Starr-gazing event

By Jeff Birchfield

   JOHNSON CITY--Although it's been three and a half decades since the heyday of Bart Starr, you couldn't tell it Friday by the enthusiastic turnout to see the NFL Hall of Famer at the annual Salvation Army Souper Bowl for the Hungry Luncheon.
   Most at the Adelphia Center came early to see the man who quarterbacked the Packers to wins in the first two Super Bowls. For Starr, it was a time to reflect on past glory and talk about the star quarterbacks of today.
   "I have this Super Bowl ring," said Starr, displaying it to media members. "The reason I put three diamonds in this one is no team (other than the Packers) has ever won three consecutive championships. I will be very surprised if anyone ever does. Even when the 49ers and Steelers won four Super Bowls, no more than two were consecutive. That's why I wear this ring."
   In all, Starr won five NFL titles, playing for the legendary Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. Many consider Lombardi the greatest head coach in the history of the game. You can count Starr among those who would cast his vote for his former coach.
   When asked what made Lombardi so special, Starr responded, "Some of the basics. He was someone who had his priorities in order. It was God, family and others. Others in this case being the Green Bay Packers. He never varied from that.
   "You recognized immediately that discipline was a part of it. That carried over into his approach. He was so focused, so disciplined in how he taught and how he coached. It was infectious. He was very smart and he had excellent preparation from all his people. We were expected to live that out every day in front of us and be the very best that we could be."
   Many in the audience no doubt Tennessee fans, still gave a warm reception to the man who started a tradition of top quarterbacks attending rival University of Alabama. Starr, who grew up in Montgomery, Ala., was a quarterback the Crimson Tide from 1952-1955, paving a path that other Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Joe Namath and Ken Stabler later followed.
   His senior year he played for J.B. Whitworth, the last coach at 'Bama before Bear Bryant took over. Starr made some comparisons between the two gigantic coaching figures, Bryant and Lombardi.
   "I didn't play for Coach Bryant," said Starr. "Coach Bryant came after I graduated. I'm a dinosaur. I can only say that from what I've read and heard and the times that I met him, that obviously they had a similarities and a lot of strengths that they shared. It was a pleasure to play for coach Lombardi because he was a superb leader."
   The Packers were rarely a playoff contender in the post-Starr era of the '70s and '80s. Starr coached the Packers from 1974 to 1983, but only posted two winning seasons during that time frame.
   The Green Bay dynasty made a comeback in the 1990s with the addition of a quarterback from another southern college named Brett Favre. Starr has nothing but praise for the quarterback out of Southern Mississippi, who led the Packers to their third Super Bowl title in 1997.
   "It's nice to see the strong family that he has," commented Starr, a three-time NFL passing champ. "I had the pleasure of visiting Brett and (his wife) Deanna recently at their home outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I have admired him for years as a player. I have never seen a better competitor.
   "He's extremely powerful physically, but when you look at his competitiveness and enthusiasm, it is very contagious. It's little wonder to anybody that is close to the team or watching how he has been able to lift that team to the heights that he has. When they give him more support around him, they could add more Super Bowls there."
   At 33 years old, Favre is considered to be entering the last phase of his career. However, Starr, who himself retired at age 37, said only Favre can be the judge of when it's time to hang up the helmet.
   "It's not up to us to talk about how much time he has, because I have never seen anyone at his age who can perform like he does," said Starr, who played for 16 seasons. "It's just amazing. You look at the strength he has and the condition he is in, how talented and competitive he is. If you give him a strong team around him, I think he can play as long as he wants to."
   He also talked about Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who has gained respect among the NFL legends, showing a brand of toughness common in Starr's era.
   "I think McNair has become a very good passer over the years," said Starr, the league's MVP in 1966 after coming into the NFL as a 17th-round draft pick ten years earlier. "I think many people will tell you when he came into the league he was more of a thrower than a passer. I am very impressed with his passing skills today compared to when he first came into the league. He was extremely talented when he came here or they wouldn't have taken him when they did.
   "He led the Titans extremely well. When they have all the ingredients, all the packing there, they are very, very tough like in 1999 when they went to the Super Bowl. They came very close to that this past year."
   More than half of current professional football fans never saw Starr play during his career, but have become familiar with the No. 15 through the magic of NFL Films. Although he gained MVP honors in leading the Packers to wins over the Chiefs 35-10 and the Raiders 33-14 in the first two Super Bowls, one game stands out even more to Starr.
   The legend of Lambeau Field's frozen tundra and the greatness of Starr's leadership abilities were encased in one magical game played for the 1967 NFL Championship. In a game so cold it was dubbed the Ice Bowl wind chill was measured at 40 below. Starr provided the winning points in a 21-17 decision over the Dallas Cowboys with a quarterback sneak that capped a 12-play, 68-yard drive.
   "Those three games are all memorable," recounted Starr. "I don't know if you can put one ahead of the other because of when they occurred and what they meant. However, I would throw the Ice Bowl at the top of the list primarily because by winning it, it enabled us to win three consecutive championships. That's something that no one else has ever done.
   "Then, when you toss in the brutal weather that was a part of it, it was something that you will remember all of your life."