The year was 1978 and the Minnesota Vikings, who had dominated the NFC Central, if not the NFC itself throughout the 1970s, were in decline. On Nov. 26th, the Vikings played the Packers in Green Bay, with first place in the Central hanging in the balance.
As the Vikings trailed 10-3 late, Fran Tarkenton found Ahmad Rashad for a 5-yard game-tying touchdown with just 10-seconds left, sending the game into overtime. As my 15-year-old self was celebrating this shot at redemption my mom, who was a casual sports fan at best, said the most unimaginable thing I had ever heard to that point in my life: “I feel bad for (then Packers Head Coach) Bart Starr. I like him, I think he’s classy.”
Like I said, I was celebrating, and my mom was my mom, so I let it pass, trying to pretend I didn’t hear her profess empathy for my hated enemy’s head coach. But when Viking kicker Rick Dammeier missed a potential game-winning field goal with 4minutes left in OT, she said it again, and this time I couldn’t just let it go.
“Mom! What ARE you talking about?! Do you understand that a playoff spot is on the line?” I had to be careful here. In my house, you didn’t talk back to my mom—at least not if my dad happened to be in the same country, and in this case, he was sitting about four feet away, watching carefully.
The game ended in a 10-10 tie when Green Bay kicker Chester Marcol returned the favor, missing a potential game-winning field goal from 40 yards out with 17 seconds left. I was feeling more exhausted than exhilarated with the escape. The Vikings still led the Packers by virtue of having beaten them earlier in the season. When my mom said again, just for effect, I guess, “I feel bad for Bart Starr.”
Enough. This was blasphemy, and it simply could not stand! As I turned to unload on my mom, I caught my dad’s eye and knew I had to make a quick decision. I loved the Vikings and I loathed the Packers, and at that moment, none more so than Bart Starr. But, deciding that I did want to live to see my 16th birthday, I stifled my outburst, and stuttered and stammered on my way tomy bedroom to cool off.
Life is a funny thing. 12 years later I took a job as the weekend sports anchor at WKBT-TV in La Crosse Wisconsin, where not only did I find myself covering the Green Bay Packers but I actually hosted a Packer highlight show called “NewswatchSports Overtime,” which in football season, was mostly extra Packer coverage, but that’s not all.
I had to go to Packer training camp and home games at Lambeau Field, including the fateful day in 1992 where a young quarterback by the name of Brett Favre came in for the injured Don Majikowski and rallied the Packers past the Cincinnati Bengals in the game’s final seconds.
The roar at Lambeau field was deafening, as if a great beast had awakened after 25-years of slumber. As the fans roared I lookedaround the stadium, and I had chills. Unlike about 70,000 other people, I realized that I was the only person not wearing a Bengals uniform who wasn’t cheering. Thankfully, no one else noticed.
It was also about that time that it was announced that legendary Packer quarterback and former Head Coach Bart Starr was going to be making an appearance at a Shopko store in La Crosse. Now, I had come to learn that any time a Packer or former Packer came to La Crosse, packer-backers came out of the woodwork from miles around. But this was no ordinary Packer, this was the man who had led Green Bay to 5 NFKL titles and victories in the first two Super Bowls. This time the turnout would be epic.
So, I called Shopko early in the week and asked for a one-on-one interview with Starr and was told he would do it—AFTER he was finished signing autographs. I arrived at the Shopko in late afternoon to shoot some video of the Packer great signing autographs before I would get my interview.
Even though Starr had been there for hours and his appearance was slated to end in 20 minutes, the lines snaked out the front door and through the parking lot for at least 200 yards, and every person in it was dressed in green and gold. I had to stop myself from gagging.
I hauled my equipment into the store to get video of the event and to set up for my interview, and there he was. Standing ramrod straight in suit and tie, more than two decades removed from the game, Starr looked like he could have suited up and played. He stood the entire time, and he didn’t just sign autographs, pose for pictures, or engage with every person in line. When every confused child was pushed towards him by an over-eager adult, Starr asked the same question. “Would you like an autographed football?” To this, the child would look at their parent, who encouraged the confused tot to nod “yes.” Then,Starr would reach over to his assistant, who would pop a brand new, official Wilson NFL football out its box and hand it to Starr, who would then sign and give it to the little boy or girl.
I watched as Starr’s assistant took the box and flung it onto ahuge pile of empty football boxes behind the Hall of Famer andI asked, “He’s given away that many footballs?” To which the Shopko manager replied, “That many!? This has been going on like this for HOURS! We’ve already taken piles of boxes to the dumpster!”
I was flabbergasted. I stuttered, “How did you possibly have that many NFL footballs on-hand? I mean, what do you do if you run out of footballs?” The manager replied, “These aren’t OURfootballs, these are HIS, he brought a truckload.”
He brought a truckload. A Semi Truckload of NFL footballs, and he gave one to every confused kid whose green and gold clad parent coerced them into asking for one from this man who they had never seen or heard of before.
Oh, sure, he probably had a deal on the footballs with Wilson, but they certainly weren’t giving them away. Starr was, but they weren’t. I told Starr’s assistant I had never seen anything like itbefore, and he replied that with Starr he sees it all the time, buthe added that neither of us would probably ever see it again, because “buddy, they don’t make them like Bart Starr anymore.”Unfortunately, he was right.
When Starr finally sat for our interview—about an hour and a half later than scheduled—the first thing he did was apologize to ME for keeping me waiting. It was then that I told him the entirestory about my mom. I told him that I was going to call my mom when I got back to the station, apologize, and tell her that she was right. Bart Starr WAS a class act, unlike any I have seen,before or since.
Bart Starr left us on Sunday, but the mark he left on me will never leave, and I’m a better person for having met him just once.