I started collecting autographs when I was 8 or 9. As I progressed from the Wombles or The Planet of the Apes (no, honestly) I progressed to sports. My school was 100 yards from one of Scotland’s biggest football teams and my friends and I would go along at lunchtime to watch some of the biggest names in Scottish football train. Afterwards we would wait starry eyed and somewhat bashfully to ask them to sign a collection of tatty autograph books or worse still school jotters.
My passion continued through school into my teenage years and into adulthood. Finding others with a passion for the same hobby helped to overcome the condescending looks one gets as an adult when asking another adult for a momento of an occasion.
Which led me to feeling a little sad this week. My passion moved sports as my love for football (soccer) was overtaken by my love of football (American) and finding out that these stars of a game I could only watch on tv, who were thousands of miles away and who appeared to be megastars would actually take time out to respond to requests via the mail.
So after some due diligence and many, many requests I started to receive mail from some of the biggest names the NFL and college has ever witnessed. Mike Ditka, Steve Young, Peyton and Eli Manning, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Marcus Mariota, Nick Saban, Tim Tebow.
But the one that stands out and which made me feel a little sad was my interaction with Bart Starr. At the time I wrote to Mr Starr I was starting to read a bit more about the history of the game. My game plan was simple, start at the beginning. Question one – who won the first Super Bowl (I did say it was simple), which led me to Mr Starr.
The more I read about the man, the legend – the more I was drawn in. I didn’t have a favourite NFL team back then, although my brother had brought me back a Packers hat from a trip to the States. I didn’t know then but the Packers were becoming my team. And the coincidence becomes greater. Mr Starr was also the star quarterback for my now beloved Crimson Tide. And until this week Mr Starr still had his residence in Birmingham, Alabama.
Back then my grand plan was relatively unsophisticated. I would send a letter asking if the recipient would be willing to sign whichever item I chose to send to them. Always with a polite letter explaining my rationale and enclosing money to cover return postage or a donation to their favourite charity. There were a lot of duds and no responses. This is not a hobby with instant gratification. It comes to he who waits and waits. And waits.
But one day I received an email out of the blue from Leigh Anne Nelson who it turned out was Mr Starr’s personal assistant. Mr Starr was delighted to help out with my request. He also wanted to know how I came to be interested in the game, whilst living in Scotland. I guess he didn’t get too many requests from my part of the world.
Of course we know that Bart Starr was a superstar of his time. Both at College and during his incredibly successful time at Lambeau. So it was pretty cool to receive the Packers mini helmet, with an inscription and in handwriting which was legible (a feat which betrays most current personalities) despite his then failing health. Rightly or wrongly he felt the need to respond to his fans, a tradition the Packers continue to this day. But when I look at the helmet (often), I shake my head. That the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, who won multiple Superbowls and lived 4,000 miles away took the time out. It’s crazy when you think about it.
As much as the news out of Birmingham this week was sad, I did enjoy Peter King’s recollection of interviewing Bart Starr. It was clearly an uncomfortable moment but one which showed the courage, determination and tenacity of the Bart Starr. I also liked that Peter King wanted to ask the question but didn’t in respect of the situation. The question that was never asked showed Bart Starr was not only a star of his time but also one of the greatest to throw a ball. King writes…..
“You know what I really wanted to ask Starr that afternoon in Birmingham? You completed 14 of 24 in minus -46 wind chill in the ice bowl, against that great Dallas defence with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and a rating over 110. How?”.
Now that was the question.
My ramblings here are not those of someone who knew Bart Starr or interviewed him or even met the man. But on a tiny level I had the briefest interaction. In many ways it set me on a path to both Tuscaloosa and Lambeau. Both of which I have now visited.
Anyone who has met Mr Starr recalls what a gentleman he was. It’s nice that he is remembered as both a gentleman and a true superstar of the game.
And each time I look at the helmet I have a fond recollection of a great man.
Bart Starr was the 200th pick in the 1956 draft. He won the Super Bowl in 1966 and 1967 ( the year I was born if we want to keep the coincidences going).
He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1977.
Mr Starr passed away at his home in Birmingham, Alabama this Sunday, aged 85.
A Great Man.
Photo credit : NFL.com ; @geosomerville
Peter King quote : Peter King FMIA “The determination of Bart Starr”