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Starr has remained outwardly unruffled through all the howling for his scalp, always positive that he can work this thing out. He is the last true believer. As a visitor was about to leave his office last Saturday, Starr made a special point to call after him: "If you ever see us with our heads down, you be sure to let us know." Starr has few real friends in the Packer front office, but those who have known him longest say he has never lost sight of his image, never let the mask down. "He's a great one for giving you a positive image all the time," says one longtime Starr watcher, "but inside, all this talk about his job has got to bother him. He'll come into the office all red-eyed in the morning from sitting up all night looking at films, trying to find a way to turn it around, but he never seems discouraged."
Starr says the booing at the last preseason game was a "humiliating experience" and admits he has gotten tired of hearing rumors about his dismissal. "Sure we get down at times," Starr says, using the royal we. "Anyone would. But we haven't lost our sense of humor. The other night I told my wife that I appreciated her love and support during the difficult times of the past few years. She told me if I didn't turn things around pretty soon, I wouldn't have it anymore."
Starr's fortunes began to slide last year, when the Packers suffered one crippling injury after another and finished with a 5-11 record. Eight starters were lost for all or part of the season as a result of injuries that led to surgery, and one result was that Green Bay's offense ranked 25th in both scoring and total yardage among the NFL's 28 teams. Another was that the Packers' defense was the league's worst against the run.
When deep divisions erupted in his team last season, Starr maintained his characteristic aloofness, allowing himself to be drawn into only one dispute. It was a revealing episode. Wide Receiver James Lofton, who had been booed early in the year, gave a Green Bay crowd the finger on one occasion and later referred to the local fans as "a bunch of——." Director of Public Relations Chuck Lane, who had been with the Packers 14 years and was one of Starr's closest confidants, rebuked Lofton publicly for his behavior and then was amazed to have Starr chew him out for criticizing Lofton. Months later, long after Lane assumed the incident had blown over, Starr had Lane fired. Lane was crushed by what he still considers an act of betrayal. "Bart has turned into one hell of a vindictive guy," he says, "a 180-degree turnabout from the man I knew in 1974. Every time I made a speaking appearance or went on one of those radio call-in shows during the past five years, I was defending Bart at every turn. I don't think anybody has ever defended a coach with less ammunition than I had."
Starr also fired Defensive Coordinator Dave Hanner at the end of the 1979 season, and despite Hanner's 28 years with the Packers as a player and coach, Starr didn't offer him another job in the organization. Just when the calls for Starr's head were the loudest last week, Fred vonAppen, the Packers' defensive line coach, announced he was resigning over a matter of principle. VonAppen reportedly was unhappy when Terry Jones and Bob Barber were cut over his objections (Jones, in fact, was re-signed the day after vonAppen resigned), but it was evidently a hot dog that made vonAppen decide that the Packers couldn't cut the mustard.
Following the fiasco against Denver, vonAppen learned that Defensive End Ezra Johnson had been eating a hot dog on the sidelines during the second half. Johnson said he didn't mean anything by it. "I was just hungry," he said. "I didn't wave it around or anything." Johnson was fined $1,000 and apologized to his teammates, but vonAppen apparently wanted more.
"I was deeply disappointed and upset about the symbolism of something like that," vonAppen said. Then he quit, saying only that he had no hard feelings toward Johnson and generally leaving the impression that his grudge was against Starr. "I'm sure some people feel this is extreme," vonAppen said, "but they don't know all that was involved."
"We didn't need that," says Starr of the resignation. "Fred is a man of high principle, but principle is one thing, principle without honor another."
Starr says things like that. One minute he'll be talking about the shotgun offense, and the next thing you know, he's talking about honor and glory. He is still a trim, attractive man, although he has aged perceptibly over the past year. More than anything else, it has been injuries that have grayed Starr's hair. Green Bay opened its season with 13 players on injured reserve, including starting Offensive Tackle Mark Koncar, Quarterback David Whitehurst and second-year Linebacker Rich Wingo, the player around whom Starr had hoped to build his new 3-4 defense. Wingo is out for the year, following back surgery.
With all that as prologue, it was obvious that there was a good deal more riding on the outcome of Sunday's game with the Bears than early foot in the Central Division race. There was a surprisingly festive sellout crowd in Green Bay. The Packers showed their usual lack of consistency on offense, scoring only six points on Marcol field goals of 41 and 46 yards, but the defense seemed to grow stronger as the game progressed. Walter Payton, the Bears' thunderous running back, was limited to 65 yards in 31 carries, and Chicago was held to a pair of field goals by Bob Thomas. At the end of regulation play the score was 6-6.