The story behind one team’s unprecedented dominance at the quarterback position By developing a trio of Hall of Fame-bound passers, the Green Bay Packers have enjoyed success at the quarterback position that surpasses that of any other team in the National Football League. In Leaders of the Pack, veteran Packers writer Rob Reischel explores the organization's history of successful signal-callers, highlighting Bart Starr's Super Bowl victories, Brett Favre's collection of NFL records, and Aaron Rodgers' ascent into becoming one of the best players in today's NFL. Reischel traces the history of all three players, highlighting what it means to be a Packers quarterback both on and off the field, and then expands his insight to the rest of the league. He examines other team's dynamic trios—such as the Dallas Cowboys' Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, and Tony Romo or the San Francisco 49ers' Y. A. Tittle, Joe Montana, and Steve Young—but demonstrates why the Packers have the most successful players at the position in NFL history. Featuring Favre's thoughts about his place in the Packers' quarterback legacy in his own words, Leaders of the Pack is required reading for Packers fans young and old.
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About the Author
Rob Reischel has covered the Green Bay Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's “Packer Plus” since 2001. He has received 15 awards from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association for his writing and editing, and he is the author of 100 Things Packers Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Aaron Rodgers: Leader of the Pack, and Packers Pride. He lives in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, with his wife, Laura, and their two daughters. Brett Favre was a quarterback for the Green Bay Packers for 16 seasons. While with the Packers, he appeared in two Super Bowls, including the Super Bowl XXXI victory. Ron Wolf was the general manager of the Green Bay Packers from 1991 until 2001, during which time he re-made the Packers into a perennial contender. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August 2015.
Read an Excerpt
Leaders of The Pack
Starr, Favre, Rodgers, and Why Green Bay's Quarterback Trio Is the Best in NFL History
By Rob Reischel
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2015 Rob Reischel
All rights reserved.
Part I: The Green Bay Packers' Quarterback Trio
Bart Starr's first players' meeting with new head coach Vince Lombardi had just ended.
And Starr didn't just think. He knew.
Green Bay would no longer be the doormat of the National Football League.
The Packers, 1–10–1 during a miserable 1958 season, would never be the same after hiring Lombardi — the former New York Giants assistant head coach — on February 4, 1959.
In his initial meeting with quarterbacks and other offensive players, Lombardi made his expectations known.
"He told us, 'I am not remotely interested in being just good,'" Starr explained. "We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well that we won't catch it, because nobody is perfect. But in the process, we'll catch excellence."
Those words resonated in Starr's mind.
"I almost jumped out of my chair I was so excited," Starr said. "He said, 'I'm not remotely interested in being just good.'" When the meeting ended, Starr raced out of the room to use a phone — the rotary variety — to call his wife, Cherry.
"I told her, 'Honey, we're going to begin to win,'" Starr said. "I couldn't wait to get going."
That was something Starr had rarely experienced after joining the Packers in 1956 following his collegiate career at the University of Alabama.
The downtrodden Green Bay franchise, holder of six NFL championships under Curly Lambeau from 1921–49, had not experienced a winning season since 1947.
Starr knew the fortunes of the team were about to change. He just didn't know the struggle that loomed to once again prove himself to the second-toughest man in his life.
That is the essence of Starr's football career at every level: proving he was good enough. To his teammates, to his coaches, to himself.
But most of all to his father.
In the end, Starr was the humble leader of a dynasty, of Lombardi-coached Packers teams that won five NFL titles in seven years. Along the way, Green Bay captured an unprecedented three championships in a row from 1965 to 1967, and the first two Super Bowls.
Starr was the most valuable player of those historic first meetings of the NFL and AFL champions, and his bust resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Starr is one of the winningest quarterbacks in league history and his name ranks among the all-time greats: Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady.
Starr was not blessed with physical attributes such as a rocket arm or blazing speed. It was his determination, intelligence, work ethic, and preparation that set him apart.
Quarterbacks are ultimately defined by championships, the final measuring stick in a game littered with statistics. And no one can match Starr's success from 1961–67.
"Bart was rarely the best quarterback in the league on a statistical basis," teammate Jerry Kramer said. "But for three hours each Sunday, he was — almost always — the best quarterback in the game in which he was playing."
Former Chicago Bears tight end and head coach Mike Ditka fully concurred.
"Bart Starr was a winner and a gentleman, period," Ditka said. "It was Lombardi's team, but Bart Starr was the quiet glue that held the whole thing together. He was a great leader."
Starr's leadership style belied his mental and physical toughness, and contrasted that of his fiery head coach.
"You know what he'd say if Bart was mad at you in the huddle?" said Gary Knafelc, a tight end with the Packers from 1954–62. "He'd just say, 'Hush up.' He'd control all the guys with just that. He was the quarterback, our leader, and that was unquestioned."
Bryan Bartlett Starr's journey to the National Football League began in Montgomery, Alabama.
He was born on January 9, 1934, to Ben and Lulu Starr, and was named after his father, whose middle name was Bryan. The baby's middle name was in tribute to the doctor, Haywood Bartlett, who delivered him.
His parents called him "Bart" for short, and nicknamed his younger brother Hilton "Bubba."
Ben Starr was a blacksmith who served in the Army National Guard. When his unit was mobilized with the build-up to World War II, the family moved from coast to coast before Starr departed for the Pacific theatre.
Lulu Starr ran a tight and disciplined household with two young boys living in modest housing on the Fort Ord base in Northern California.
"My parents were strict," Starr said. "I was raised in a military family and moving around helped me to learn to adapt to different environments and situations."
After the war, the family moved back to Montgomery and the elder Starr decided to make the military a career. A tough master sergeant, Ben Starr was a dominant figure who demanded his boys adhere to his rules and standards.
The Starr boys got involved in sports, and the younger but more aggressive Hilton received his father's praise while Bart was encouraged to be "more like your brother."
Tragedy rocked the family when Bubba died from tetanus poisoning in 1947 after stepping on an old dog bone in the dirt while playing tag with neighborhood friends. His foot became infected and he died three days later.
This occurred in an era before vaccinations were required for children. Lulu Starr cleaned the wound as best she could and didn't think her son needed the relatively new tetanus shot.
"It was so hard," Starr said. "It rocked our family to the core."
Losing a brother was difficult for Starr, but guilt ravaged the mourning family. Ben Starr pushed Bart to excel in sports, often bringing up comparisons to Bubba's toughness and aggressiveness.
Starr was determined to show his father that he could succeed.
"Of course I wanted my father's approval," Starr said. "I wanted to prove I could be a good athlete. I didn't know it then, but he challenged me when I needed it. And he prepared me for what was to come. Coach Lombardi was a piece of cake compared to my dad."
In junior high school, Starr played wingback, but was switched to quarterback as he entered Sidney Lanier High School, rich in football tradition. Starr was thrilled to build on his budding passing skills, but was upset when he failed to make the varsity squad.
"I was on the JV team and had thoughts of quitting the team," Starr said. "My father had another idea."
Ben Starr calmly told his son that with the additional free time after school, he could spend his time weeding and cleaning the garden. Starr slept on his decision and attended practice the next day with resolve to work even harder to hone his skills.
"Bart's dad was a real taskmaster and could be tough on Bart at times, like all fathers," said Bill Moseley, the Sidney Lanier Poets' head coach.
The 92-year-old Moseley still lives in Montgomery and is always happy to discuss the best player he ever coached.
"When I first saw Bart he was a skinny junior high player," Moseley said with a laugh. "He was kind of quiet, but listened and absorbed everything he was taught. As a coach, I really liked that. And Bart caught on very quickly and tended to the details."
Starr's work ethic was second to none, which is a huge reason he became one of the NFL's ultimate underdog stories.
"He just kept working at it," Moseley said. "He was not some big, strong brute of a player. He'd go home after practice and throw passes through an automobile tire he hung from a tree or practice his moves. He was a student of the game."
Moseley convinced Starr's parents to let him spend a week at the University of Kentucky during the summer before his senior year, learning the mechanics and gaining knowledge from quarterback Babe Parilli.
Starr came to idolize Parilli, plastering his bedroom walls with his pictures. Little did Starr know he would one day compete with him for the starting quarterback job in Green Bay.
"I wanted Bart to gain experience and work with Babe to elevate his game," Moseley explained. "They did double workouts for a week and Bart learned so much from Babe about the mechanics of the position. It worked out pretty well."
Football was Starr's first love, but a classmate was also capturing his attention. Cherry Morton would later become his wife, but the shy Starr lacked the courage to ask her out himself in high school.
So he sent his teammate.
"I told his friend that if Bart Starr wanted to ask me out, he would have to do it himself," Cherry said. "He finally did, but he kept looking down at the ground. He was so sweet."
Starr got his chance to fill in during a varsity game when Lanier's starting quarterback was injured against perennial power Tuscaloosa, which featured a 17-game winning streak.
It was a huge stage for Starr, who was just a sophomore at the time. But Starr responded by leading the Poets to a 13–0 victory — and eventually an undefeated season.
A budding star was born.
Starr was a sought-after college prospect, but chose the University of Alabama over Kentucky for one reason: it was closer to Auburn University, where Cherry intended to study interior design.
"It was the best audible I ever called," Starr said. "She's been my teammate for life."
Like his high school, the Crimson Tide had a tradition-rich football program. Starr was not only closer to his girlfriend, but his father was also pleased that he was just a two-hour drive from seeing his son play.
"Bart would visit me a couple times a month at Auburn," Cherry said. "It was a long drive just to see me for an hour. Other times we'd meet at home (Montgomery) for the weekend outside the football season and we'd have more time together."
Starr earned the No. 3 spot on Alabama's varsity roster in 1952, impressing Harold "Red" Drew and his coaching staff with his passing abilities, decision making, competitiveness, and work ethic.
His lack of foot speed was a point of concern, but the positives outweighed the one negative.
By his sophomore season in 1953, Starr had earned the starting job and was doing triple duty. Due to a change in NCAA rules on free substitutions, Starr was also employed as a defensive back and handled the punting duties.
While his speed was a liability on defense, Starr's anticipation, ability to see plays develop, and tackling skills were positives. Starr was also one of the best punters in the country with a 41.4-yard average — second only to Zeke Bratkowski of the University of Georgia, a man who would later become his teammate and close friend in Green Bay.
Starr led Alabama to a 6–2–3 record, a Southeastern Conference championship, and a berth against Rice in the Cotton Bowl.
In one of the most bizarre plays in college bowl history, Alabama's Tommy Lewis came off the team bench and tackled Rice halfback Dicky Moegle (now known as Dicky Maegle) as he was sprinting down the sideline on his way to a sure touchdown.
Rice led 7–6 at the time, and the officials awarded Maegle a 95-yard touchdown, while Lewis returned to the bench and buried his head in his hands. Photographs and television cameras captured the play live, along with its aftermath.
"I never saw anything like that," said Starr, who was blocked on the touchdown run. "Tommy was such a competitor and it got the best of him on that play."
Rice pulled away for a 28–6 victory as the calendar turned to 1954, a year in which Starr would make the biggest decision of his life.
He had twice before asked Cherry to marry him, but the third time was the charm. The couple eloped and got married on May 8, 1954. Starr's high school and college teammate, Nick Germanos, was his best man.
"We were so young, but we got married when we were both 20," Cherry said. "We were so very much in love and just wanted to be together."
Not only did the couple keep the marriage a secret from their parents, but also from the Alabama coaching staff. Starr feared his scholarship might be revoked, as marriage could potentially affect the focus of an athlete.
After keeping their union quiet for three months, the couple informed Cherry's parents and then Bart's. It did not go over well with Ben or Lulu Starr, who at first wanted the marriage annulled.
They agreed to exchange vows at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery and — at his father's urging — informed his head coach.
Starr's junior season was marred by a lower back injury he suffered in a summer punting workout. The injury affected Starr's entire football season and he spent a week in traction at a Tuscaloosa hospital. The Crimson Tide slipped to a disappointing 4–5–2 that season and Drew was fired.
Former Alabama lineman J.B. "Ears" Whitworth was hired to take the program to the next level. Unfortunately, the team went the other direction.
Whitworth preferred to run the ball, and he also wanted to build for the future with young prospects, which relegated Starr, a passer, to ride the bench. Alabama did not win a single game in 1955 and Starr played sparingly, usually with the game's outcome long decided.
His confidence took a direct hit.
"It was such a difficult season for Bart," Cherry Starr said. "He was so frustrated after working so hard to get back and then not playing. He thought his football career was over."
While Whitworth did not believe in him, assistant coach Johnny Dee did. Dee also coached the Alabama basketball team and pulled some strings to get Starr an invite to the Blue-Gray Football Classic.
The annual game featured some of the nation's best college seniors, serving as a must see for National Football League scouts. It was played on Starr's high school field and provided a storybook opportunity to prove he could compete at the next level despite his disappointing senior season.
With family and friends watching, Starr received just a few snaps near the end of the game. Disillusioned, he again turned to Dee when the second semester began.
Dee said he'd call a friend in the NFL on Starr's behalf. That friend was Jack Vainisi, the Green Bay Packers' director of player personnel.
"I really never thought about Bart playing professional football," said Cherry, who expected him to pursue a military career. "But he wanted the opportunity."
In January 1956, a Packers assistant coach flew into Tuscaloosa to meet Starr and put him through a light workout. Later that month, Starr was the 200 selection in the NFL draft, taken by Green Bay in Round 17.
Interestingly, 44 years later, New England's Tom Brady was the 199 pick of the 2000 draft.
Cherry Starr and her mother had to consult a map to pinpoint Green Bay's location in Wisconsin.
"I grew up in Rome, Georgia, and we moved to Montgomery when I was 14," Cherry said with a chuckle. "I had no idea where Green Bay was."
Starr was a long shot to even make the Packers roster in 1956. He inked a modest $6,500 contract and was given jersey No. 42 in training camp, a number usually reserved for running backs and receivers.
"Fans will ask me to sign my rookie card," Starr once said. "But I tell them the first card has me with No. 42 and in a blue-and-gold uniform."
The writing was on the wall: this 17-round draft choice was expected to be no more than a training-camp body.
Before reporting to camp, Starr embarked on a rigorous workout schedule with three footballs supplied by Dee to restore his confidence as a passer.
Living with his wife, Cherry, at his in-laws' home in Jackson, Mississippi, Starr threw footballs through a tire erected on a wooden frame in the backyard for several hours each day for a month.
"Cherry was there with me, chasing balls and giving me encouragement," Starr said. "She's been the greatest teammate of my life."
At the University of Alabama, Starr was accustomed to playing before large crowds in a modern stadium and working out in first-rate facilities. That was not the case in Green Bay, with aging City Stadium and its cramped locker room and training room.
"Conditions were quite different in Green Bay at the time compared to what I was used to at Alabama," Starr said. "The franchise was struggling financially at the time and the facilities reflected that."
Starr attended Packers training camp, which was held in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, at that time, and tried proving he belonged.
Starr lacked the skills of the NFL's great quarterbacks at the time: the rocket arm of Baltimore's Unitas or the scrambling ability of Detroit's Bobby Layne.
Instead, Starr relied on his mind, heart, and desire to set himself apart.
He beat out two other players and won the No. 2 job behind Green Bay starter Tobin Rote. Rote took Starr under his wing and also urged him to increase his arm strength.
The Packers were a team headed nowhere fast in Starr's early years. Green Bay went a combined 7–17 in the 1956–57 seasons under head coach Lisle Blackbourn.
Excerpted from Leaders of The Pack by Rob Reischel. Copyright © 2015 Rob Reischel. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface by Ron Wolf,
Foreword by Brett Favre,
Part I: The Green Bay Packers' Quarterback Trio,
Part II: The Other Quarterback Trios,
No. 2: San Francisco 49ers,
No. 3: Baltimore/ Indianapolis Colts,
No. 4: Dallas Cowboys,
No. 5: Pittsburgh Steelers,
No. 6: New England Patriots,
No. 7: Washington Redskins,
No. 8: Denver Broncos,
No. 9: Oakland/ Los Angeles Raiders,
No. 10: San Diego Chargers,
About the Author,