I’m an emotional guy to begin with, but I remember wondering both times — first after my mom passed away in 2007, then with my dad five years later — how I would ever get through delivering the eulogies for both my parents without completely losing it.
Then I turned to the person I had looked up to as a child and the one who had the biggest influence on me as a man, in terms of the diversity and breadth of his impact. It seems Bart Starr was always there when I needed him.
Growing up in the 1960s in Iron Mountain, Mich., about a 90-minute drive south to Lambeau Field, all of us Yoopers in the Upper Peninsula, by virtue of proximity, were die-hard Green Bay Packers fans. We lived and breathed by the team that won five NFL titles in a seven-year period.
The Packers were heroes to all of us, but Starr held a special place in my heart. He was the reason I fell in love with the game, why I went to bed at night cradling a football as a kid. He was the player I imitated while throwing the ball around the backyard with my brothers, Mike and Bobby, and our friends. He was the reason I became a quarterback.
Along with my parents, Bart Starr was my idol, my hero. He meant everything to me.
The first time I met him was in August 1965. I was a wide-eyed 9-year-old at the time and my family and I had made our annual training camp pilgrimage to Green Bay, where the Packers were laying plans for a season that would culminate in the team’s third NFL championship under Vince Lombardi.
I got Bart’s autograph, but what I remember most about that day was the way in which he carried himself. He was patient and engaging, and his smile was warm. He was a gentleman. A gentle man.
It was much like how I remember our last face-to-face visit, in November 2015. I learned he was going to be in San Diego on my 60th birthday, so my wife and I flew down to have dinner with Bart and his wife, Cherry. I didn’t see a man beaten down by the two strokes that had placed him in a wheelchair a few years earlier and that had sent him to Tijuana on this particular day to get another round of stem cell treatments. Quite the opposite, in fact. Walking with the aid of my arm, he looked like a man on the rebound.
I learned he had been going to physical therapy, attacking the sessions the same way he did the training that turned a 17th-round draft pick into a two-time Super Bowl MVP. He was bound and determined to make the trip to Lambeau Field that Thanksgiving, one last visit to Green Bay to be there for Brett Favre and the retirement of Brett’s No. 4 jersey.
Of course, he made it. He always found a way to be there for others.
He was there for me when I was a young assistant coach at Northern Michigan in the late ’70s. At his invitation when he was coaching the Packers, our staff would travel to Green Bay during training camp, stay overnight, and spend a couple of days with his coaches. I vividly remember meeting him again on our first trip there, about a dozen or so years after our first encounter. So welcoming and hospitable, it was he who introduced himself to me. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Bart Starr.”
Bart attended one of the fundraisers Tom Izzo and I held for 10 years to help pay off the Izzo Mariucci Fitness Center at Iron Mountain High School. There was no begging on my part nor an appearance-fee request on his; the region’s biggest icon did this freely, taking time out of his busy schedule and trekking up Route 141 with Fuzzy Thurston to be with us.
He was there encouraging me when I returned to Green Bay to coach Favre, the heir Packers fans had patiently waited for ever since Bart retired two decades earlier. That friendship and support followed me to my head coaching jobs in San Francisco and Detroit.
He was forever present. Just like he was in my mind as I prepared what I would say at my parents’ funerals.
Nearly 20 years before my mom’s passing, Bart and Cherry lost their 24-year-old son, Bret, to a drug overdose. Bart discovered Bret’s body several days after he had died. I can’t imagine the pain and anguish he must have gone through, but I do know the strength he showed at the funeral, delivering a beautiful eulogy and tribute to his son, whom he and Cherry loved dearly.
It struck me how strong he was in a moment that would have brought most parents to their knees. I couldn’t believe how strong a dad could be at his own son’s funeral. But there he was, in his darkest moment, writing his magnum opus and displaying all the qualities that made him such a great player, coach, husband, father and friend. Leadership. Strength. Humility. Authenticity.
And here I was now, putting pen to paper in the most vulnerable moments I had ever faced, writing eulogies for the people who I loved longest. I knew I needed something to help me get through it, so at the top of every page I wrote “Bart Starr” as a reminder to stay strong.
I got through the eulogies mostly intact, and I credit Bart for it. It was one of so many things he taught me. He inspired me to be a player and coach, but more than that, he taught me through his own actions how to be a gentleman, how to carry myself with dignity and class, and to serve those around me.
I never coached with him, he never coached me, and he wasn’t my dad, but I learned so much from him. As a human being, I appreciate all that he was.
And I will miss him dearly, as will countless others he so profoundly impacted along the way.