BIRMINGHAM – Roger Goodell could barely get the words out of his throat.
Speaking at the “Celebrating the Legacy of Bart Starr” public memorial service Sunday afternoon at Samford University’s Wright Center, the commissioner of the National Football League fell silent for 15 long seconds, choking up at the realization he’d never read another freshly-penned letter from one of the bastions of the NFL, legendary Alabama and Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr.
Every September, prior to the start of each season he’s served as the NFL commissioner since taking over for predecessor Paul Tagliabue in 2006, Goodell anxiously looked forward to the arrival of a hand-written note via the US mail from Starr’s family home in Birmingham.
This September, as the NFL kicks off its 100th year anniversary, Goodell plans to honor the late Starr, who passed away May 26, by re-reading all 13 of his letters, many of which served as annual reminders of the league’s foundational standard of excellence, while also wishing Goodell good luck on another successful season of football. Starr died two weeks ago at the age of 85 following a lengthy health battle stemming from multiple strokes suffered since 2014.
“His words are as important as ever,” Goodell said before choking up. “Bart Starr will always be the league’s true north, guiding us to the highest levels of leadership, success, resilience, and most of all, dignity.”
Goodell was among seven guest speakers on hand to eulogize the life of Starr, including ex-Green Bay Packers teammate and former Alabama head football coach Bill Curry, during a poignant two-hour public service that was capped by Starr’s widow, Cherry, reciting a letter she once wrote her husband in 1995 expressing appreciation for all the gifts he brought into their lives.
For his part, Curry’s eulogy was an open letter to his friend he wrote in the days after Starr’s passing.
“Dear Bart, I’m doing this as an open letter to you just so I can get through it without falling apart,” began the 76-year-old Curry, who was Starr’s center with the Packers in 1965-66 and later was the head coach at Georgia Tech, his alma mater, Alabama and Kentucky between 1980-96. “Now I wish I could see you one more time, just to feel your strength, your friendship and that unconditional love, so I can express my unconditional gratitude for a few things that I wish I had said to you.”
Curry then recalled several personal anecdotes, including how Starr refused to take no for an answer after inviting Curry’s wife to live at his house during his rookie year with the Packers in 1965, instead of the dingy Green Bay hotel she originally had lined up.
“I do a lot of speaking, and I have a big mouth … but it’s impossible to describe the way Bart lived his life unless you could be in his presence and watch him treat every human being, every skin color, every religion, every nationality, ... he treated them all the same all the time,” Curry said after the ceremony. “It didn’t matter if he’d just won the world championship and was (named) most valuable player of the Super Bowl, or if he just got ear-holed and got his teeth knocked out, he was the same. It was the kind of example that we all know it’s impossible to be as good as he was, but we have to try.”
Among the VIPs in attendance included Goodell, Curry, and former Alabama player and athletic director Hootie Ingram among dozens of former teammates with both the Crimson Tide and Green Bay Packers.
There was also a handful of Alabama alumni that played for Starr during his head coaching days with the Packers (1975-83), including ex-defensive lineman and longtime Tide strength and conditioning coach Terry Jones (1974-77), former defensive end Byron Braggs (1977-80) of Montgomery, former linebacker Randy Scott (1978-80) of Decatur, and Rep. Rich Wingo of Tuscaloosa, who played linebacker at Alabama and Green Bay between 1976-1984 before winning a seat with the state House of Representatives in 2015.
Starr, born in 1934, is a native son of Montgomery, graduating from Sidney Lanier High School where he was an all-state and All-American quarterback his senior year, until he headed to Tuscaloosa to play at the University of Alabama in 1952 under then-coach Harold “Red” Drew.
Starr’s lone season of significance at Alabama was in 1953, when he quarterbacked the Crimson Tide to a 6-3-3 overall record as a sophomore and helped secure a SEC championship with an undefeated 4-0-3 conference record. Injuries and a coaching change his senior season limited Starr’s opportunities his final two years in Tuscaloosa.
“My final two years of college were poor,” Starr recalled during a video presentation compiled from archived video. “I was injured my junior year and for my senior year, we had a coaching change and for whatever reason he just benched us seniors. We hardly played. … So to be drafted at all was the greatest thrill I had ever known.”
Despite being the 200th overall pick in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL Draft, Starr eventually found his place as Vince Lombardi’s strong-willed signal caller during his fourth season in 1959, Lombardi’s first in Green Bay. Throughout his illustrious Hall of Fame career in the NFL (1956-71), Starr led the Packers to five NFL championships, including being named MVP of the first two Super Bowls in 1967-68.
But above all his on-field accomplishments, those in attendance for Sunday’s service extolled the many ways Starr positively impacted the lives of those around him off the field, and the enduring legacy of civility and reverence for all people that he leaves behind.
“He brought football in America’s living rooms, and was the star of the league in the ‘60s, a man who played the game with class, grit, passion and inspiring leadership,” Goodell said during his eulogy. “Simply put, No. 15 (Starr) was the best of men.”
In lieu of flowers, the Starr family is asking for a donation may be made to the Bart and Cherry Starr Foundation, which supports causes close to their heart.