Two Big Surprises: Longshot Makes It, a Sureshot Doesn’t : BART STARR : 17th-Round Draft Choice Turns Out to Be Real Star
The most memorable moment in the history of the Green Bay Packers, and perhaps of all professional football, could have just as easily been read and written as the following:
Onto the frozen field the Packer quarterback trotted, breath pouring from him like steam from a kettle. He ducked his head into the huddle, trailing 17-14, with 13 seconds and no timeouts remaining in the NFL title game of 1967 The temperature was 13 below zero.
As shadows fell on Lambeau Field, the nose of the football rested on a patch of ice at the Dallas Cowboys’ goal line.
Bob Lilly, the great Cowboy defensive tackle, kicked at the frozen ground with his cleats, in frantic search of traction. He would find none.
The Packers approached the line of scrimmage and in a moment that would almost literally be frozen in time, quarterback Jim Capuzzi followed right guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman into the end zone and into sports history.
Don’t laugh, it could have happened.
For in 1956, the Packers thought as highly of quarterbacks Capuzzi and Paul Held and Tobin Rote as they did for another quarterback by the name of Bart Starr.
He was no more the team’s quarterback of the future than you were.
Starr, in fact, was just another name on the roster, a 17th-round draft choice from the University of Alabama.
“When you’re picking in the 17th round, you’re usually looking for a guy to fill your camp squad,” said Tom Miller, longtime Packer front-office man who also joined the Packers in 1956.
So meet Bart Starr, Mr. Camp Squad. When he walked into training camp in 1956, he was issued an interesting number by the Packers’ equipment man, G.E. (Dad) Braisher.
“It was obvious they thought I was not going to stay,” Starr said. “In our first photo session, they gave me No. 42. On my first bubble-gum card, I was No. 42.”
Of course, he was later given No. 15, a jersey that would eventually be retired and forwarded to Pro Football’s Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
But who was to know that in 1956, when Starr came to the team with perhaps more promise as a punter than a quarterback? And what about all that competition? Already in camp were Rote, the team’s feisty starter. And veteran Babe Parilli. And Held, back for a second shot after signing as a free agent from San Diego State the previous year. Not to mention the great Capuzzi, out of Cincinnati, who did a four-year stint in the Navy before joining the Packers as a free agent in 1955.
About the only thing Starr had going for him was his flashy last name. He suffered a severe back injury while punting during fall practice at Alabama in 1954. Starr was the nation’s second-leading punter the season previous but suddenly found himself in traction. He played very little his last two seasons at Alabama.
In fact, the Packers might never have drafted him had Johnny Dee, the basketball coach at Alabama, not called his friend Jack Vainisi, a scout with Green Bay.
Still, drafting Starr seemed like a token gesture at best, though it was anything but for Starr.
He remembers sitting by the phone on draft day, waiting and hoping for a call. Already married, he and his wife shared an apartment at a converted army barracks in Birmingham.
“You could see the ground through the cracks in the floor,” Starr said.
Finally, the Packers did call, though not until the second day of the draft.
“I would not have been disappointed if I was the 40th pick,” Starr said. “I just wanted the opportunity. I had a lot of confidence in my own ability, but the circumstances prevented me from showing something better to the scouts. I was hurt most of the last two years and I didn’t have that much to offer. But I wanted to play badly.”
Starr’s back injury certainly diminished his value in the draft, but even when healthy, his throwing arm was not powerful. But his passes were accurate. And his knowledge of the game was keen.
“When Bart came along strong, we didn’t think he had a chance,” said Miller. “But he was intelligent, very smart. He was a very mature guy, and a hard-working guy. And he surprised everybody.”
Starr doesn’t really know how close he was to being released by the Packers.
“I don’t think I was astute enough to realize it,” he said. “I was probably a lot closer to getting cut than I thought. I was almost in a euphoric state just to be someplace.”
Like any good success story, Starr needed a few breaks along the way. He’d already received one, the call from Dee to Vainisi.
He got another in 1957 when the Packers traded Rote to the Detroit Lions. Miller remembers that Rote and then-Packer coach Lisle Blackbourn weren’t exactly on the best of terms, which only helped Starr’s situation.
But the Packers were also in need of running backs, and had received Don McIlhenny in return for Rote.
Starr is convinced that history would have been written differently had Rote stayed with the Packers.
“If he had had my timing with Lombardi (who had not yet arrived), he’d be in the Hall of Fame,” Starr said of Rote. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t there at the time I was.”
Starr played very little in his rookie season, but with Rote out of the way, he shared the quarterback position with Parilli in 1957, completing 54% of his passes for a Packer team that won only three games.
In 1958, though, Blackbourn was fired and was replaced by assistant Ray (Scooter) McLean, who suffered through a miserable 1-10-1 season with quarterbacks Starr and Parilli.
Not surprisingly, McLean resigned after the season.
In early 1959, he was replaced by an offensive line coach from the New York Giants named Vince Lombardi.
This was another monumental break for Starr, though he wouldn’t realize it until later.
“He didn’t have any confidence in me,” Starr said of Lombardi. “I hadn’t shown him anything. I had to earn his respect.”
Eventually, though, Lombardi was more impressed with the quarterback’s savvy and intelligence than the strength of his throwing arm. It became a perfect combination of coach and player.
“Bart came into his prime under Lombardi,” Miller recalled. “Vince thought he was an intelligent player who fit in very well with our players. And at that time, Vince didn’t go much for the long pass. It was very significant (for Starr) that Vince came along with his ball-control game.”
Starr took over at quarterback for good in 1959 and led the Packers to their first winning season in 12 seasons, 7-5. He remained the starter until 1971 and in that time led the Packers to six Western Division titles, five NFL championships and two Super Bowl victories. Starr led the league in passing three times and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
And it was Starr, of course, and not Capuzzi, who followed Kramer and Bowman into the end zone to win the 1967 title game.
But what, aside from pure chance and fate, prevented a much different ending?
Starr wonders about it often.
Had Starr not been drafted by the Packers, he imagines he would have tried to catch on with another team as a free agent. He also had a few offers from the Canadian Football League.
“Had I failed there, I probably would have prepared myself for a military career,” Starr said. “My dad was a career man. I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have been a retired general in the Air Force today.”
Which brings us to Tuesday’s NFL draft, with its scouting combines and computer printouts. If scouting and drafting and cultivating talent were an exact science, you would likely never have heard of Bart Starr. And although Starr is perhaps the most notable player to rise from the bottom of the draft to stardom, he is not the only one.
SOME OTHER LATE-ROUND DRAFT SUCCESSES
GREEN BAY PACKERS
JIM RINGO, center, 1953-63, University of Syracuse. A seventh-round draft choice in 1953. Ringo was elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981. A six-time All-Pro, he played in 10 Pro Bowls.
WILLIE DAVIS, defensive end, 1960-69, Grambling. A 17th-round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns in 1958. Traded to the Packers in 1960, he became a six-time All-Pro. Elected to Hall of Fame in 1981.
JETHRO PUGH, defensive tackle, 1965-78, Elizabeth City State. An 11th-round draft choice in 1965. Became a member of Dallas’ vaunted Doomsday Defense.
DENNIS THURMAN, safety, 1978-85, USC. An 11th-round choice in 1978. Ranks third on team’s all-time interception list with 36.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
JOE SCIBELLI, offensive tackle, 1961-75, Notre Dame. A 10th-round pick in 1961. Voted by fans to Rams’ all-time team.
DAVID (DEACON) JONES, defensive end, 1961-71, South Carolina State. A 14th-round pick in 1961. Arguably the greatest pass rusher of all time. Played in seven Pro Bowls.
CHARLIE COWAN, offensive tackle, 1961-75, New Mexico Highlands. A 21st-round pick in 1961. Played in three Pro Bowls, named to all-time Rams team.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
DWIGHT CLARK, receiver, 1979-present, Clemson. A 10th-round pick in 1979. Still one of Joe Montana’s favorite targets and the team’s all-time leading receiver.
MILT SUNDE, offensive guard, 1964-74, Minnesota. A 20th-round pick in 1964. Made the Pro Bowl in 1966.
DAVE OSBORN, running back, 1965-75, North Dakota. A 13th-round pick in 1965. Made Pro Bowl in 1970.
JEFF VAN NOTE, center, 1969-86, Kentucky. An 11th-round choice in 1969. One of the most durable players in NFL history who appeared in six Pro Bowls.
RICHARD DENT, defensive end, 1983--present, Tennessee State. An eighth-round draft pick in 1983. Was 203rd player selected. Named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XX. Has recorded 45 sacks in the last three seasons.
JOHN UNITAS, quarterback, 1956-72, Louisville. A ninth-round pick who was cut by the Steelers in 1955. Later enjoyed some success with the Baltimore Colts.
ROCKY BLEIER, running back, 1970-80, Notre Dame. A 16th-round pick in 1968. Vietnam War veteran’s life story would have a made-for-television movie ending.
L.C. GREENWOOD, defensive end, 1969-81, Arkansas AM&N.; A 10th-round choice in 1969. A key member of the Steelers’ fabled Steel Curtain defense.
BOB TRUMPY, tight end, 1968-77, Utah. A 12th-round pick in 1968. Ranks third all-time with 35 touchdowns. Now a popular sports announcer.
DARYLE LAMONICA, quarterback, 1963-74, Notre Dame. A 24th-round pick in 1963. Couldn’t help the Bills much, but led the Raiders to Super Bowl in 1968.
CLINT DIDIER, tight end, 1981-present, Portland State. A 12th-round pick in 1981. He was the 314th player chosen in draft. Only 18 others were drafted after him.
MONTE COLEMAN, linebacker, 1979-present, Central Arkansas. An 11th-round pick in 1979. Coleman was his college’s first NFL draft choice.
STAN WHITE, linebacker, 1972-85, Ohio State. A 17th-round choice in 1972. Last Colt player selected, White stayed around for eight seasons and played on three division title teams. Moved on to Detroit and then Chicago/Arizona of USFL.
DON NOTTINGHAM, fullback, 1971-77, Kent State. A 17th-round pick in 1971. Last Colt player selected. A bruising runner who later followed Don Shula to Miami.
NEW YORK GIANTS
GEORGE MARTIN, defensive end, 1975-present, Oregon. An 11th-round draft choice in 1975. The senior member of the Giant defense, Martin has scored five touchdowns.
MARK CLAYTON, receiver, 1983-present, Louisville. An eighth-round pick in 1983. The 223rd player taken in the draft, Clayton may be the best wide receiver in the game today.
GARY FENCIK, safety, 1976-present, Yale. A 10th-round pick in 1976. Fencik couldn’t survive the cut in Miami, but has starred for 11 seasons in the Chicago Bears’ secondary.
BRIAN SIPE, quarterback, 1972-85, San Diego State. A 13th-round pick in 1972. Still holds most of the Browns’ passing records. Later signed with the USFL.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
STUMP MITCHELL, running back, 1981-present, The Citadel. A ninth-round choice in 1981. Has become the team’s best multi-purpose back since Terry Metcalf.
LARRY WILSON, safety, 1960-72, Utah. A seventh-round pick in 1960. Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.
OAKLAND-LOS ANGELES RAIDERS
JIM OTTO, center, 1960-74, Miami--A 20th-round pick in 1960. Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1980. Started 210 straight games for Raiders.
MARV HUBBARD, running back, 1969-75, Colgate. An 11th-round draft choice in 1968. Durable runner and blocker.
ROD MARTIN, linebacker, 1977-present, USC. A 12th-round pick in 1977. Was the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1983.
REGGIE McKENZIE, linebacker, 1985-present, Tennessee. A 10th-round pick in 1985. A solid player who made some all-rookie teams in 1985. THEY WERE SELECTED BEFORE BART STARR Here are the 16 players the Packers selected before Bart Starr in the NFL draft in 1956.
R Player Po College 1 John Losch RB Miami 2 Forrest Gregg T SMU 3 A.D Williams DE Pacific 4 Cecil Morris G Oklahoma 5 Bob Skoronski T Indiana 6 Bob Burris RB Oklahoma 7 H. Gremminger DB Baylor 8 Russ Dennis WR Maryland 9 Gordy Duvall RB USC 10 Bob Laugherty RB Maryland 11 Mike Hudock C Miami 12 Max Burnett RB Arizona 13 Jim Mense C Notre Dame 14 Charlie Thomas RB Wisconsin 15 Buddy Alliston G Mississippi 16 Curtis Lynch T Alabama
Note: Forrest Gregg and Bob Skoronski were starters on five Packer championship teams; Hank Gremminger was a starter on two Packer championship teams.