COPING WITH A TRAGEDY : After the Death of a Son, 24, From Cocaine, Bart Starr Is Committed to Having an Impact on Battle Against Drugs

Times Staff Writer

Bret Starr had plenty of reasons to go on living. Bright and sensitive, he was also young and good-natured. He loved music and animals.

And he was the son of a prosperous former National Football League quarterback and coach, Bart Starr of Green Bay, Wis., a sportsman widely esteemed for high principles, exemplary behavior and plain decency.

Nevertheless, Bret lived only 24 years. Plagued by a drug problem that had gripped him in his teens, he died a lonely cocaine-related death at his home in Florida, where he was found dead July 7.

How could that happen to Bart's boy?

"It's frightening," Bob Long, a former teammate and now business associate of Bart Starr, said the other day. "It shows you how insidious cocaine is."

And how has the tragedy affected solid citizen Starr?

Said Connie Grunwaldt, a young Milwaukee businesswoman who grew up with Bret: "He has gone public with a message of warning, discipline and hope.

"Parents who tragically lose a child to drugs can either bury themselves in grief or try to reach out to others. Bart and (his wife) Cherry have made a decision to reach out, to fight.

"They loved Bret so much, and they were such caring parents. They never abandoned Bret, and they don't want to abandon him now--though this is hard on Bart because he's such a private person."

Starr, forfeiting his privacy, delivered the eulogy at Bret's memorial service in Green Bay.

"I don't know any other parent who would have had the inner strength to do that when their child died of a drug habit," Long said from Milwaukee.

"The human tendency is to cover up ugliness. Bart is reinforcing a lot of people by sharing his private agony and by dedicating himself to helping others."

Since last winter, Bart and Cherry have been in their new Arizona home in Paradise Valley near Phoenix. In a recent interview there, Bart said he doesn't minimize the problem that they and others face in seeking to convince a seemingly reluctant public to forsake drugs.

"I hate cocaine," he said. "I hate the cocaine evil. I'm angry that it's doing all this damage, but I question whether the country is angry enough even now to lick it.

"Killer drugs are destroying and debilitating us, and we still haven't got serious about (the problem). It lapped us long ago. We'll have to race hard now just to catch up."

But he intends to be in the race.

"I think education and awareness are much of the answer, but the job is tougher than it seems," Starr said. "We don't any of us know as much as all of us should know about this evil. I want to know, and then I want to help in the area of (public) awareness. I want to try."

He acknowledged that to an increasing number of therapists and scientists, there really are two problems today: drugs and crime--meaning street crime as well as international crime, the widespread crime of dealing in dope.

And some experts are predicting that nobody ever will get a handle on the drug problem until there is some kind of legalization and decriminalization--until, that is, the massive profits in illegal drug dealing are somehow eliminated.

Starr said he keeps hearing this. And though he always listens carefully, he isn't convinced.

"We desperately need better information," he said, adding that, with the start of a new NFL season next weekend, he might not bless pro football with the kind of attention he used to give it in Green Bay.

There, from 1956-71, he led the Packers to a record five league championships and two Super Bowl titles in 16 years. And there, from 1975-83, he coached the Packers for nine years.

"Being the conservative I am, I feel that there are more crucial things to do at this time than (decriminalize drugs)," Starr said, speaking calmly, softly and carefully.

"But I feel that we should all keep an open mind. The problem is so severe that every parent, every church, every organization should be willing and anxious to get all the evidence--to listen to all the information--before making inflexible decisions on (decriminalization) or anything else."

Starr is particularly concerned about young parents today. What does he tell those troubled by drugs?

"I think the greatest form of (parental) leadership is by example," he said.

"There are no guarantees that you won't fail. But your chances are good if the example you set stresses the proper values: good morals, the work ethic, the right perspective on living, continuous, unconditional love."

Those who know the Starrs say that for two decades, they made a home with those values for their two children, Bart Jr. and Bret.

A Green Bay friend, Chuck Lane, said: "Bart, Cherry, Bart Jr., Bret--that was as All-American a group as you could find for a portrait. All of them trim, athletic, caring, handsome."

But indeed, there are no guarantees.

Bart Jr., 31, is a lawyer in Tennessee, married, with two daughters and a bright future--"everything you could ask for in a son," Bart said.

Bret is dead at 24.

Just before Father's Day this year, three weeks before he died, Bret wrote Bart from Florida: "Today is the day on which I give thought and thanks to the fact that you are my father. . . . You are the finest person I know."

Several months earlier, when Bret believed that he had won his battle against cocaine, he had written Bart and Cherry: " You stood by me when most parents would have turned their backs. I love you so much for that. . . . You are truly my two best friends."

Cherry Starr said: "We have always been such a close, loving family, with no dissensions."

Lane said: "They were--they are--so, nice to each other."

"Could we have been better parents?" Cherry asked. "You always ask yourself that after (a tragedy). Bret's psychiatrist told us, 'You are the most supportive parents I've worked with.' "

So there are no guarantees.

Starr said, however, that there are many ways to fight drugs, assuming that, someday, the country gets serious enough and angry enough to try.

He is living for that day.

He offered the following:

--"We, all of us, could do a much better job of evoking what someone has called the universal principle of human altruism: the urge in us all to help others who are in danger."

--"On the supply side, our leaders should end one of our most disgraceful practices, subsidizing the (foreigners) who make billions exporting drugs to America. And if it's true that our own business people sell the exporters some of the chemicals they need to process drugs, we should prosecute. We should get much tougher on all who violate our drug laws."

--"On the demand side, there is much to do in awareness, education and, when required, quality treatment. Many users do recover."

Starr said that awakening the spirit of altruism in America seems potentially the most promising.

"If we could really implement a buddy system nationwide, I think we'd make great strides," he said.

"Here's an example of what I mean: (Alabama Coach) Bill Curry has told the (addicted) son of a friend of mine that he'll be his friend, his buddy, anytime day or night. Bill told him: 'Call anytime. I'll be there in 20 minutes.'

"That works," Starr said enthusiastically. "Instant one-on-one (therapy) is the best. And deep down, people want to help. They really do. I wish we could get a national buddy network going. It would be a great thing for the American people."

A TYPICAL KID

"Bret was too shy to have a girl. I was one of his best friends."

--CONNIE GRUNWALDT, Bret's longtime friend

Hunting and fishing are normal pursuits for many, regardless of region, and so it was that Bart Starr, the Alabama-bred football star, showed his Wisconsin-born sons how to shoot and fish early in their childhood at Green Bay.

At 10, Bret was ready, Starr judged, for a goose hunt at a marsh in a neighboring county, and when they got there, seeking their limit of one each, he gave Bret the first shot.

"At dawn, as the first flight came over, I told him to relax," Starr said. "But just then, he picked out the lead goose and nailed him. With one shot."

Not to be outdone by a child, Starr said he promptly took over, and unloaded the better part of a box of shells, hitting nothing but sky.

"I was a little mad," he said. "But Bret was grinning. He asked me, 'If we check in with two geese, will they know who got them?'

" 'Of course not,' I said.

"So he asked, 'May I shoot again?' "

A bit testily, Starr agreed, and quickly regretted it. With his next shot, Bret made it 2 for 2.

"We had a very short hunt, all in all," Starr said. "He ribbed me all the way home."

At 5, at 10, at 12, Bret was a typical kid, his parents said, though he was a better athlete than most. He skied the winter away, except when he was ice skating, and on summer days at the family cottage he fished, swam and water skied.

"He was a loving, fun-loving child, kind and sincere, with a high IQ and a good sense of humor," Starr said.

Grunwaldt said: "He liked comedy, and if he liked the show well enough, he'd memorize the comedian's whole routine. He had that kind of mind, and that much interest."

When Bret was out of town, Cherry said, "He would often call us up just to tell us a joke."

Bret's early childhood was happier, his father conceded, than his own had been in Alabama. The great-great grandson of a Cherokee Indian, Bart was the son of a professional soldier, a seasoned master sergeant.

"He ran our household as he did his squadron," Bart wrote in his 1987 biography, "Starr: My Life in Football," a book written with Murray Olderman.

"I was not allowed to express my own views or disagree with (his father)," Starr wrote. "He intimidated me."

His mother had named him for her obstetrician, one Dr. Bartlett. A self-described introvert, Bart was 13 when his brother Hilton died at 11. Hilton had been his father's favorite.

"I was devastated," Starr wrote. "For years, I felt guilty about resenting the attention that (Hilton) had received from Dad."

With no one else to root for, his father turned his attention to Bart, who blossomed into an all-state high school quarterback and eventually became the most valuable player of the first two Super Bowls.

Today, Starr is a businessman with interests in an automobile agency, a financial management company and a real estate development firm.

His friends say that Bart's shyness has never handicapped him seriously. By contrast, Bret's shyness, which was much more severe, helps explain him, in the opinion of his friend Grunwaldt.

"I remember when he was about 5 years old," she said. "One day his family and ours and one or two other families went to (a park), where the children, 8 or 10 of us, all played together--all except Bret. Bret just sat on his mom's lap."

As recently as last April, two months after his 24th birthday and three months before he died, Bret telephoned Grunwaldt for assistance in a Florida romance. Grunwaldt's story:

Bret, who was in business in Tampa, buying and selling reptiles and other animals, said he wanted to meet a woman who worked in a record store. He had spent more than $200 on tapes and albums at her store in the last 30 days, he said, and still didn't know her name.

"I really want to know her," he said. "How do I get her name?"

"Just ask her for it," Grunwaldt said.

"Oh, I couldn't do that," Bret said.

And as far as his friends know, he never did.

A REGULAR GUY

"Bret usually (telephoned) every morning, and it was always the high point of my day. It meant that he'd made it through another night."

--CHERRY STARR, Bret's mother

As the head of a family with two sons, Bart Starr said that when his boys were growing up, he wanted them to play sports competitively. And in time he saw Bart Jr. off to Alabama on a golf scholarship.

"But Bret chose not to engage in competitive athletics," his father said. "(Because) he was a natural athlete, I regretted his decision, but I never pushed him."

Starr's disappointment was somewhat tempered by his realization that there had been some clouds on Bret's horizon for many years. Inwardly turned, an underachiever in the classroom, Bret had experienced severe headaches since age 3.

"He was medicated for migraines the rest of his life," his mother said.

And, she added: "Bret was always so shy and insecure. He came crawling into bed with us, in our bed, at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning, until he was 11 years old."

Soon--in Bret's early teens--there was the trauma of life in a small town with a father who, as a football coach of an unsuccessful team, was sometimes vilified.

"Bart Jr. had grown up in the Packers' glory years," Starr noted.

By contrast, Cherry said, "Bret was there for the unhappy seasons, and he was such a sensitive boy. It was hard on him to read and hear all those ugly things about his father."

At 15, Bret asked for a guitar. He would do something different with his life. He took lessons, joined in organizing a hard-rock band, and--in what may have been the beginning of the end for him--settled in as lead guitarist.

He had only nine more years to live.

"The band played in the usual unwholesome places," Bart said. "At 16, we know now, he was doing marijuana. Even before his (semester and a half) at the University of Wisconsin, he was into cocaine."

The catalyst was a familiar one: peer pressure.

"Boys want to be part of the group," Cherry said. "I think Bret may have wanted it more than some of the others. He never liked being singled out as the son of a famous football player, as the son of the coach, as anybody's brother.

"Bret was a boy who went along with the (peers) in his group. He wanted to be a regular guy."

At most schools today, police say, there are paid pushers, peer-group infiltrators. To them, Bret was something else. He was a regular guy with money.

"It seems to me that the people who profit from drugs are chiefly to blame for the (drug problem)," Cherry said. "They prey on the most vulnerable persons in our society."

Grunwaldt, who had dated Bret occasionally in high school, traveled with a different crowd at Madison, and she graduated a year ago when Bret was fighting his addiction in Florida. She is of the opinion that in the pervasive drug environment of the 1980s, Bret would have been seduced eventually by cocaine regardless of whether he had ever played a guitar, and regardless of where he went to college.

"Cocaine wasn't a well-understood drug when Bret and I were in high school," she said. "The idea among a big majority of the students then was to try anything. It still is, for that matter. But at least we know now some of the terrible consequences of cocaine. We didn't know that in the early '80s.

"His music, at first, was such a boost for (Bret). He was so talented that, overnight, he went from shy to popular. But it wasn't necessary to play rock music to be introduced to drugs. The supply was--and is--as accessible as ice cream. I knew his suppliers in both Green Bay and Madison. Scum of the earth.

"What happened is that idle curiosity led Bret to cocaine when he was a senior in high school. Then his problem snowballed in college, and curiosity escalated to addiction. It was so hard to see because I loved him dearly, although we were never romantically close.

"Bret's tragedy, as you know, is just one of many. And there will be thousands more of these tragedies, millions probably, because cocaine is both the most popular and the most powerful of the drugs."

For Bret, as for so many others, the final chapters of the scenario were as familiar as the beginning: Treatment, tears, fears, denial, pain, the ceaseless need for money, promises, lies, clean breaks, relapses, the daily crisis, withdrawal, renewal, heartache, misery, new starts, uncontrollable addiction.

There is only one good place for a user to stop, the experts say: the first day, just before the first time.

"Nancy Reagan has it exactly right," said Starr. "Just say no. Say no or die. But that's a hard point to make with youngsters when everyone is conspiring against them, from their friends to their enemies, from their peers to the dealers who make so much money out of this."

It has been eight weeks since Bret Starr was found on his face, lifeless, in Tampa, where he had tried to make a new start. Another new start. Beside him on the floor was a folded, worn greeting card inscribed with a message by poet Barbara Upham.

It was an ode to love that Bret apparently had carried in his hip pocket since he received it from his mother three weeks earlier.

Its message:

"Love means believing in someone. . . .

"Love is a constant journey to what others need. . . .

"Love takes time. . . . "

It was all there, tenderly expressed--all but the ending. For one reader, the last line wasn't in any poem: "Killed by cocaine."

This time, love wasn't enough.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°