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July 07, 2011
It took some time for football sages, including Vince Lombardi, to see what a leader the Packers had in the polite young man from Alabama
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July 07, 2011

Starr On The Rise

It took some time for football sages, including Vince Lombardi, to see what a leader the Packers had in the polite young man from Alabama

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It took a recommendation from, of all people, 'Bama's basketball coach to launch Starr. Johnny Dees touted the quarterback prospect to Jack Vainisi, the personnel director of the Green Bay Packers. Vainisi came away impressed by the numbers Starr had put up in relief (for his Tide career, Starr completed 54.4% of his passes for 1,903 yards and 10 TDs) as well as his size (6' 1", 200 pounds) and smarts. Come the '56 draft, the Packers picked Starr 199th overall. Starr spent the summer throwing footballs through a swinging tire in his in-laws' backyard in preparation for the season. He was over the moon.

STARR WAS QUICKLY BROUGHT BACK TO EARTH WHEN he reached Green Bay. The Packers hadn't had a winning season since 1947, and there was little Starr could do to improve matters in his first two years under coach Lisle Blackbourn. Starr watched from the sideline for most of his rookie year, in '56; starter Tobin Rote had a Pro Bowl season, but the Packers went 4--8. In '57 Rote was traded to Detroit, and Starr split snaps with future AFL star Babe Parilli; they combined for just three wins.

Things were even worse in '58: Starr made eight starts and managed no better than a tie; Parilli made three and won one as the Packers finished a franchise-low 1-10-1. And yet, even that one victory now seems a miracle considering the atmosphere created by new coach Scooter McLean. He had few rules for his players—they set their own dress codes and curfews and regularly skipped team meetings.

Starr felt adrift and uncomfortable around the coach and saw no logic to his play selection and personnel use. "If you made an error, you went out, and if the other guy made an error, you came back in," Starr recalled.

When McLean was replaced by Lombardi ahead of the '59 season, it seemed as if Starr would get a fresh start. But it turned out to be more of the same. Lombardi wasn't quite sure of what he had in Starr—"He was probably just a little too polite and maybe just a little too self-effacing to be the real bold tough quarterback [you] must be in the National Football League," the coach said—so he traded for Lamar McHan (who had won 15 games in 53 starts with the Chicago Cardinals) with the idea of rotating him with second-year vet Joe Francis and relegating Starr to holding duties on kicks.

It proved a winning combination at first: The Packers roared to a 3--0 start. But when McHan became injured, Green Bay went on a five-game losing streak. When Francis couldn't stop the bleeding, Lombardi traded him away and reluctantly turned to Starr. The 25-year-old responded with the same poise he did his junior year at Lanier, guiding the Packers on a season-ending four-game winning streak that put them above .500 for the first time in 12 years.

As he reviewed game film, Lombardi discovered that he had a passer who boasted fluid mechanics, a capable arm and, most important, was an intelligent play-caller. Still, it was the confrontation with Starr in his office that was the real revelation. While all the time Lombardi had doubted he had a quarterback with the moxie to lead his team, it turned out there was one right there under his nose.

Under Lombardi's tutelage, Starr not only became one of the NFL's supreme field generals, but he also emerged as one of the game's greatest clutch performers. Even now, 40 years after his retirement, no quarterback has a better playoff record (9--1) or a higher postseason passer rating (104.8). What's more, he was coolest when the weather was coldest, especially in the 1967 NFL title game against Dallas dubbed the Ice Bowl. Down 17--14 with 4:50 left and the ball at his own 32 against the Cowboys' famed Doomsday Defense and a --13° temperature with 15-mph winds, Starr marched the Packers to the Dallas three-yard line. Hoping to take advantage of a mismatch on the right side of the line, Starr called consecutive running plays, which were stopped at the two-foot line. The hole was there, Starr told Lombardi during a Packers' timeout with 16 seconds left, but the icy surface was causing tailback Donny Anderson to spin his wheels and keeping him from shooting through the gap on time.

Starr told Lombardi he wanted to run 31 wedge—an inside running play in which the guard and center double-team the defensive tackle—but as a quarterback keeper. "Run it," Lombardi said, "and let's get the hell out of here!" On third-and-goal Starr did just that, falling over the goal line as time expired for a 21--17 victory and the fifth NFL title of the Lombardi-Starr era. When the coach was asked what play Starr called, he boomed, "Damned if I know!"

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