Bart Starr while being introduced at Lambeau Field back in 2012. Raymond T. Rivard photograph

15 days to Packers football: Bart Starr

With 15 days left until the start of the NFL season, our countdown to the big day continues.

Thursday, Sept. 4, is the day when the Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle to take on the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks.  

Over the  course of the next 15 days we focus on the number that represents the days remaining … and for today we take a look number 15.

Most recently, we took a look at number 16 – Arnie Herber - another of those 1930s players who helped the Packers to championships.

Today we move on to number 15 … a number worn by just six players, including Bart Starr, since 1950 because as we all know, the number was retired after Starr’s playing days with the team.

In Addition to Starr, the number has been worn by Dick AfflisCharlie BrackinsBobby GarrettPaul Held and Babe Parilli.

But it was Starr who brought the number to franchise and national prominence back in the 1950s.

If there ever was a player who rose from anonymity to a household name, it was Starr. He led the Packers to five championships in the 1960s with three straight from 1965-67. Playing 16 years in Green Bay, Starr led not only the Packers through the 1960s, but the entire league into the modern era.

Playing 16 years in Green Bay, Starr led not only the Packers through the 1960s, but the entire league into the modern era.

He played in 196 games and had a record of 94-57-6 in games that he started.

He completed 1,808 passes in 3,149 attempts (57.4 percent), for 24,718 yards and 152 touchdowns over that stretch of time. His accuracy and penchant for taking care of the football (only 138 interceptions) that made him perfect for Vince Lombardi’s system.

One of his best seasons came in 1966 when he led the Packers to an 11-2 record, completing 156 passes in 251 attempts (62.2 percent), for 2,247 yards and 14 touchdowns – statistics that pale in comparison to today’s mega-numbers posted by QBs, but great numbers that led to championships in the 1960s.

And once again we turn to John Maxymuk, the author of “Packers by the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore them,” to provide insight and background and take us back to the years when Bart Starr was the best to play the game.

Maxymuk, titles his chapter about Starr as “Starr Quarterbacks” - I like the sound of that.

Let’s let Maxymuk expound on Starr:

A recording of Bart Starr plays to those at Lambeau Field prior to the start of a game in 2012. Raymond T. Rivard photograph

A recording of Bart Starr plays to those at Lambeau Field prior to the start of a game in 2012.
Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Often in discussions of public affairs people are content to say that history will make the final judgment. But what if history is wrong? After all, history, like journalism, is written by people with a subjective viewpoint. Of course, historical judgments themselves shift as additional information comes to light and as the attitudes of historians change. For a football example we need look no further than Bart Starr, whose luminescence has dimmed a bit over time.

In the 1960s the argument whether Bart Starr or John Unitas was the best quarterback in football was by no means resolved. Many years later, Unitas is still talked about with the likes of Montana, Elway, Favre and Marino as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Starr is mentioned as a deserving Hall of Famer, but not in the upper echelon of quarterbacks. What happened in the interim? Did Unitas win a few more championships after his retirement? Did Starr start throwing interceptions in his back yard? It was a long road to respect for Bart during his career, and somehow much of that has dwindled away in the passage of time and the recording of history’s judgment.

Bart Starr was a coveted high school All American who went to Alabama and had immediate success. He led the team to a 61-6 win over Syracuse in the 1952 Orange Bowl, and as a sophomore took the team to the Cotton Bowl where they lost to Rice.

In his junior year, he injured his back, andy then as a senior sat on the bench because new coach J.B. “Ears” Whitworth decided to go with all sophomores. The Packers drafted Starr in 1956 as a 17th-round draft choice and assigned him number 42 in training camp, obviously not expecting him to beat out Tobin Rote, Paul Held, and Jim Capuzzi. Starr made the team as Rote’s backup and took number 15. Over his first three years, Starr showed potential with his accuracy, but his play-calling and leadership were weaknesses, and Rote advised him to build up his arm strength.

Bart Starr. Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Bart Starr.
Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Lombardi arrived and Starr was impressed, but the feeling was not mutual. Vince cut the incumbent Parilli and kept Starr around, but gave the starting job first to journeyman Lamar McHan and then to weak-armed tailback Pineapple Joe Francis before finally trying Starr late in 1959. Lombardi’s assistant coaches had already written off Bart as a backup as best, but under him the team began to win again. In 1960 Starr and McHan started the season sharing the job until finally Lombardi awards the job to Bart late in the year, and he led them to their first Western Division crown in 16 years. The Packers would lose the championship game to the Eagles that year, 17-13. Starr’s play was not great, but he did not play badly, either.

Lombardi was still skeptical and made inquiries of Dallas regarding rookie Don Meredith.

In the following year, Lombardi would begin to be convinced. 1960 would be the last time Bart would be on the losing side in a playoff game.

The Packers would win every one of the nine postseason games in the 1960s, and Starr would play well in all of them (except the 1965 playoff against the Colts when he was injured on the first play and had to leave the game).

He would outplay rival star quarterbacks Y.A. Tittle twice, Don Meredith twice, as well as Frank Ryan, Roman Gabriel, Len Dawson, and Daryle Lamonica all once. Unitas, Montana, Elway, Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, would all have bad games in the postseason. Not Bart. His quarterback rating for postseason play is an NFL high of 104.5.

Bart was at his best in a pressure situation. He was a master at calling plays, reading defenses, and switching off to audible at the line of scrimmage. He often said his goal was to call an entire game of nothing but audibles. His signature play was the surprise pass on third or fourth and short yardage. It was a simple matter of reading the defense. If the defense was bulled at the line against the expected run, Bart would fake to the halfback or fullback, and pass to an open receiver. He did it so consistently that it’s a wonder that defenses did not adjust better. He threw a 43-yard touchdown to Boyd Dowler in the Ice Bowl on such a calculated risk. Once Starr gained confidence under Lombardi, he had a belief in himself and in his teammates. He generally would take a sack rather than risk an interception, feeling he had a better chance of calling a better play in the huddle to gt the first down on the next play even if more yardage was involved.

His coach said of him, “Bart Starr is the greatest quarterback who ever played football. Starr is th greatest because he won the most championships. Its as simple as that. Isn’t winning the job of the quarterback?”

Articles in national magazines and books at the time compared him to Unitas and many side with Starr. 49er coach Jack Christianson said, “He is probably the best quarterback in football today and when he retires, which I hope is soon, I expect that he will be recognized as the greatest of all time.”

If you take away the Packer-Colt match ups in which Green Bay held a 10-7 edge, the records of the two teams for the 1960s were 86-30-5 Packers vs. 85-32-4 Colts. The two best teams of the decade were evenly matched – Starr’s Packers won five titles; Unitas’s Colts won none.

After his playing career ended, Bart was regrettably drawn back to Green Bay as coach. It was a mistake for the team to offer the job to the inexperienced Starr and it was a mistake for him to accept it. It was a mistake that went on for nine years. In addition to the losing, Starr had discipline problems with his players and personality issues with the media covering the team. The whole affair sullied his once pristine image for a time.

However, he has risen from that experience and from the personal tragedy of his son dying from drugs to once again be a greatly admired figure.

He was in the forefront of the effort to pass the bond issue for the Lambeau Field renovations, and his name is consistently in the news linked to the Packers. Once, the Packers’ gentlemanly bright star said of his friendly rival from Baltimore, “Unitas was a star when I was still sitting on the bench. I studied film of him for two years before I became a starter, just trying to improve myself. We played him twice a year, and it was always special. I knew I was going against the best quarterback in the game.”

Unitas could say the same of Starr.


Here is a list of the Packers players who have worn #15 over the past 50 years:

From To AV
Dick Afflis 1951 1951 0
Charlie Brackins 1955 1955 0
Bobby Garrett 1954 1954 0
Paul Held 1955 1955 0
Babe Parilli 1952 1953 0
Bart Starr 1956 1971 90

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