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Former Green Bay Packer Quarterback Bart Starr

MVP of first two Super Bowls

They were games with enormous implications. The National Football League's reputation was at stake each time --but to Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr the first two Super Bowls were business as usual.

"One of the best things about Bart was his consistency, his concentration, his total dedication to what he was doing," said Boyd Dowler, a Packers flanker through the 1960s.

"He didn't come in any earlier and study any more tape "it was film back then " because it was the Super Bowl. I played every game Bart played for coach [Vince] Lombardi, and he was never any different."

They weren't called Super Bowls back then, those meetings between the champion of the established NFL and upstart American Football League. It wasn't until the fourth World Championship Game that "Super Bowl" appeared on the tickets " and thus began the evolution from a game to a veritable national holiday.

Starr, precise in his passing and efficient in his play selection, was the Most Valuable Player in Green Bay's 35-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the inaugural game on Jan. 15, 1967 "44 years ago Saturday "and again the following year in their 33-14 defeat of the Oakland Raiders at the Orange Bowl in Miami.

The outcomes reinforced the NFL's early claim of pro football supremacy before the AFL's New York Jets and the Chiefs won the next two Super Bowls, the final ones before the leagues merged.

"Bart was the same no matter what the game was -- an exhibition, during the season or a championship," said Ken Bowman, a Green Bay center for 10 seasons. "He was the consummate gentleman and he was a thinker.

"Back then, the quarterbacks called their own plays. Lombardi would put together the game plan and go through situations with Bart and Zeke [Bratkowski, the No. 2 quarterback]," Bowman said. "Once the game started, rarely did coach Lombardi send somebody in there with a play."

'This is really something'

For two weeks the Chiefs-Packers game was heavily promoted by reporters, broadcasters and the leagues. But despite the hype and a local TV blackout, there were more than 30,000 empty seats as well as 61,946 spectators in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Every game since has been a sellout.

"We had never seen, in all of our championship games prior to the first Super Bowl, the number of media people present as we did on media day for that one," Starr, 77, said from his home in his native Birmingham, Ala. "It did get our attention immediately and we thought, 'Whoa, this is really something.' "

Starr is reluctant to take credit for the Super Bowl victories or even his own play, redirecting praise toward the late Lombardi, Green Bay's exacting, iron-fisted coach after whom the Super Bowl trophy is named.

"He was a very, very talented gentleman, extremely disciplined, uniquely well prepared and dedicated," Starr said, "and because of those qualities he always had you extremely well prepared for every situation."

Dowler and Bowman said Starr deserved both MVP awards.

Dowler called Starr "the difference-maker. He was a good athlete but not a wonderful athlete, but the things that he did, and that was from the shoulders up, the neck up, a lot of those things, you can't put a number on that."

Bowman added: "Johnny Unitas probably had a better arm than Bart, but I don't think anybody had [more] strength of character, mental strength or the will to win. Whatever it took to win the game, he was willing to do that."

In 1966 Starr was the recipient of the inaugural Byron "Whizzer" White NFL Man of the Year Award, named after the late Supreme Court Justice, NFL tailback and humanitarian, and presented to the player who best serves his team, community and country.

Twenty-two years later the Bart Starr Award was created by Athletes in Action to honor the NFL player who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership.

Unlikely star

Few could have imagined after the 1956 draft that Starr would win five NFL championships and three in a row, both records; be a three-time NFL passing champion; and play in four Pro Bowl games during a 16-year career that culminated in his 1977 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After quarterbacking Alabama to the 1953 Southeastern Conference championship (and marrying the former Cherry Louise Morton, his high school sweetheart, after the season), Starr sat out most Crimson Tide games as a junior with a back injury and the next season when a new head coach benched most of the seniors.

He was Green Bay's 17th-round selection, the 200th player picked in 1956. "I probably wouldn't have been drafted at all," he said, "if it hadn't been for the Alabama basketball coach, Johnny Dee," a good friend who knew Jack Vainisi, the Packers' personnel director, and put in a good word for Starr.

He was the son of a master sergeant, growing up on Army and Air Force bases. Lombardi was an assistant coach at Army for five years before joining the NFL. Starr was starting his fourth season with Green Bay, mostly as a reserve quarterback, when Lombardi arrived in 1959. They hit it off immediately.

"My background, growing up in this military setting I'd had for so many years, I really liked everything about him," Starr said. "Yes, he was tough and tenacious but it was like a piece of cake. My dad had taught me the same way years before."

In 1960 Starr led the Packers to the NFL's Western Division title before losing the championship game 17-13 to the Eagles in Philadelphia. Neither Starr nor Lombardi would lose any of their nine remaining postseason games with Green Bay.

Leaving football

Lombardi retired as the Packers' coach after the 1967 season. The team's fortunes declined as its stars aged or left. Starr remained in Green Bay where he also had car dealerships and other business opportunities. He retired as a player in 1971, stayed on as quarterbacks coach for a year and in 1975 was named the Packers' head coach.

"I hadn't planned to coach so I wasn't serving as an assistant for a while, digesting the information that would be necessary to learn as you're going along," he admitted. "That was a huge mistake on my part and I regret it, but I didn't have the guts to turn down the president [of the team] so I agreed to do it."

After nine years with just two winning seasons, Starr was fired in 1983. He and Cherry moved to Phoenix, where he was involved in various business interests including partnership in a group that sought in vain to obtain an expansion NFL franchise for Arizona.

In 1988 Bart and Cherry Starr's younger son, Bret, died at 24 due to an arrhythmia resulting from cocaine abuse. The couple moved back to Birmingham the following year to be with their older son, Bart Jr., and his family, including three grandchildren, now in their 20s.

Starr became chairman of a real estate corporation developing medical office buildings and facilities for hospitals and health care systems, retiring in 2006. When he's not making appearances as a motivational speaker, he can be found several days a week in his office at Starr Enterprises, Bart Jr.'s investment firm.

The 'Ice Bowl'

Looking back on his career, Starr is quick to acknowledge that, more than any play in either Super Bowl, the most memorable moment is the final one in the "Ice Bowl" on Dec. 31, 1967. The temperature at kickoff for that NFL championship game in Green Bay was minus 13 degrees (minus 48 with wind chill). The Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17, with Starr executing a one-yard quarterback sneak to score in the final seconds.

It is frozen, so to speak, in an iconic photo of Bowman and right guard Jerry Kramer blocking Cowboys defensive tackle Jethro Pugh, and Starr plunging into the end zone.

It was third down with the ball inside the Dallas one-yard line. The Packers had called their final time-out with 16 seconds to play. The logical call: an end-zone pass. If it was incomplete the Packers would have time to kick a game-tying field goal. An unsuccessful run and they wouldn't have time for a fourth-down play.

The decision: run the "31 wedge," a fullback dive between the guard and center.

"The ground was slick and hard," Starr said, and the running backs could not get traction on the icy field. He told Lombardi he'd carry the ball instead of handing it off, saying, "I'm upright. I can shuffle my feet and lunge in."

Lombardi replied, "Well, then run it in and let's get the hell out of here," Starr said. He was laughing as he returned to the huddle. He ran it. It worked.

Bruce Lowitt, a freelance writer living in the Tampa Bay area, is a former sports features writer for the Associated Press and the St. Petersburg Times.