Remembering Bart Starr, the champion we needed.
“Did you know that granddaddy is really famous?” Shannon Starr Lambert asked her dad after a day at school when she was 9 years old. Bart Starr Jr. responded to his daughter by saying, “I vaguely recall something, but can you refresh my memory just a little bit, Shannon?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” she exclaimed, excited to share the news she had just heard for the first time about who her granddaddy was. “He won these things called NFL Championships and Super Bowls.”
He hadn’t just won championships; he had won five of them, including the first two Super Bowls ever played being named the MVP of both games, and his name is Bart Starr. But none of those statistics represent his legacy; it’s something else that sticks with you that represents the legacy of a champion both on and off the field.
“What stuck with me from my daughter’s story was that dad had never mentioned anything football related to her in all the times he talked with her and went to school to talk with her classes in those nine years,” Starr Jr. said. “He knew his legacy toward his granddaughters was going to be defined by what kind of person he was, and how they would see him hopefully doing the type of good work that would make them proud. That was a quarter of a century ago and it resonates with me to this day.
“His legacy can more properly be summarized, not by a statistic, not by the pleasure and joy that he had in winning five championships, though that was meaningful, but rather by that interaction.”
On May 26, 2019, Starr passed away at the age of 85, but stories like that don’t just live on. They continue to inspire people even in his absence. That’s the legacy he hoped to leave, and now has left.
Born and raised in Montgomery, Starr went on to play college football at the University of Alabama, before eventually signing with the Green Bay Packers in 1956, where he was originally the backup to Tobin Rote. After winning the starting job, he went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Packers, thanks to those five championships and his 24,718 passing yards and 152 touchdowns.
But it’s what he did off the field as a player and a retiree living in Hoover that defined Starr’s life and legacy, living by four pillars: Be yourself, humility and gratitude, dignity and respect, and seizing every day. Those four pillars, as well as the love for his wife, Cherry Starr, are what led to his everlasting legacy, and what created his story.
Pillar 1: Be yourself
Living his life in the limelight, Starr was never afraid to be himself, and instead used his stardom to not only better himself, but to try to make the world around him a better place. From his charitable work to his open-door policy with anyone that wanted to talk with him, Starr always gave everyone time, putting them before himself, and one way he showed that was taking time at the beginning of each football season to write a special letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“Since I became commissioner, something extra special arrived with the kickoff of our new season,” Goodell said. “It was a hand-written letter sent through U.S. Mail, every year, and the return address said Bart Starr, Birmingham, Alabama. Each season, Bart took the time to wish the league and impressed upon me the importance of holding the highest standards and wishing us good luck for that year. It was a reminder from the greatest to play the game, directly, in his own writing, and from one of my childhood heroes.”
Growing up a fan of Starr, Goodell knew the football side of him, but was just getting to know the other side of someone he looked up to. “He brought football into America’s living rooms,” Goodell said. “But off the field, he elevated all of us. He was the most generous, decent and kind person I ever knew. Simply put, No. 15 was the best of men.”
Going into the NFL’s 100th season, Goodell knows a new letter from Starr won’t continue to come his way, but that won’t stop the tradition from continuing. “He put everything and everyone before himself,” Goodell said, now with tears filling his eyes. “Come September, I plan to re-read his thoughtful letters that he wrote to me before each season.”
Pillar 2: Humility and gratitude
Starr was always a man of humility and gratitude, something that showed in those letters to Goodell, but more importantly in the time he gave everyone around him. From an open-door policy to listening to stories from fans that he inspired, Starr always listened to those around him because of the gratitude he had for the position he had been put in and the inspiration he was to so many.
One of the more heartwarming stories came in recent years when Starr was in Green Bay for an event with the Packers. After the event, around 9 p.m.—which was late for Starr who had suffered two strokes by that point—a lady approached him and asked if she could speak to him. He of course said yes, and opened his car door to let her sit down. “She said, ‘I just want you to know, I couldn’t afford to go to this event tonight, but I had to drive over to see you,” Starr Jr. recalled. “The reason I’m here is because I’ve been watching how you’ve been fighting through your strokes, and it has inspired me to try and beat my cancer.”
She drove 900 miles from Tennessee to share that story with Starr, who could have said he needed to get home to rest, but instead listened to her story, receiving a blessing himself. “She gave dad a hug and insisted on moving on and giving him his privacy,” Starr Jr. said. “She was telling dad how he inspired her, but who was really doing the inspiring that night? Who drove 900 miles to see a fellow human being? She didn’t have to do that, but she did. After that moment, he would remember her and look up to her as much as she looked up to him.”
Starr also came in contact with a firefighter that drove all the way from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to see him and share another inspiring story that made Starr realize the blessings he had in 85 years. “He was battling the fires at the World Trade Centers,” Starr Jr. recalled of the man’s story. “He had already lost many of his brothers battling the tragedy, and he himself, having shifted gears to go back toward the falling towers, suffered great injuries to his lungs that he is still battling.”
The man said he wanted to meet Starr while he could, so they spent a couple of hours in his office and Starr asked questions and listened to everything he had to say. “Dad always brought the conversation back to him and eventually learned what he and his fallen friends had done, and he got quite emotional that day,” Starr Jr. said. “As that day concluded, once again we were reminded that people say dad lived a remarkable life. We say, ‘Thank you, he did, but he also lived a blessed life.’
“That person didn’t have to come all the way down from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He enriched my dad more than you can imagine, and it was all because of not what dad had done on the football field, but the type of person he was. Dad became a better person that day.”
Pillar 3: Dignity and respect
After remembering all of Starr’s letters, Goodell read a tear-filled statement saying, “Bart Starr will always be the league’s true north, guiding us to the highest level of leadership, success, resilience and most of all, dignity.” His dignity to treat every human with the same amount of respect might have been his most defining quality, and was the third pillar of life he lived by.
Following his passing, his wife started going through some of the old mail in his desk and found a letter that described that perfectly. The lady who wrote the letter was friends with Starr’s son when they were younger and recalled a time when he put them all on a lawnmower and drove them down the sidewalk with a small trailer attached. “There was a sanitation truck that pulled up and picked up your trash,” the letter read. “A gentleman got out of the truck and Mr. Starr got up, walked over to the gentleman, extended his hand and said, ‘I am Bart Starr, and thank you for picking up our trash.”
They talked for a few minutes, before Starr returned to the three kids on the lawnmower, including his son, and said, “I would like for you to remember one thing. It does not matter if it is the President of the United States or the gentleman picking up your trash, you treat them with the same amount of respect and kindness.”
“What a great life lesson, and what a wonderful world this would be if everyone heard and understood the importance of that message,” Cherry Starr said.
Pillar 4: Seize every day
Every day he woke up, Starr would think about each of those previous three pillars of life and how he could seize the day to make each happen. He did his best by remembering others, listening to everything they had to say, growing as a person and treating everybody he came across with respect—never letting his fame get in the way, but instead lead him to becoming a better person.
He didn’t just do all of that through personal interactions, but did so and still continues to do so for thousands of people through charity work. Starr and his wife were involved in several important charities, both in Hoover and back in Green Bay, including different organizations such as Rawhide, the Lombardi Cancer Foundation and in 2017 he started the Starr Children’s fund to support pediatric cancer research and treatment.
Starr was the co-founder of Rawhide, Inc., which is a leading faith-based organization meant to serve at-risk youth throughout the state of Wisconsin. The organization offers residential care and outpatient mental health services for youth and their families. Starr and his wife also helped start the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation, and after Lombardi passed away from colon cancer in 1970, they accepted the role of Honorary Chairpersons, something they did for the next 44 years to help raise more than $16 million to fight cancer. Then, in 2017, despite his declining health, the Starrs started the Starr Children’s fund.
Now the NFL has the Bart Starr Award, which is given to the player that shows the greatest character and leadership at home, on the football field and in the community. He did all of that, not just because he had the means to do so, but because he wanted to give everyone the chance to live their own lives and an opportunity to seize every day, knowing how important each and every person is.
Living by those four pillars turned Starr into the beloved man he was, but most importantly, it led to the best moment of his life: meeting his future wife, Cherry Starr. The two became high school sweethearts and eloped in May 1954, starting a life that spanned more than six decades.
Over the last several years, he suffered with a lot of pain, but their love remained strong. Her support and strength, as well as the support and strength of so many others, kept his spirits high through their love. “During the last five years, when Bart was going through such a difficult time, I have felt so much love and support, and I can’t thank everyone enough for what they have meant,” Cherry Starr said. “There were so many people coming by the house to wish us well that I couldn’t keep going to the door, so I just left it open, and we created an open-door policy for everyone to stop by.”
After Starr passed away, Cherry started reminiscing on their lifelong bond and began looking through some of the old letters the two had written each other, which he had stashed away in his desk drawer.
One of those letters was dated for May 22, 1995. “I had such love and admiration for my husband, that I just had to express it to him,” Cherry said. “I said, ‘My dearest Bart, for some reason, most of us wait for a special occasion to express our deepest feelings for each other. Today I was riding along listening to some very beautiful music and was very much thinking of you. I have done the simplest chores, but it occurred to me how privileged I am to be able to do all of the things I do to help us live a comfortable life. I realized I never had to be worried about things. Most people struggle all of their lives, but we are so fortunate you have always had such unique opportunities and helped us live so well, while always assisting so many less fortunate people. You are adored by millions, but the greatest admiration and respect comes from your own family, and that is the greatest gift of all. I have been truly blessed to share your life. Thank you darling for bringing such beauty into my life, I love you, Cherry.’”
In recent years, with Bart’s health declining and both getting older, they talked about the possibility of this moment, which lead to one of their favorite stories. On a road trip to the beach together, the two were listening to a CD that was playing their favorite piece—Unchained Melody. “It’s just absolutely beautiful and it’s always been our favorite,” Cherry said. “All of a sudden, I felt his hand on mine. I thought, ‘This is so sweet.’ Then he squeezed my hand. I thought, ‘How romantic is this?’”
“All of a sudden, he turned and looked at me with that beautiful smile and said, ‘Darling, promise me you’ll play this at my wedding.’ He meant to say funeral,” Cherry said with laughter. “I said, ‘Gosh Bart, I’m not even dead yet and you’re already planning your next wedding.’”
Cherry kept her promise, and during the memorial service held at Samford University’s Wright Center on June 9, the ceremony concluded with Cherry on stage and the beautiful melody resonating throughout the theater. With his ears perked up from above, their love shined on that stage. The six decades of caring for one another hadn’t left either of them despite Bart’s death, just as his legacy and love for everyone will never leave any of us.