There have been many tributes to Bart Starr, the legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback, since he passed away on May 26. He was a great athlete, he was a gentleman, he treated everyone the same, he loved his wife and family and on and on. All of these tributes are true, and it is a privilege for Athletes in Action to join the chorus celebrating the life of an incredible man.
Back in the 1980’s we noticed a significant problem -- high profile athletes were failing in their character and the media shined a big spotlight on them. We approached Bart and Cherry and asked for Bart’s name to be used to represent a life of character worth lifting up.
Bart, and his impeccable character, gave us credibility to keep addressing the issue and show that it is possible to simultaneously achieve greatness in sport and live a life of character worth following.
Since 1989, the legacy of Bart Starr has been honored through the Bart Starr Award, which is presented to an NFL player who exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community at the Athletes in Action Super Bowl Breakfast.
Bart always took a personal interest in the men who won the Award in his name. He embraced them and the causes they were championing. He spoke with them about their personal faith, and wanted to know how they were integrating their faith into every aspect of life. He insisted that the Award be reserved for veteran NFL players - not rookies. He wanted to honor players who were in it for the long haul.
Men like Anthony Munoz, Benjamin Watson, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, and Mike Singletary have received the award, and are part of the enduring legacy of Bart Starr. That legacy will be extended every year, as another NFL player joins the ranks of Bart Starr Award winners.
Bart’s impact is about more than awards and commendations, though. As a friend of Athletes in Action, he has left a profound mark on the lives of many of our staff and our organization as a whole.
Bart’s consistent character was on display in all situations. From a casual phone call, to being on stage in front of thousands of people; from signing autographs to signing a receipt, he was the same person in public as in private - a man of character and integrity who was sincerely interested in the individuals around him.
AIA’s VP of Development, Dave McDowell, remembers sharing a meal with Bart: When the check came Bart graciously paid for our meal, and when he signed the credit card receipt he signed it with a perfect signature of BART STARR. I asked him, “Why are you signing just like an autograph?” He looked at me almost quizzically and said, “Why would you do it any other way?”
Bart and Cherry’s marriage was a quiet example of faithfulness. They married at 20 years of age and were married for 65 years. At the Super Bowl Breakfast, Cherry would often tell a joke Bart had certainly heard a hundred times. He always laughed hard, though, as if he had just heard it for the first time. He loved and respected her deeply.
He was compassionate and generous. When Ladainian Tomlinson (LT) won the Award in 2009 after recently losing his father, Bart took time to hug and comfort LT through an emotional acceptance speech.
He lent his influence to our ministry for over 30 years, making it possible for the Super Bowl Breakfast to be part of Super Bowl Weekend every year. He and his wife Cherry developed close relationships with staff members of Athletes in Action, holding no status or demands but extending true friendship.
Through years of working with Terry Bortz, who directs the Super Bowl Breakfast, Bart became an influential friend. “My dad passed away 8 years ago, and he wasn’t much of a hugger. But every time I saw Bart, he had a big hug for me, which meant so much.”
Bart was one of a kind. We grieve, though, knowing that above his personal integrity and legacy, Bart’s personal faith in God is the most important thing to remember.
Until we are see him again in heaven, though, we at Athletes in Action will miss Bart Starr.