On Bart Starr’s Day, Looking Forward As We Look Back

Some days are bigger than football

Bart Starr - Vintage Football Card Gallery [Public domain]

The Green Bay Packers honored one of their all-time greats, quarterback Bart Starr and his legacy, on Sunday, September 15, 2019. It was the first game at Lambeau Field since his passing. The Packers took on the Minnesota Vikings, with first place in the division on the line.

The “15th” of the month, perfect.

The home team didn’t need to win to properly honor Starr; there was going to be a joyous celebration either way.

But they did.

As Cherry, Bart’s wife, took in her first ever game at Lambeau Field without the love of her life. She was welcomed with a standing ovation.

She walked, slowly but confidently, through the same famed tunnel Packers have walked through since the days of Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis, Jim Taylor, Vince Lombardi, and, of course — Bart Starr.

Cherry walked out of that tunnel without her husband. Instead, Brett Favre was her escort, wearing a number “15” on his chest in honor of Starr. He gets it. They walked, hand in hand, waving to the crescendoed cheers of 80,000 (Vikings fans included).

Favre was the first true mentee, the first worthy mentee, of Starr as the next marquee quarterback of the Green Bay Packers — and all the responsibilities that come with leading one of the NFL’s flagship franchises.

No quarterback had brought a championship to Green Bay since Starr.

Until Brett, that is…

Fitting that he would be the one walking with Cherry down that tunnel when she no longer had her Bart to walk with.

All fans at the game already had a moment worth savoring. I’m being honest when I say that the Packers didn’t need to win this game to truly celebrate all that was the man Bart Starr. They could have watched their Packers lose 30-0 and still have had a moment that would live on both inside them and the familial strangers sitting around them.

In the bowels of Lambeau Field, a smiling Aaron Rodgers leaned in to greet an exuberant Cherry who shared some words. From that embrace Rodgers walked into another. This time with Favre, his mentor. Well, kind of.

Rodgers wasn’t exactly welcomed to Green Bay by Favre as warmly as Favre was welcomed by Starr. But Favre didn’t have his eyes set on taking Starr’s job; obviously the situation was different.

Time heals all wounds. Truly.

The family that is the Green Bay Packers, the organization, the alumni and the fans, is strong. It’s visceral. It’s innate and ever growing.

Rodgers hugged Favre, with an elegant Cherry beside them.

It was a genuine embrace, far from the awkward, are-we-hugging-or-are-we-shaking-hands dance they did at the 2013 NFL Awards Ceremony.

It’s the type of moment made possible only by first experiencing great success and great love, followed by great sorrow and pain and, ultimately, understood as great appreciation.

They see each other for who they really are now. And they see the men that they want to become in the eyes of Cherry as she talks about Bart. It took him, and his legacy as a player and a man, to bring them back together.

But the Vikings weren’t going to get sentimental and go easy on Rodgers.

Even so, the Packers got out to a 21-0 lead over their rival, a team that came into existence the same year Starr first led his Packers to a World Championship.

Rodgers threw two touchdown passes in the game, one for each of the modern day Hall of Fame quarterbacks that preceded him.

The NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, was there to honor Starr at halftime. Being at Lambeau Field for the team’s home opener folded nicely into the NFL’s 100th season celebration anyway.

At halftime, the tribute to Starr was played on the jumbotron.

Rodgers put his arm around Favre as they watched the tribute to their hero. Even in their deepest disdain for one another, Starr was the one constant they had in common.

Starr would write letters, make phone calls, and send emails to both. He was so accessible and gracious to both. You can bet they will be there for future Packers quarterbacks.

No doubt as Starr’s video played, each wondered, what clips would be included on their impending tributes? When will their numbers be decals on that back of the Packers’ iconic yellow helmets for a year?

Mark Murphy, the Packers’ President, said the team is dedicating this season to Starr. Amen. They get it.

Cherry was gifted an authentic 1960s Packers helmet, like the one her husband wore. Many of his teammates, including Paul Hornung, Jerry Kramer, Dave Robinson, and his top receiving target Boyd Dowler, made the trip to honor their fallen leader.

Lynn Dickey, the best quarterback for the Packers while Starr was the head coach, made the trip, too.

Into the microphone for the home crowd Cherry said, “I want to tell you how much I love you, and you will always have a special place in my heart. Thank you so much” to the whole of Green Bay. No, thank you Cherry.

She gets it, probably better than most.

Rodgers and Favre both gazed to that screen with obvious admiration and joy. Did they wonder, for a second, which teammates may come honor them? Perhaps Edgar Bennett, Donald Driver, Clay Matthews or Jordy Nelson?

I, for one, can’t help but wonder if this team be holding a similar ceremony for Brett Favre when the NFL is celebrating its 150th season?

Will an 85 year old Rodgers walk out of that tunnel, arm and arm, with a proud Deanna Favre?

Will Rodgers’ tribute come a few years later? Will there be another quarterback to continue this incredible legacy playing out on that field bringing more AP MVP Awards and more Lombardi Trophies to Green Bay?

It’s well documented, by us and many others, that the Packers’ history at the quarterback position is unprecedented and unfathomable.

Three modern day Hall of Fame quarterbacks that have each been named league MVP and have each brought a World Championship to this small town in eastern Wisconsin. No franchise comes close to this collection of talent at the game’s most important position.

This isn’t even including Arnie Herber, the first Hall of Fame quarterback in Packers history, who was a Great Depression era star in Green Bay.

Which makes me wonder, who will be the next Hall of Fame quarterback in Packers history? The odds say there won’t be one. At least not for a very long time.

Although history often finds a way to repeat itself. In Green Bay, Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks are built into the culture. It’s in the DNA of this franchise, it very well may be in the water at this point.

But this wouldn’t have been the case without Bart Starr leading Lombardi’s Packers to a five World Championship dynasty in the 1960s first. Those Packers changed football, changed sports forever. And Starr, even with a plethora of Hall of Fame teammates, really was the vital piece that made it all work.

Without Starr, the Lombardi Trophy likely would have a different name.

Furthermore, there would be no Favre “bringing the Packers back” without Starr’s success. And there would be no Rodgers continuing that legacy without the foundation that is the Packers’ modern day organizational self esteem — laid by Starr himself.

It’s moments like this, Cherry with Favre and Rodgers on a beautiful Sunday at Lambeau, where I can’t help but look back. Everything that Starr meant to this franchise, state, and league is incalculable. How can one man bring such influence to so many people? It’s humbling.

But it also has me pondering what’s next? I can’t help it.

Will Rodgers, like Starr, find a way to win multiple championships in his career? Will Rodgers, like Favre, win his third AP MVP award? Will Rodgers and Favre’s relationship continue to blossom into an even stronger friendship?

One thing is certain: the city of Green Bay and fans of this team are going to keep Starr’s memory alive. Vividly alive.

And as Favre and Rodgers peered up to that video tribute, and to the tens of thousands of adoring fans, I’m sure they became aware that these same people, and their offspring, will keep their memories alive, too.

No man is immortal, but in Green Bay, if you’re a quarterback worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as Starr, you’re pretty damn close.

The Packers did a fantastic job in paying tribute to Starr’s memory and Cherry got to say, perhaps, her final goodbye to Lambeau Field in a divine setting. The score of the game really was secondary to the event that was Starr being celebrated by the people, and the grandchildren of people, that revered him.

But still, Rodgers and the Packers found a way to hang on and win the game.

Green Bay 21. Minnesota 16. Final score.

There will only ever be one first game at Lambeau Field following Starr’s passing and the Packers won that game. As silly as it seems, it means something to these people. And it should, dammit.

And there’s something cathartic about Favre being out on that field for such an important moment and it being against the vaunted Vikings. As if it brought full circle and ended the nightmare that was, eight years ago, seeing him in purple.

Time strikes again.

As a victorious Rodgers left the field, slower than usual, he looked up to where Bart Starr has his name is etched into Lambeau Field’s facade.

He gestured “1” and “5” repeatedly as he approached that tunnel. It was his final gesture, on that day of heartfelt tributes, to his hero, his mentor, his predecessor, his friend. He gets it.

Rodgers and the Packers didn’t need to win that game for him.

But, just like so many times before with Starr and then Favre out on that field, they did.

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