not make much of an impact in Green Bay his first three seasons, winning seven of 23 starts while throwing 19 touchdown passes with 32 interceptions. The course of Starr's life began to change in 1959 with the arrival of head coach Vince Lombardi. The even-mannered Starr was the perfect complement for the fiery Lombardi. From 1961 to '67, Starr went 69-18-4 as a starter in the regular season and was a perfect 9-0 in the playoffs.
Lombardi allowed Starr to call his own plays and rarely found reason to second guess his quarterback.
"There's nobody who could put a team in a better position with what Vince wanted to do," Hall of Fame back Paul Hornung, a teammate of Starr for 10 seasons, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2013. "He gave him control of the team. He gave him authority to do whatever he wanted to do. And that's pretty strong."
Starr retired in July 1972 and was hired as the Packers' quarterbacks coach, holding the job for one season. He then spent two years as a broadcaster with CBS before being named Green Bay's head coach and general manager on Christmas Eve in 1974. In Starr's nine disappointing seasons as the head coach, the Packers went 52-76-3 and made just one playoff appearance.
He was born Bryan Bartlett Starr on Jan. 9, 1934, in Montgomery, Alabama. Football stardom could not shield Starr from personal tragedy. One of his two sons, Bret, died from a drug overdose at the age of 24 in 1988. He is survived by his wife, Cherry, whom he married in 1954, and his son Bart Jr.
"Bart Starr was one of the most genuine, sincere people I knew," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell via statement. "He personified the values of our league as a football player, a family man, and a tireless philanthropist who cared deeply about helping at-risk kids. Above all, he was a wonderful human being who will be remembered for his kindness and compassion. On behalf of the entire NFL family and football fans all over the world, we send our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Cherry, his family, and the Green Bay community. He will be sorely missed."