A man in his
early 50s, with tattoos on his biceps and a nose that had been punched out of
shape long ago, walked into the sauna in Green Bay, Wis. wearing a bathing suit
and looked around curiously, touching the walls and the benches and finally the
stones to see if they were indeed hot. "This is the first motel I was ever
in," he said. "My first vacation in 36 years. We got 11 kids, nine
still home, some of 'em big full-grown kids that don't believe in work but only
in stealing everything I got. So I says all right, I am going to take off a
week and drive up here and see the Packer game. With Bart Starr as the coach
for the first time, it's a historical event. And my wife says she has to stay
home and take care of the kids. That means I got to travel with my sister, who
tells me I smoke too much and do everything wrong. But what the hell, here I am
in a motel sauna bath in Green Bay, and I'm gonna see the Packers in real life.
In case you don't know it, football is what made this town. Who would ever have
heard of Green Bay if it wasn't for the Packers?"
There are other
attractions around Green Bay, of course. The town is a deepwater port, the
countryside abounds in rivers and lakes, the people drink more beer on the
average than those 100 miles to the south in Milwaukee. Green Bay is also the
toilet paper producing capital of the world and is a meat-packing center—hence
the Green Bay Packers, so called after the old Indian Packing Company, which
back in 1919 put up $500 for the team's first uniforms and provided a pasture
for practice and games.
Paper mills and
packing houses built Green Bay, but the football team put it on the map for
millions of fans, like the man in the sauna, who may never have seen the
Packers in real life but view them with almost religious awe. The new high
priest of the Packers—41-year-old Bart Starr, quarterback of five
world-championship Green Bay teams—has again aroused those fans, who are
dreaming big again, as they did nearly a decade ago when their link with
divinity was Vince Lombardi.
Green and gold
buttons and bumper stickers have sprung up reading THE PACK WILL STARR IN '75;
THE PACKERS NEED A GUIDING STARR; A FRESH START WITH BART, and so on. After
spending 16 years as a player of heroic stature in Green Bay, Starr has
returned to the Packers as general manager and head coach, the announcement
being made fittingly enough last Christmas Eve. Probably no first-time head
coach has ever put more on the line. "Bart has everything to win, but he
also has an awful lot to lose," says Gary Knafelc, a former Packer end who
roomed with Starr for five years and is now in the office-supply business in
Green Bay. "I'm surprised he accepted the job. Bart has such a wonderful
reputation here that people will expect incredible things of him immediately,
and people hate to be disappointed."
No one is more
aware of this than Starr himself. He did not want his picture to appear on the
cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED this week, not because he is afraid misfortune
would follow (twice before when Starr was on the cover as a player, the Packers
won it all), but because his role as a savior of the Packers is a difficult one
and so far he has coached only two exhibition games. It took Moses 40 years to
straighten out his mess, but Starr has only a three-year contract.
Starr is in the
position of trying to persuade the fans not to expect too much too soon, while
at the same time convincing the players they can do better than the 6-8-0 and
5-7-2 records of the past two years under Coach Dan Devine. Also, maybe even
better than the 10-4 record of 1972, the one season Starr was an assistant
coach (under Devine), and the one when the Packers won their sole Central
Division championship since 1967, when Lombardi left.
possibly know what to expect from me," Starr said one morning last week in
his small, tidy office at Lambeau Field. It is not the big office bu�lt for
Lombardi and later occup�ed by Phil Bengtson and Devine; Starr has had the
offices rearranged and has moved himself and the other coaches farther down the
hall. "I didn't put in an extended apprenticeship like Chuck Knox [of the
Rams], and I wasn't even all that close to the Packers the last two years."
During that time Starr did commentary on pro football for CBS-TV and mainly
earned his living through speeches, product endorsements, his own distributing
company in Green Bay and a partnership in auto franchises in Alabama. "The
Packers have a long road back to the top," he said, "but on the other
hand"—Starr grinned, the familiar dimple-chin, high-cheekbone grin seen so
often when he accepted countless plaques and trophies—"I would be hurt if
people hadn't responded with enthusiasm. I'm a positive thinker, I don't like
negative thinkers, don't want to be around 'em."
Starr pointed to
a quotation framed on his office wall, an excerpt from remarks made in a speech
by Lombardi: "The quality of a man's life is in direct proportion to his
commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field or endeavor."
"That's what I believe," he said. "This job at Green Bay is like
undertaking a personal quest for me. I owe a tremendous amount to the Packers.
I want to hear them talked about with pride. I wouldn't be coaching
professional football if it wasn't at Green Bay. I've been offered several head
coaching jobs for more money than I'm getting here, and on teams that might
have better players, but those teams aren't the Packers."
quotation is but one of the legacies of the late Lombardi around Lambeau Field.
Lombardi Avenue runs in front of the place, and a life-size photograph of him
is in the Packer Hall of Fame next door. But there are fewer mementos than one
might expect of a man about whom movies have been made and books written, who
is adored by multitudes" for his fiercely spoken beliefs that you ought to
trust in God, your family and football, in that order, if you want to be a
winner, and anybody who doesn't care about winning had best get off the team at
once and might as well quit the game entirely.
The reason there
are relatively few is that the Packers are as rich in history as they are in
money, the Green Bay Packers, Inc. being a nonprofit corporation owned by 1,728
stockholders who don't get dividends. The public stock sale was held in 1950 to
rescue the Packers from financial ruin, but by then the team already had such
legendary heroes as Curly Lambeau, Arnie Herber, Johnny Blood and Don Hutson.
In 1959, in his first head coaching job, Lombardi took over a Green Bay team in
another of its periodic declines, and, with the exception of the first season,
the Packers beat nearly everybody until 1968, the year after Lombardi quit.
After that, the years began to catch up with some of the most important
players, like Starr, who lingered for a while.