Ho-lee cow. I just finished a doozy, one of the best sports books I have ever read, about a man so impressive as to be beyond belief, except it is all true: America’s Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League by my friend and associate, Keith Dunnavant.
Dunnavant is one of this nation’s best, most professional sports journalists. The author of a seminal Bear Bryant biography, a tremendous tome about the controversial, race-based 1966 national championship Alabama lost in a struggle with Notre Dame and Michigan State, in addition to his recent great ventures, CollegeFootballReplay.com and CrimsonReplay.com, Dunnavant cut his teeth with the L.A. Times, The National, the Birmingham Post-Herald and Adweek, among other successes, before launching his career as an author.
I found reading, and reviewing, America’s Quarterback, to be a particularly timely and coincidental task for a number of reasons. First, my daughter Elizabeth, despite growing up in sunny Southern California, is a big-time Green Bay Packers fan. I finished the book just in time to give it to her as a Christmas present.
But more to the point professionally, Dunnavant and his book mirror me and my latest book, The Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times. In this I found profound comparisons worth noting. Dunnavant, like Starr, is a graduate of the University of Alabama. I, like Seaver, am a graduate of the University of Southern California. Both books are written by graduates of the subjects’ alma mater, even though both subjects made their names as professionals wholly distinct from their collegiate careers.
Perhaps the most telling difference between Starr and Seaver can be found on page 310 of America’s Quarterback. “Starr was not trying to pass himself off as some mythical figure,” Dunnavant writes of a self-deprecating incident at the Bart Starr Award dinner. “Unlike many famous athletes who zealously protect every aspect of their image, determined to project the illusion of perfection, Starr was very comfortable in his own skin, at ease with his imperfections.”
Now, Tom Seaver is an extremely impressive figure in athletic history; a towering giant, at least as good a baseball player as Starr was a football player. Furthermore, he was every bit the role model, faithful to his wife, a clean liver, highly intelligent, a Christian gentleman like the man he was so often compared to, Christy Mathewson. Seaver was held in awe by teammates on every level, from his talent to his work ethic to his negotiating skills. Honest, charitable, possessing easy-going charm and a great sense of humor, Tom Seaver was and remains one of the great All-American heroes in sports history.
Seaver was and is no Bart Starr.
This is no knock on Seaver, but rather my pointing out the exemplary way Starr carried himself, which was so incredibly great it far outshines even a fellow mythical figure like Tom Seaver. Seaver came up in 1967. Everybody was enamored with his skill and charm. He took New York by storm. After a season to eclipse all seasons in 1969, he was held to a standard of idolatry perhaps unrivaled, at least for a while, by any other athlete. But writers like Roger Angell began to sense something planned by Seaver, who it was pointed out, switched his off-season major at USC from pre-med to journalism/public relations. Seaver used his fame to promote himself and his family, to market his name and make big endorsement money. His life began to look like a political campaign, his appearances choreographed, ads promoting his worthiness.
Small fissures began to occur, and Seaver became protective of his family, now living in the luxury of Greenwich, Connecticut. The tabloid nature of the New York media forced him to put an understandable protective shell around his life. Few have ever broken past this shell in all the years since.
Starr, on the other hand, did things so impressively wonderful in their everyman’s ordinariness, yet when coming from such a famed, in-demand personality, remain so refreshingly pure and sweet and amazing as to render the man near-sainthood. Starr’s name was listed in the Green Bay phone book. Regular fans would call. He would answer and talk to them, often having lengthy conversations. Despite the pressures and time constraints inherent with the role of Packers quarterback, Starr would sign autographs until the very end, engage in small talk at restaurants, wait his turn in line despite overtures to take the VIP route. He never went “big league,” always eschewing the velvet rope world of entitlement that seemingly all modern athletes, from high schoolers to Hall of Famers, now live in.
There was the man who showed at his house to get Starr to sign a photo for his father. Starr did not kick him to the curb. Rather, instead of simply signing and sending the man on his way, Starr queried as to the whereabouts of the man’s dad, discerning he was waiting in the car. Starr went out, brought the father in to his home, and placed no two-minute warning on his lengthy stay, showing the star-struck fellow his photos and Canton-like memorabilia.
Then there was the Christian couple who discovered the joys of foster parenting, endeavoring to start a ranch for wayward boys. Finding Starr listed he called, found him quickly receptive, and assertively suggesting a further meeting. There, the couple explained they had no money, but if Bart Starr would lend his name, perhaps they could raise some. Starr’s wonderful and beautiful wife, Cherry, his childhood sweetheart, brightened, tugged at Bart’s arm, declaring that this was what they had been looking to do, and the couple was like a vessel from God giving them the chance to do Christian charity; not the other way around. The story does not end there. With Starr’s name lent to help promote the cause, the couple began the difficult road of financing, until the bank called in a loan due almost immediately. A call to Starr resulted in the quarterback arranging a dinner, in the middle of the season, in which most of his teammates showed up with open checkbooks. The ranch was saved, hatched and became a beautiful point of light, one Starr lent much time and effort for, not just his name, over the years.
Then there was the fellow standing in the rain. Bart and Cherry saw him, picked him up, found he did not have enough money to fly home, so they paid for his airline ticket. The man never knew it was Bart Starr who did him the service. Then there was Starr’s nine-year old granddaughter, who had to learn from classmates her grandfather was a legend because the legend never mentioned it. Or the couple who asked Bart to sign a photo and mail it to them. When Cherry lost their address, she wrote a letter in the paper asking they respond with the contact information so she could mail the picture. Countless times Bart would be discovered in a public setting, set upon by autograph seekers, and in a few days 32 fans would receive in the mail signed photos. Then there was the drug addict who Starr took an interest in, counseled, and led to a road of recovery. Years later, having led an exemplary life, the ex-addict owes it all to Starr.
These are just a small set of numerous examples given in the book, among no doubt far more than Dunnavant could even re-count. Apparently, to write a book including all these random acts of kindness and generosity expressed by Bart and Cherry would render the book only about that, absent any football heroics.
No doubt Tom Seaver performed much charitable work. He and his wife were known to have big hearts, but he and seemingly all other sports figures pale in comparison with the saint like Starr, a man so benevolent and impressive as to literally wonder if, aside from Jesus himself, a greater man or woman has ever lived.
Now, I certainly knew all about Bart Starr. I knew of his great record as the Packers’ quarterback, and his classy reputation. I did not know how classy. Dunnavant’s book instantly transformed Starr above and beyond Seaver, or anybody else in my pantheon, as my Favorite Athlete of All Time. Period. I am not a big Packer guy or even a huge pro football aficionado. No matter.
The Seaver-Starr comparisons are worth noting further, in terms of similarity and telling difference, which says much about modern America. Both served in the military. Both are Republicans. Both are Christians, family men who, while such a thing cannot be proved beyond a shadow of doubt, appear as unlikely to have strayed from long, successful marriages as anybody this side of John Wooden. Dunnavant, as I do at the end of The Last Icon, makes the case that his guy is the best ever at his position. It is an argument worth having. There are statistics favoring Starr as the best quarterback ever, just as there are statistics favoring Sever as the best pitcher in history. Perhaps the beauty of sports is that despite all the stats and shouting, such a thing is generally impossible to quantify, but I would argue that both Keith and I make compelling cases for both icons.
But the difference is what struck me, and that difference comes in their respective towns, Green Bay vs. New York. No two big league cities are more different. Seaver’s decision to wall himself off in a Greenwich compound, certainly not answering his door when strangers came bearing autograph requests, or listing his number with Connecticut Bell, or taking any and all manner of Bronx riff-raff in come-hither manner, is as much a reaction to the Big Apple as any other reason. Green Bay was a small town, and Starr liked it that way. While Vince Lombardi built the Pack in his image, Starr was the face of that dynasty, as iconic a symbol of all the Packers stand for as anybody, bar none.
But Starr is a human, subject to human tragedy. He saw it in his own family after his playing career was over, and this is the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales. If Bart Starr’s family could be visited by the sins and temptations and evils of this world, it can happen to anybody. Anybody. What did Bart and Cherry do? They stood before strangers, weepingly telling the story, so somebody else could share the pain and hopefully learn a lesson from it.
Oh yes, let us not forget that Bart Starr hailed from Alabama, where he was an ordinary quarterback at the University of Alabama in the 1950s. Yes, folks, Alabama in the 1950s was not a very nice place for the colored folk. To come out of this environment without any racial animus seems a miracle, but a miracle it was. There was never the slightest indication that either Bart or Cherry harbored even a tiny remnant of racism, even though Lombardi’s Packers were easily one of the most cutting-edge teams in the history of racial progress in sports history. Starr and his wife be-friended everybody, numerous black teammates and their families, earned all their respect, and led them as men at a time when real men trod the “frozen tundra of Green Bay,” to quote John Facenta.
In looking at Starr’s youth, we find further points of comparison, something that seems part of Southern culture, perhaps. West Virginian Jerry West’s recent biography revealed that when his older brother was killed in Korea, West’s father took it out on Jerry, to the point of beating him. This scenario is similar to that of the Arkansas-born singer Johnny Cash, whose Bible-memorizing older bro was killed in an accident, engendering great resentment from his old man.
Bart’s older brother, Bubba, tied tragically young, and his father, a tough military man, seemed to hold it against the surviving Bart. He never gave Bart any credit, as he struggled through a disappointing career at ‘Bama, and then the ironic road of chances that leads the young QB to of all places, Green Bay and Lombardi. Lombardi, like Mr. Starr, did not think Bart had the goods. Bart, like Jerry West and Johnny Cash, used this motivation, the doubts of a father and a coach, to fuel his drive towards greatness, to prove ‘em all wrong.
A key moment occurs early on when Lombardi, who it was said treated all his players “like dogs,” rode his QB mercilessly over a tipped interception. Starr stood up to the bombastic Italian from Brooklyn in front of his team, defending his performance, and demanded that a deal be made: Lombardi would question Starr in private, not in front of the team, whose respect Starr had to have during two-minute drives in quest of glory. They became like father-and-son, the Catholic from Sheepshead Bay, the Protestant from ‘Bama. But Lombardi’s humanity shines through. He agreed with his quarterback, respected him, changed when the suggestion was valid, even cried sometimes, as when he was shown the house Bart and Cherry bought, told it was his doing.
But it was Starr’s own father who finally told his boy, after winning the 1961 NFL title, that indeed he had been wrong. Ah, with those little words did Bart have his wings, and man did he fly.
From there Dunnavant does some of the best writing of an iconic time and place. Telling a sports scribe to “write about Lombardi’s Packers” is like telling a screenwriter, “Say, pal, see if you can’t fashion something out of Othello, and heavy on the sex and violence,” or maybe somebody saying to John Milius, “I bet you can’t write Heart of Darkness into a movie,” thus providing the impetus for Apocalypse Now in the form of a challenge worthy of Greek mythology. Dunnavant thus has his Holy Grail to shoot for.
Dunnavant, who has beautifully captured the glory days of Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide at their most mythic, herein is given the literate version of Facenta painting an NFL Films portrait: Lombardi, whose “name alone” cast shadows on “late November Sundays in Green Bay.” With all due respect to the University of Alabama, this is as good as it gets. Pro football in the 1960s, glorified by color TV, NFL Films (Facenta) and Sports Illustrated, provides a panoply of guts and glory, of blood-soaked uniforms, of battered men, their bodies black-and-blue, an icy war just a decade-plus removed from the battle of the Chosin Reservoir. Men were men and women were happy for it (as Paul Hornung and Max McGee were happy to research and report the findings).
Surely today’s players hit as hard, bleed as much, their bodies are as battered in the dressing room as those of the 1960s, but nobody has described this tableau any better than Dunnavant. We can just feel the icy cold, the game finally won, the Bears or Vikes or Rams or Lions dispatched, the players peeling their equipment and muddy unis not off their bodies, but detached from their limbs. One can feel the heat of the dressing room warming up icy bones, the likes of Paul Hornung and Max McGee easing into a few beers to wear the tension away, a night out on the town in full youthful glory theirs for the asking.
We have, of course, the Ice Bowl, and many other games won with the championship on the line. A retelling of this is not necessary here, except to say that through it all we have the extant image of Starr, not just executing play-action offenses, handing off to Hornung and Jim Taylor with Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer leading the Packer Sweep, or threading the needle with pinpoint passes honed from incessant practice, dedication and film study, with no interceptions or mistakes, the eyes of the bloody men’s men looking to their leader as did acolytes see in a certain man 2,000 years ago the single Messianic leader who can direct them out of the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.
Starr was not overly charismatic or exciting. Dunnavant paints a vivid portrait of the other ‘Bama quarterback of the era, Joe Namath, who spun his magic in Fun City, but Namath was no Starr. It was Starr and Johnny Unitas, Unitas considered the better of the two, but it was Lombardi, Dunnavant and statistics used by the author to give a compelling argument that indeed Starr was better; better than Tom Brady, better than Terry Bradshaw, perhaps even better than Joe Montana.
Dunnavant paints the picture of a truly great man who just happened to be a superstar football hero, an Everyman possessing the most wonderful American qualities. The author does a great job of describing the times; Vietnam, the Summer of Love, The Graduate, oft in stark relief with the family values of Starr and his team, a veritable Republican campaign ad contrasting with the drugs and immorality of the 1960s. Perhaps no sports team has ever represented a culture like Lombardi’s Packers. Starr and his mates were the Silent Majority. The fact that a man like Starr chose of his own free will to vote Republican (he loved Ronald Reagan) was probably as strong a merit favoring the GOP as any single possibility.
The sub-title of the book, Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League, is not an empty promise, either. Dunnavant, who has written extensively of media matters and has extensive experience in the world of advertising, skillfully details how television, the documentaries fashioned by Ed and Steve Sabol, the vision of Pete Rozelle, the competition of the AFL, Al Davis and the merger that pulled it all together, and eventually the colorful Super Bowls, the teams battling it out on the green plains of the Coliseum, New Orleans and the Orange Bowl turfs in sun-splashed splendor after play-off tussles played in refrigerators, all added to the tension and drama making this violent thing called pro football into what we now think, as Howard Cosell called it, “The National Football League!”
Bravo, Keith Dunnavant. You have not just done it again, you have created your magnum opus.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism