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. 26, the Vikings played the Packers in Green Bay, with first place in the Central hanging in the balance.
The Vikings trailed 10-3 late, but 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 up until 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 the enemy’s head coach. But when Viking kicker Rick Dammeier missed a potential game-winning field goal with 4 minutes left, 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.
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 even though the Vikings still led the Packers by virtue of having beaten them earlier in the season. 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 wanted to live to see my 16th birthday, I stifled my outburst, and stuttered and stammered to my 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 cover the Green Bay Packers but I actually hosted a highlight show called “Newswatch Sports Overtime,” which in football season, was all about extra Packer coverage.
I went to Packer training camp and home games at Lambeau Field, including the fateful day in 1992 when 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. Looking around the stadium, 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 during 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 in La Crosse. Any time a Packer or former Packer came to La Crosse, almost the whole town turned out, and this would be no exception.
I called ahead 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 for my interview with Starr.
Even though Starr had been there for hours and his appearance was slated to end in 20 minutes, the line snaked out the front door 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, 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 before him by an overly eager adult, Starr asked the same question. “Would you like an autographed football?” To this, the child would nod and mumble “yes,” and Starr would reach over to his assistant, who would pop a brand new official Wilson NFL football out its box, hand it to Starr, who would then sign and give it to a little boy or girl.
I watched as Starr’s assistant took the box and flung it onto a pile that was growing behind the Hall of Famer and I asked, “He’s given away that many footballs?” To which the Shopko manager replied, “That many? This has been doing this for hours and we’ve already taken piles of boxes to the trash.”
I couldn’t believe it. I asked him, “What do you do if you run out of footballs?” The manager replied, “These aren’t our footballs. He brought a truck.”
He brought a truck. Oh, sure, he probably had a deal on the footballs with Wilson, but they certainly weren’t giving them away. HE was, but they weren’t. I told Starr’s assistant I had never seen anything like it before, and he replied that he sees it all the time but that neither of us would probably ever see it again. 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 for keeping me waiting. It was then that I told him the story 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.