THE YEAR WAS 1960, AND THE QUARTERBACK WAS FED UP. IT WASN'T that Bart Starr couldn't handle a stern talking-to; he grew up in a military family, after all. It was just that he'd never known as unrelenting a drill sergeant as Vince Lombardi. It had been a year since the former Giants offensive coach had scored his first NFL head-coach gig, in Green Bay, and still he rode Starr as if the fifth-year veteran were a naive rookie. Starr aspired to perfection, in games and in practices. But when he missed the mark, Lombardi pummeled him harder than any on-rushing defender would. Starr would suffer those verbal blows in front of the entire team before Lombardi apologized in private.
Now, he was still smarting from throwing two interceptions in the Packers' season-opening loss to the archrival Bears—"A real punch in the side," Starr recalled in When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss. "Here's the man who had brought me along and given me the opportunity, and I failed when I got the chance." When he threw a third in practice that week, it prompted yet another public tongue-lashing from Lombardi. But this time Starr responded. After practice he cornered the coach in his office and delivered a most cathartic counteroffensive. He raged at Lombardi for blaming him for the practice pick, which, he argued, had been the result of a tipped ball. He ripped the coach for yelling at his players in public and made a case for special dispensation.
"You're asking me to be the leader of this team," Starr said. "But I can't be if you're chewing my butt out in front of the team you want me to lead. I can take any ass-chewing you want to deliver. And if you feel I have it coming, have at it. But please do it in the privacy of your office. ... I will be an even better leader for you if you do that."
The verbal blitz staggered Lombardi. "I hear you" was all he said. The coach never publicly criticized Starr again. "From then on we had a relationship that was just unbelievable," Starr said. "It just took off and went to another plane."
Together they would reach rarefied air. Starr and Lombardi led the Packers to five NFL titles in nine years—including victories in the first two Super Bowls—while compiling what remains the second-highest win percentage (.740) by an NFL quarterback-coach tandem that has been together nine years or more. Early on it was obvious to anyone how much Lombardi would figure in the Packers' success. But Starr, who would wind up as a four-time Pro Bowler, a two-time Super Bowl MVP and the 1966 league MVP, hardly appeared destined for greatness. And when he eventually did blossom, most saw him as little more than a manager.
For Lombardi, though, Starr became more than a mere extension of the coach out on the field. He was the maestro who took to his playbook as if it were a Mozart composition and got his teammates to perform it with philharmonic precision. "He's the one with the brains out there," Lombardi said of Starr in 1962 to Football Illustrated. "We rise and fall with him."
RAISED IN MONTGOMERY, ALA., STARR weathered more downs than ups early in his career. He made the sophomore team at Sidney Lanier High, quit two weeks later, then returned to the team after his father, Ben, an Army officer, threatened to put him to work in the garden if he didn't commit to the sport. Once Starr was back on the field, his coaches passed him over for players they deemed more talented. It was only after the starting quarterback broke his leg during Bart's junior year that the coaches turned to him, and Bart responded by leading Lanier to its first undefeated season.
The next year he garnered all-state and All-America honors as well as scholarship offers from across the country. Starr followed his heart. His high school sweetheart, Cherry Louise Morton, had designs on attending Auburn in the fall of 1952, and Starr wanted to play at a school close by—so he committed to archrival Alabama. (The couple married two years later.)
Starr caught on quickly in the classroom—an education major, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa—but on the gridiron he couldn't catch a break. As a sophomore in '53 he became the team's punter just to get on the field (his 41.4-yard average was second best in the nation), but the following summer of '54 he severely sprained his back while practicing his punting and saw little action his junior year. The next season Starr mostly watched from the bench again as new coach J.B. Whitworth experimented with youth, starting just two seniors. (The Crimson Tide went 0--10.) Starr's high school reputation in Montgomery earned him an invite to the Blue-Gray college all-star game there, but he barely played and afterward cried in frustration. Moving on to the NFL seemed about as likely as walking on the moon.