One of my oldest and closest friends called me from his home in California Sunday morning to tell me his mother had died a few hours earlier.
Well, you know how that goes. You feel such sympathy for someone who is suffering that profound of a loss that you just don’t know what to say. You reach back for the old reliables such as, “I’m so sorry,” and “If there’s anything I can do ...,” but you realize those words are so insufficent.
As I was struggling for more meaningful words, I received a text message from another longtime friend that was startling.
“My hero of heroes Bart Starr ... gone at 85.”
Suddenly, I was really at a loss for words, just as countless others certainly were after it became known that Bryan Bartlett Starr had left us.
Hey, he was a hero of heroes for so many.
In the last eight months, we lost four Lombardi Era greats in Jim Taylor, Bob Skoronski, Forrest Gregg and Starr.
All were stars. But there was only one Starr.
We cheered this former 17th-round draft choice when he wedged himself between the blocks of Jerry Kramer and Ken Bowman during that minus-13-degree afternoon more than a half century ago, putting the finishing touches on a dynasty for the ages.
We booed him while he was hopelessly overmatched during nine miserable and seemingly endless seasons as the Packers coach.
We felt inspired by the kind and decent man he was, a man who impacted countless kids through the years with his tireless support for the Rawhide Boys Ranch.
We embraced him once again with thunderous ovations during his return trips to Green Bay, rightfully remembering not the struggling coach who was doomed from the start by inexperience, but that guy wearing No. 15 whose used to dissect defenses with clinical precision.
“Starr to Dowler ... touchdown,” so many of us can still hear broadcaster Ray Scott saying with his classic economy of words.
And now we are united in remembering Starr.
Moved by the loss of this remarkable sports icon, my first thought Sunday was to place a call to Kramer. As a sort of unofficial spokesman for the Lombardi Era, the eloquent Kramer would have just the right thing to say. He always has during my more than 30 years of periodic calls to him.
But all I heard was a recording that his voice mail box was full and could not accept anymore messages.
I could only assume a lot of people were trying to connect with Kramer about the passing of Starr.
And I felt so alone.
Then I started reflecting on my own journey with Starr. Most anyone who has followed the Packers during the last 60 years likely has some kind of personal journey with Starr, even if it was in spirit. Like that guy driving the car around town with the Packers license plate “BBS 15,” that I’ve seen a number of times.
My journey with Starr started the evening of Monday, Nov. 22, 1971, when I was 12. I had become a passionate Packers fan that season — little could I have realized that the renaissance initiated by Ron Wolf was almost exactly 20 years down the road — and I couldn’t wait for that game against the Falcons at Atlanta.
Starr had yet to appear in a game that season, which would turn out to be his last as a player, because of a shoulder injury and there was speculation he would play that night. The headline in that day’s Journal Times read, “Bart Starr is available, but Scott Hunter to start.”
When he was not summoned by coach Dan Devine that night, I remember being misty eyed when I switched off the game and went to bed.
Even as a novice Packers fan who had missed out on his true greatness in my younger years, Starr meant that much to me.
Four years later, he was the Packers coach and I used to turn away from the television while a stoic Starr, dressed in suit and tie, watched helplessly and so alone in the final minutes of another one of his 76 career losses. It was just so hard to watch.
By the end of the 1970s, I was among those covering the Packers for this newspaper and post-game press conferences used to be so thick with tension. As the losses and the years mounted, Starr was routinely asked about his job status and it hurt so much witnessing this great man twisting in the wind week after week.
In a way, it was like a lamb being led to slaughter.
I certainly wrote my share of negative stories regarding Starr’s coaching career, just as most other sportswriters in this state did. We wouldn’t have been doing our jobs otherwise.
But Starr never stopped being classy. In the mid 2000s, I arranged a telephone interview with him at his Alabama office for some historical Packers feature I was working on.
The concern that Starr might be guarded and cool with me because I was just another member of the Wisconsin media who once made his life miserable certainly crossed my mind. Instead, he greeted me on the phone with an enthusiastic, “Hello, Peter!” and graciously answered all my questions.
His secretary had told me that I would have to limit my interview to five minutes, yet Starr gave me all the time I wanted.
But time eventually caught up to him, just as it does with everyone.
Just last month, I was interviewing Carroll Dale, one of Starr’s closest friends on the Packers, for a column. I asked him if he had had any contact with Starr and Dale turned slightly somber, saying Starr was in no condition for much interaction anymore.
“Bart used to take on the linebackers instead of running out of bounds and it caught up with him,” Dale said.
So now I’m struggling for a suitable way to end this column, just as I struggled for the right words when I heard of his passing.
About the best I can come up with is a heartfelt thank you to a hero for meaning so much to so many of us — as a Packer and, more importantly, as a human being.