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News » Stepping out of the shadows

Stepping out of the shadows

Stepping out of the shadows
The groundwork for the modern National Football League was laid in 1966, when owners from the NFL and the upstart American Football League agreed to a merger. Former Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser revisits that pivotal time in his new book, "The Birth of the New NFL: How the 1966 NFL/AFL Merger Transformed Pro Football" (Lyons Press, $14.95).

In the last of three excerpts from the book, Felser describes how Bart Starr completed Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers .

The 1966 season would be spectacular for the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Bart Starr.

Since November of 1959, when the Pack began a four-game winning streak, which ended Vince Lombardi's first year as head coach and resulted in the team's first winning season in 12 years, the coach's light had outshone that of everyone else in the organization.

Lombardi's only competition, if you could call it that, came from the Golden Boy, Paul Hornung, who had won the Heisman Trophy while playing with a rare losing team at Notre Dame. Hornung was a vanishing species in Football, the triple threat. He was a smart and dogged runner, if not a swift one. A college quarterback, he could pass as well as serve as a reliable receiver.

He was an NFL leader in scoring, as he also served as Green Bay's kicker. Hornung was a personable, witty star with a reputation as a playboy. He had enough stature, even with Lombardi, that he could get away with quite a lot.

As an after-dinner speaker, Hornung often kidded his coach by claiming that when Vince climbed into bed with his wife, Marie, one frigid Green Bay night, Marie cried out, "God! Your feet are cold!" To which the coach was supposed to have replied, "Marie, when we're in bed, you may call me Vince."

Ordinarily Lombardi was not enthused about sharing the spotlight with anyone. In the midst of the Packers' spectacular defensive streak, the team's public relations director, Chuck Lane, wrote a press release praising what he termed "Phil Bengtson's defense." Since Lombardi was also the general manager, it was Lane's custom to forward the press release to the boss for approval. Instead of approving the press release, Lombardi angrily stormed down the hall into Lane's office. He made it emphatically clear to Lane that it wasn't Bengtson's defense, that it was his, Lombardi's, and that Bengtson was the assistant carrying out the head coach's commands.

Lombardi enjoyed Hornung, but that did not alter his businesslike approach to reevaluating him at age 30. Hornung's numbers had slipped in the previous two seasons. Don Chandler had been brought in as the field-goal kicker after Hornung had been successful on just 12 of 38 attempts in 1964. Once celebrated as a big-game player, the only notable play Hornung had contributed in his last few years was a 13-yard touchdown run which was vital to the Western Conference championship sudden-death playoff victory over the Colts. That wasn't enough to cloud Lombardi's judgment. Lombardi drafted Donnie Anderson and Jim Grabowski to replace Hornung and the superb fullback Jim Taylor.

After the 1966 season, Hornung would become a New Orleans Saint via the expansion allotment. That led to the public emergence of Bart Starr as a star of the highest magnitude. He had been one of the best quarterbacks in Football for several years, a fact sometimes overlooked by the fans and even the media since Hornung and especially Lombardi overshadowed him.

Lombardi's coaching philosophy seemed simple enough: aggressive defense, ball-control offense, discipline, and, above all, don't make any mistakes. All coaches preach about not making mistakes, but it's hard to follow through. Making mistakes is human, everyone does it. The idea is to keep mistakes to a bare minimum. By choosing players who lent themselves to discipline, who tolerated his constant nagging, abuse, and insults, who believed in what he preached, Lombardi achieved a team that kept mistakes to his desired bare minimum. Whether he would admit it or not, he could not have achieved it without Starr as his quarterback.

High school All-America teams are fairly common in these times, with the most prominent being those selected by Parade Magazine and USA Today. In 1952 the only one of any note was that selected by an organization called The Wigwam Wise Men of America, appearing in the Sporting News, which was still mainly the bible of baseball. The quarterback on that team was a youngster from Montgomery, Ala., named Bart Starr. It was the only prominent national publicity Starr would receive for the next five years.

He received a scholarship from the University of Alabama and had some mild success in his first two seasons, but as a junior he suffered a back injury that virtually put an end to his college career. By his senior year in 1956, a new offense had been installed, and the coaches felt he did not fit it. In those days the NFL draft lasted 30 rounds, mostly because the owners weren't keen on having a lot of undrafted free agents at large who, at least theoretically, might pit one team against another for pricier contracts. Starr, on the basis of his early promise, was drafted in the 17th round, the 200th player selected. In a happy irony the Packers used their second-round selection to draft Forest Gregg of Southern Methodist and their fifth to draft Indiana's Bob Skoronski. When the Lombardi era would reach fruition, Gregg would protect Starr from his right tackle position and Skoronski from left tackle.

Starr had been a Packer for three years before Lombardi arrived in Green Bay. It was not love at first sight, at least from the coach's perspective. Lombardi inherited four quarterbacks when he was hired to coach Green Bay in 1959 -- Starr, Lamar McHan, Babe Parilli, and Joe Francis. He wasn't particularly impressed with any of them.

McHan started the first nine games, but when the Packers lost five straight in the middle of the season, Starr was promoted. After losing Starr's first start, the Pack won four straight, including the last three on the road. In the final game Starr completed all 20 of his passes in a victory over the 49ers in San Francisco. The Packers averaged 25 points a game in those closing victories.

If Starr convinced Lombardi that he was the man for the job, it was a short-lived convincing. The coach again opened the quarterback assignment to McHan and Starr in training camp. Starr was given the start on Opening Day in 1960 in Chicago, but when the Pack lost to the Bears, Lombardi demoted Starr and promoted McHan once again.

It was the wrong decision. Green Bay won four straight, but McHan was disturbingly erratic, compiling a dismal quarterback rating of 36.3. Despite a 19-16 victory over Pittsburgh on October 30, according to Michael O'Brien in "Vince," his biography of Lombardi, the coach told Starr, "You're now my quarterback, and there will be no more changes."

Lombardi kept his word. Green Bay lost three of Starr's next four starts, but he remained in the job. The Packers won their last three games and the Western Conference championship. In the NFL championship game against the Eagles in Philadelphia's Franklin Field, Starr put the Packers ahead, 13-10, in the fourth quarter. The Eagles rallied to win the title, but it was the last postseason game Lombardi and Starr would lose.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 29, 2008

Donovan McNabb Name: Donovan McNabb
Position: QB
Age: 31
Experience: 10 years
College: Syracuse
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