By Larry Canale
You don’t always remember moments that grip you, but sometimes, they last a lifetime. Bart Starr’s passing on May 26, 2019 reminded me of just such a moment.
Let me take you back in time to Jan. 14, 1968. I was a little kid lying on the living room floor, watching Super Bowl II with my dad. We lived in Oswego, N.Y.—a full 888 miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin. But there was a magic in that game that touched me, and much of it hinged on the precision play of Bart Starr. That name kept coming up on the grainy telecast. It was a perfect name for a football hero. Bart Starr. As perfect a name as Mickey Mantle was in baseball. Two syllables, two words that rhymed, and a last name that described what he was: a star.
When the Super Bowl clock hit 0:00, the Packers had won, and in short order, the MVP was announced. Who else but Bart Starr?
Just like that, I had a favorite team, a favorite player and a favorite number (15). The Packers fielded eight other Hall of Famers that day, but Starr was the one who stood out to me, as QBs do for most of us. He completed 13 of 24 passes for 202 yards and a TD, with no interceptions.
When the following football season kicked off in September, I had already started stocking up on Topps’ 1968 Football set. I never did pull a Starr out of a pack, but I did trade for one that, in hindsight, wasn’t in very good condition. It got worse when one of my rascally sisters drew circles on Bart’s cheeks. I erased them as best as I could, and resigned myself, in those pre-hobby days, that it was the best I’d ever get.
A LETTER TO REMEMBER
Fast-forward 25 years. After college and a fun stint in music journalism, I got hired by the magazine that helped usher me back into sports collecting, Tuff Stuff. I’d been reading early issues, intrigued by the burgeoning hobby, so it was a dream job. And in the first issue I edited, dated January 1994, I wrote my introductory column on (who else?) Bart Starr. I presented a photo of that beat-up old 1968 card I still carried around, and I wrote that even though it was ultra-creased and had the consistency of a blanket, it remained my prized possession.
The column drew lots of reader letters, one of which came from Alabama. I opened it and started reading: “Dear Larry, I read your column and wanted to tell you how flattered I am that you consider my 1968 card your prized possession....” What? I skipped down to the bottom and suddenly realized, “This is from Bart Starr!” Oh, man—astonishing! Who else but Bart would take the time to express his gratitude to some magazine editor in Virginia?
A few months later, I got to meet Bart at an autograph show we hosted. I sat with him for almost five hours—well past the time he had committed to spending—and found him to be the ultimate gentleman, a class act. The reason he stayed longer than contracted was because he spent quality time with every autograph guest. He treated every single fan in line that day with the utmost respect—like he was as honored to meet them as they were thrilled to meet him.
We got to do it again a few years later, in 1999, and the experience only drove home the point that Bart’s persona, his character, was no act.
That day, I gave him a copy of a book on Mickey Mantle I’d just had published. I didn’t expect anything other than the smile and “thank you” he gave me. But a week later, another letter arrived from Alabama—yes, a thank-you note from Bart Starr.
That’s just who he was. His five NFL championships aside, Bart Starr was as peerless a role model as you could find.
“LOTS OF EMOTION”
One of my favorite friends in the hobby is Jeff Rosenberg, founder of TriStar Productions. After Starr’s passing, I called Jeff to get a quote for this story. We ended up spending a nice amount of time just grieving over Starr’s passing.
Rosenberg, over the past three decades, brought Starr into his shows as an autograph guest more than a dozen times, so he got to know him well, and his passing “brings a lot of emotion,” as he told me.
“I found a couple thank-you notes Bart wrote to me after doing our show, and I can tell you that of the thousands of deals I’ve done [with athletes], I don’t have a whole lot of those. I pulled out two of them from Bart, and they’re just so sweet. It’s just rare when you see a guy, a Hall of Famer, thank you for working with you. He told us we were first-class—and that’s what he was.”
As Rosenberg and I talked about Bart, we agreed he was an athlete who made us realize why we loved the hobby. We don’t look at anything he signed for us in terms of its dollar value. Rather, it represented a connection to a hero worth our admiration.
“Coincidentally, I was cleaning this weekend and found some autographs I personally got from Bart,” Rosenberg said. “The last thing I’m thinking about is their value. Besides my memories, these items are my tangible pieces of Bart Starr. There were some cards and magazines and different things, and touching them just made me feel good.”
I know how he feels. My own Starr items—signed letters, photo, a mini-helmet—keep the connection alive. They remind me of the character Bart Starr showed—his kindness and graciousness, his humility and sincerity.
“I think all of us, myself certainly, could learn a lot—and did learn a lot—from the way Bart lived,” Rosenberg said. “He didn’t see you or me or the person who bought an autograph ticket any different from himself. It’s hard to believe someone at that level could be so great with everybody, so humble.”