Suddenly, someone screamed.
The sound of pain rang out from the house next door like an alarm, shattering the peace of an ordinary Sunday afternoon in 1947.
Then a kind of darkness descended upon Bart Starr’s world.
* * *
Long before this turning point, his story began with a very different sort of scream, a life-affirming wail, in the bleak year of 1934, when the context for most everything was the widespread economic hardship of the Great Depression. Despite the hope embodied by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, unemployment still hovered near 24 percent and vast numbers of Americans struggled just to provide food, clothing, and shelter for their families. Beyond the widespread despair, the world kept turning. Going to the movies remained a unifying thread of American culture, as audiences flocked to see Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in the comedy It Happened One Night, director Frank Capra’s first big hit. Donald Duck made his first appearance in a Walt Disney cartoon, a pivotal early step in the building of an entertainment collosus. Newspapers contained numerous stories about notorious bank robber John Dillinger, whose bloody rampage ended in a hail of bullets outside a Chicago theater, betrayed by the infamous lady in red. More than half a century after Thomas Edison perfected the electric lightbulb, the Tennessee Valley Authority began supplying power to previously unwired parts of the rural South. The sports pages focused on colorful and lethal boxer Max Baer, who utilized his devastating right to knock out Primo Carnera to become Heavyweight Champion of the World. In the year when radio penetration of American homes reached 50 percent and millions routinely sought comfort in FDR’s fireside chats, the World Series broadcasts contained commercial advertisements for the first time, with Ford Motor Company paying the staggering sum of $100,000 to be the sole sponsor as the St. Louis Cardinals bested the Detroit Tigers in seven games. Few Americans cared so much about the still-struggling National Football League. In the far north outpost of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a group of local businessmen raised $15,000 to prevent the NFL’s Packers from folding.
Another milestone in the history of the Green Bay Packers failed to make the papers. On January 9, 1934, Ben and Lulu Starr of Montgomery, Alabama, welcomed Bryan Bartlett Starr into the world. Happy and proud, they named their first born after the father (Bryan was Ben’s middle name) and the doctor who delivered him (Haywood Bartlett).
Ben, the great-grandson of a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, had been born in the small southeastern Alabama town of Dadeville. When both of his parents died shortly after World War I, he was raised by his grandfather in Anniston, about one hundred miles north of Dadeville. Forced to drop out of high school to help support the family, Ben worked as a mechanic and welder. He was a large man with dark hair, a square jaw, and a commanding aura.
On a fateful night in 1932, he met Lulu Inez Tucker, a pretty, petite brunette, at the home of a mutual friend. Lulu, the daughter of railroad engineer, grew up in the capital city of Montgomery. The connection was immediate, and they were married less than four months later. Romance moved fast in those days.
The newlyweds set up housekeeping in Montgomery, where Ben landed a job as a blacksmith. Two years after Bart’s arrival, Lulu gave birth to a second son, Hilton. They often called him Bubba.
Better jobs took the Starrs to Columbia, Tennessee, and back to Montgomery, before the march to World War II prompted the father’s Army National Guard unit to be mobilized. Two years at Fort Blanding, near Gainesville, Florida, were followed by an extended assignment at Northern California’s Fort Ord, where the family stayed behind when Ben was shipped off to the Pacific.
The frequent moves proved to be a kind of education for young Bart. “I will always be grateful for the things I learned from having to adapt to different circumstances and environments,” he said.
Free to roam the area adjacent to the military housing neighborhood of Ord Village, Bart and Hilton sometimes sat for hours, watching the waves crash into the picturesque Pacific shoreline, often wondering about their father, who existed for four years only in the form of letters. Like many young boys of the time, they closely followed the progress of the war through reading newspapers and watching newsreels. The epic struggle against Hitler and the Japanese was a constant fact of life—manifested by rationed staples and movie stars hawking war bonds—but at times, it could seem distant, especially as they rode the school bus through the fertile agricultural fields and along the towering cliffs each morning and afternoon. Bart often was distracted by the natural beauty of the landscape just outside the window.
The Starr household was managed like an extension of the military, even after Ben was shipped overseas. Lulu was a wonderful cook and a very loving mother, but was also a strict disciplinarian who made sure Bart and Hilton attended church, creating a wholesome environment in keeping with their Methodist faith. The boys were taught to understand their responsibilities to live an orderly and obedient life consistent with the military way—and the consequences for exceeding her boundaries.
Like all boys, they tested the limits.
After learning that the army conducted training exercises in a forest near their home, Bart and Hilton began scavenging the area for discarded equipment. Fearing for their safety, Lulu forbade further maneuvers but they kept sneaking off, looking for canteens and other prized loot. Somehow, she found out and administered a paddling neither boy would ever forget.
“If I catch you in there again, you’ll really get one,” she warned.
Bart knew she meant business.
“We couldn’t figure out how she knew we were back in there,” he recalled.
She could smell their disobedience.
The boys didn’t realize that the area was covered with numerous eucalyptus plants, producing a pungent order that betrayed their activities.
The lure of the forest was difficult to resist, but the boys knew their mother meant business.
“We got the message and stopped going in there,” Bart said.
During a Saturday outing to the movies—as they settled in to watch Cowboy Serenade, starring matinee idol Gene Autry—Bart and Bubba stumbled upon a different sort of treasure.
Bart’s ten-year-old heart raced as he pointed toward the movie screen.
“Look! There he is!”
Hilton stared at the flickering black-and-white film with a skeptical eye.
Could it be?
The newsreel of General Douglas MacArthur’s dramatic return to the Philippines in October 1944 moved fast, so the Starr boys sat through the feature presentation three times just to get two more looks at the stern-looking, unidentified man in the background. Each time, they carefully studied the soldier’s face, comparing it to their prized memories. Desperate, like millions of American children, for any sort of connection with a father who had been away fighting in World War II for nearly three years, the brothers eventually walked out of the darkened theater convinced that the anonymous GI was their very own daddy.
“We were so pumped up,” Bart said. “We came out of that place two feet off the ground.”
The bond between the boys was unshakable, but their personalities contrasted sharply. Hilton, who wore glasses from an early age, was aggressive, tough, and known to have a mean streak. Bart was introverted and timid, and tended to keep his feelings to himself. The sibling rivalry that developed between them was probably inevitable, but it was eventually enabled and exacerbated by their very demanding father.
Lulu and the boys were back living in Montgomery when the war ended, and after Master Sergeant Starr decided to make a career of the military—switching over to the newly independent U.S. Air Force—he planted the family flag firmly in Alabama’s Capital City. Understanding that he would have to spend other tours overseas, Ben wanted his boys to have a stable home environment, so he and Lulu bought a small, white frame house on a middle-class street for $3,500, a figure roughly equivalent to the median American income at the start of the great postwar boom, when the deprivations of the Great Depression were being swept away by a new wave of optimism and consumerism. Southerners had not yet learned that they could not live without the wonder of air-conditioning, so during the stifling summer nights, the brothers—spoiled by the mild summers in Northern California—often struggled to sleep in their sweat-drenched sheets. When Ben finally broke down and bought an attic fan to pump a little air through the house, the boys suddenly felt rich. Like many children during the age of dramatic radio and Saturday matinees, when the power of imagination filled the air, they learned to make their own fun. The tight contours of the adjacent garage provided a kind of entertainment for Bart and Hilton, who frequently wagered pennies over their father’s ability to back out without scraping his Chevy.
The war hardened Ben, accentuating his gruff, overbearing demeanor. Like Bull Meecham, the antagonist in Pat Conroy’s novel The Great Santini, he was a domineering figure who drew precious little distinction between his troops and his family, demanding that his boys live within his exacting rules and meet his high standards, just like the men in his squadron. Forbidden from expressing their own views, they never considered challenging his authority.
“My dad was the toughest man I’ve ever known in my life,” Bart said. “He intimidated me. He was my Master Sergeant.”
Despite such feelings, Bart loved his father and relished every opportunity to spend time with him, especially when Ben worked part-time during several summers as a ticket-taker for Montgomery’s minor league baseball team. He arranged for Bart to be a ball boy, which heightened the boy’s interest in professional baseball.
“My dad was a fabulous role model,” Starr said. “I wanted to be just like him.”
A shared love of sports strengthened the connection between Bart and Hilton, who spent much of their free time competing with other neighborhood boys in sandlot baseball and football games. On the diamond, Bart imagined he was Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, master of the 56-game hitting streak, longest in baseball history, who existed to Bart primarily through radio broadcasts and newspaper pictures carefully studied. He once saved nickels and dimes for months just so he could ride the bus to visit his aunt Myrtle in Detroit, where the payoff pitch was a chance to see DiMaggio and the Yankees play the Tigers from a distant bleacher seat. It didn’t matter that his hero, past his prime, failed to reach base.
His favorite football player was University of Alabama halfback Harry Gilmer, the passer in the Crimson Tide’s version of the Notre Dame Box offense. Grantland Rice, the famed sportswriter most responsible for the breathless mythology of Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen, once called Gilmer “the greatest college passer I’ve ever seen.” Decades before Florida’s Tim Tebow introduced the jump pass to twenty-first-century audiences, Gilmer gained national acclaim for his ability to leap into the air and fire a bullet into the distance. In photos of the day, he appeared to be taking flight. Like many other youngsters of the day—including future Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, who grew up near the legendary passer in Birmingham—Bart spent many hours trying to emulate Gilmer’s airborne fling, especially after seeing him up close during one of the Crimson Tide’s annual games at Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl.
“I was fascinated by Harry Gilmer and wanted to learn to throw the ball just like him,” Starr said.
Starr eventually moved beyond the jump pass, convinced, like so many others, that he could never equal the master, but in working hard to incorporate some elements of Gilmer’s fundamentals into his own style, the cerebral young man took the first tentative steps down the path of learning the passing game as a mechanical process.
The Starr boys’ tackle football games—often contested on the lawn in front of Hurt Military Academy, without pads or headgear—could be intense, all-afternoon grudge matches where scrapes, bruises, and bloody appendages became badges of courage. Their mother tried to understand when her boys walked through the front door at dusk looking like war casualties, battered but wearing a warrior’s glow.
Sports exposed the differences between Bart and Hilton. Their friendly rivalry took on a new dimension when the older brother began to believe he was competing for his father’s approval.
Because he had not enjoyed the luxury of playing team sports as a child, Ben lived vicariously through his sons’ exploits, which eventually graduated from sandlots to a youth team sponsored by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Convinced that the tougher, faster, more competitive Hilton—who reminded Ben of himself—was the real athlete in the family, he showered him with attention and took every opportunity to criticize Bart while encouraging him to strive to be more like his little brother. Bart, the ever-dutiful son, endeavored to take his father’s suggestions to heart.
But he could not help feeling jealous and resentful as his father routinely favored Bubba.
Unable to express his feelings, Bart suppressed the complicated mesh of psychological drama rattling around in his head, even as he loved and admired his brother.
* * *
The first window-rattling boom caught everyone by surprise.
It happened more than two thousand miles west of Montgomery on October 14, 1947, when Col. Chuck Yeager, piloting a Bell X-1 aircraft despite broken ribs, hurdled through the stratosphere high above the California desert on a top-secret mission and became the first man to surpass the sound barrier, producing what would come to be known as a sonic boom.
Like the birth of the atomic age two years earlier, the first Mach 1 flight symbolized man’s unmistakable progress in the triumphant glow of American technological and industrial might, revealing that the sound barrier was just a number wrapped in a blanket of air, proving that nature could be tamed and harnessed.
But in many other areas of American life, danger still lurked in the invisible air.
Despite a steady procession of medical advances, many diseases—eventually to be conquered in the blur of twentieth-century achievement—continued to wreak havoc, including the mysterious scourge of polio, which crippled an average of 20,000 Americans every year, roiling the culture with hysteria and helplessness as epidemics swept across dozens of cities and towns.
Just months before Yeager’s historic flight, Dr. Jonas Salk became the new head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He soon began work on the polio vaccine that would one day make him famous. When, after years of trial and error, the inoculation was introduced to the public in 1955, eliminating polio almost overnight, Salk was hailed as a savior by a generation of once-fearful parents.
Like polio vaccines, tetanus shots would one day be commonplace, but in an era before the public health system worked closely with educators to require childhood vaccinations, the disease, which enters the body through an open wound and attacks the central nervous system, proved to be an elusive, and deadly, enemy.
In 1947, anything seemed possible and yet so many real-life barriers remained unshattered.
It was an age of transcendent achievement. And unspeakable tragedy.
* * *
When the Starr family returned from church on a warm Sunday afternoon in 1947, Bart and Hilton wound up next door, playing with the neighbor kids. They always seemed to be outside. Sometimes it was baseball; sometimes they rode bikes until their legs ached, sometimes they pursued fireflies in the gathering dusk. But they always seemed to be outside and on the move.
This time it was tag. Their barefoot, breathless, adrenaline-pumping chase was not just one of the simplest forms of athletic competition ever devised by man—it was a celebration of youthful exuberance. It was all about being young and full of life.
But in the blink of an eye, it became an object lesson about the fragility of life.
Racing around the house, Hilton pricked his foot on an old dog bone protruding out of the dirt.
His mother heard his scream and came running.
Lulu cleaned the wound the best she could, secure in the belief that her son would not require the still relatively new tetanus shot. She wanted to spare him the pain.
But his foot became infected, and he died of tetanus poisoning three days later.
Gloom enveloped the family like a fog.
“We were all heartbroken,” Bart said. “It was so tragic. It nearly ripped our family apart.”
The heaviest load landed on Lulu, who blamed herself.
“My mother was just devastated by guilt,” Bart said.
The woman who would later marry Bart saw how the event reverberated throughout the rest of her mother-in-law’s life.
“She carried a terrible burden,” Cherry Starr said. “It affected their marriage. [Ben] held her responsible, and he shouldn’t have because it was an accident … I don’t think she ever got over it.”
For Bart, the enormous pain of losing a brother was complicated by a different sort of burden.
“I felt guilty about resenting the attention that Bubba had received from Dad,” he said.
Without anyone to confide in, he internalized the pain, spending many lonely hours in his room.
When Ben returned from a tour of duty in occupied Japan, he seemed distant. His relationship with Bart deteriorated as he mourned in his own way, acting at times like he had lost the wrong son. In addition to dealing with Hilton’s death, Bart was forced to confront his little brother’s ghost on a daily basis. The Master Sergeant pushed Bart even harder to excel as an athlete, to adopt his departed brother’s toughness, aggressiveness, and fire. Bart bristled whenever his father punctuated many harsh rebukes with the phrase, “Your brother would have…”
The line cut like a knife through Bart’s tender heart.
The implication was clear: Bart would never be as good as Hilton.
Some children, confronted with such paternal badgering, surrender to the swirling doubts, accepting the father’s verdict in a haze of pity, turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Others rebel, thumbing their nose at the authority figure, changing the subject, and rendering it moot.
But instead of feeling sorry for himself or resisting the pressure, instead of disrespecting his father or channeling his efforts elsewhere, Bart resolved to prove his old man wrong.
“I was determined to show him that I could be a good athlete,” Bart said.
The connectivity between this youthful resolve, framed by tragedy, and all those years of Green Bay glory yet to come is impossible to overstate.
Even as it erected an emotional wall between the two men—demonstrating the fine line between cruelty and love—the Master Sergeant’s psychological warfare motivated his son to fight, setting the tone for the rest of his life. In the years ahead, Bart would learn to appreciate the way his father toughened him; taught him the value of a strong work ethic; instilled in him a fierce tenacity; imbued him with a glowing ambition; and showed him how to harness such intangibles to reach beyond his physical limitations.
The wounds of youth would heal but the lessons produced by the pain would last a lifetime.
“That’s one of the reasons I’ll always love him,” Bart, full of introspection, said from the distance of the twenty-first century. “I didn’t really understand what he was doing at the time … but without the way he challenged me, I would have been a different person. He challenged me when I needed to be.”
Ben Starr may have been incapable of adequately showing love to his oldest son, but he knew how to prepare him for Vince Lombardi.
* * *
The training continued when Bart returned home from football practice one afternoon during his sophomore year of high school, confronting another turning point.
After playing wingback in the Notre Dame Box at Montgomery’s Baldwin Junior High School, Starr graduated to Sidney Lanier High, where the Poets ran the T formation, and was immediately moved to quarterback. He was overjoyed at the new position, which would allow him to showcase the passing skills he had honed on the sandlot, but he quickly became disenchanted when he was relegated to the junior varsity, considered too green for the powerful Lanier varsity. When he told his father that he planned to quit the team, Ben resisted the impulse to challenge his son.
“All right, it’s your decision,” he said calmly. “I’m glad you’ll be home in the afternoons. I want you to weed the garden and cut the cornstalks. I want the garden cleaned up for fall.”
Ben understood how much Bart hated working in the garden. Quickly reconsidering his decision, the boy showed up early for practice the next day and never again considered quitting.
The Master Sergeant knew how to get in his son’s head.
Bart tried to be patient, determined to make his mark at Lanier, the only white high school in the city of roughly 100,000. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lanier football united Montgomery with a singularity of citywide civic pride that future generations, accustomed to five public high schools, would be unable to fully understand.
Located along the Alabama River in the southern part of the state, Montgomery served as the first capital of the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War, before the seat of government moved to Richmond. It became the fifth capital of Alabama in 1846, when cotton was king and the plantation culture built on slavery dominated the state’s economy. During Starr’s childhood, the city flourished not only as the center of state government but as the home of Maxwell Air Force Base, whose origins could be traced to an early-twentieth-century joint venture between the federal government and the Wright Brothers. Montgomery produced two of the era’s most influential and iconic musicians: country crooner Hank Williams, a tortured soul who was destined to flame out young; and jazz/pop master Nat King Cole, who moved to Chicago with his family as a child to flee the limitations and indignities of the segregated South.
The divide between black and white was especially stark in Montgomery, and Bart was not immune to the prejudice deeply ingrained in the culture. On a trip to Detroit to visit Aunt Myrtle with his father, Bart wandered off to find a neighborhood baseball game, anxious to see how his skills matched up against the boys in the big city. With him he carried the prized glove his father had bought him on his fourteenth birthday. When Ben stopped by to watch and learned that the pickup game included both blacks and whites—the kind of race-mixing forbidden in the segregated South—he embarrassed Bart by yanking him off the field and dragging him back to his aunt’s house. Steaming mad, Ben punished his son by making him wash and rewash the family car in the blistering sun. Bart learned a lesson, but not the one his father intended.
“My father would become much more open-minded in later years,” Bart said.
Two years after Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier in Major League Baseball and five years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Bart began his career as a quarterback at Sidney Lanier High. Size alone made the program a competitive test for Starr, as the Poets, strengthened by a sophisticated junior high school feeder system, routinely dressed nearly one hundred players.
A disciple of Paul “Bear” Bryant, then in the process of turning the University of Kentucky into a national power, Lanier head coach Bill Moseley promoted Starr to the varsity heading into his junior season. As the backup to starter Don Shannon, Bart was still unpolished as a passer, but his focused, businesslike attitude made an impression on his coach, who noticed how well he took instruction. Determined to learn, to get a little bit better every day, Bart paid particular attention to Shannon’s mechanics, trying to soak up the game like a sponge.
“He absorbed coaching so well,” Moseley recalled. “We could put in a new wrinkle or a new play and I knew when he got home, he would be out in the yard [working on it]. He had the desire to do the job right.”
In private moments, Bart dreamed a young boy’s dream, imagining how it would feel to take control of the huddle at Cramton Bowl, Lanier’s 25,000-seat home stadium, site of the annual Blue–Gray all-star game, and hit one perfect pass after another, leading the Poets to victory as the big crowd roared.
Determined to be ready, whenever his chance arrived, Starr studied assiduously and worked to perfect his mechanics, remembering the way Harry Gilmer cocked the ball, noticing the way Don Shannon pulled away from center.
During the first three weeks of the season, Starr called three or four plays total, just enough to chase the butterflies. Then, on an electric night at Cramton Bowl in October 1950, with Sidney Lanier locked in a scoreless game with powerful Tuscaloosa, riding a 17-game winning streak, someone clobbered Shannon, who tumbled to the ground in excruciating pain.
As Shannon was carried off the field with a broken leg, Moseley called for his backup quarterback.
“It was a sad situation, the kid going down like that,” he said. “But I told Bart, ‘This is your chance.’”
A hush fell over the crowd as sixteen-year-old Starr, a skinny 150 pounds, wearing a number 21 jersey, jogged onto the field. Like everyone else in the stadium, Moseley wondered how Bart would react in such a pressure-packed situation.
When he reached the huddle, several of his teammates began offering play-calling advice, but he quickly took control.
“Now, all you guys stop that jabbering,” he said forcefully. “I’m the guy in charge in the huddle. I’ll call the plays. When I want your advice, I’ll ask.”
To the players accustomed to Starr’s mild-mannered persona, it was like watching Clark Kent disappear into a phone booth.
On the first play, he faded into the pocket and hit halfback Bobby Barnes with a bullet near the sideline, and Barnes ran for a first down.
“He just came in and took over, like he was supposed to be there,” Barnes recalled.
With Starr methodically driving the Poets for two touchdowns in the second half, Lanier upset Tuscaloosa, 13–0.
“It was like something out of a Hollywood movie,” said receiver Nick Germanos. “One guy goes down and another guy gets his chance. You could tell Bart had been preparing for that opportunity for a long time.”
Those Lanier players would always remember how it felt to be in the huddle the night when a Starr was born.
Like Wally Pipp, unlucky Don Shannon became the answer to a trivia question.
Without Shannon’s unfortunate accident, the stars might never have aligned so perfectly for the man who replaced him.
Demonstrating a good command of the offense, developing into a solid passer, and rarely making mistakes, Starr led Lanier to an undefeated season.
During the final game of the year, he watched the opposing quarterback from Macon find repeated success with a bootleg play in which he adroitly hid the ball from the defense. Starr was so impressed, he decided to try to maneuver himself, saving it for a crucial situation near the goal line in the third quarter. Just like the other quarterback, he tucked the ball against his leg, causing the defense to bite on the fake, but instead of running up field, he suddenly fired a strike into the distance for a touchdown.
Now every football fan in Montgomery knew his name, but one accolade eluded him: His father’s approval.
Ben never missed a game and attended many practices, watching intently from the distance, beyond a bunch of pine trees.
He was always there to point out what Bart did wrong.
* * *
Vito “Babe” Parilli was a natural.
The son of Italian immigrants, he was saved from a life in the steel mills of western Pennsylvania by his rare athletic ability. Parilli was fast, tough, and a leader. Anyone with working eyes could see his gift, and by his senior year of high school, dozens of colleges were hot for his signature. He might have been a great running back, lowering his shoulder, darting into the daylight, but Paul “Bear” Bryant took one look at him on the field and came to a different conclusion.
Maturing into a deadly accurate passer with a smooth release, Parilli led Kentucky to the 1950 SEC championship and an upset of national champion Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, becoming one of the most celebrated quarterbacks in the land.
The newspapers called him Sweet Kentucky Babe.
Heading into his senior year of high school, in the summer of 1951, Starr was shocked when Bill Moseley arranged for him to be tutored by Parilli. It helped that Moseley was a former Kentucky assistant coach, and that his brother was Parilli’s center. The Lanier coaching staff also included future head coaches Charlie Bradshaw and Matt Lair, who had played for the Wildcats under Bryant and believed most fervently in the Bear Bryant philosophy of football and life. Bryant was happy to help his protégés, especially when Moseley started telling him why he thought Starr could be his next great quarterback.
“It was a selfish move on my part, because I wanted Bart to be the best quarterback he could be for us that fall,” Moseley said.
Early one morning, the Lanier coach and his quarterback started off from Montgomery in his 1950 Mercury. After driving all day through the two-lane roads of Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, they spent the night with Moseley’s wife’s family in Somerset. The next morning, they got up and drove the rest of the way to Lexington. For the next two weeks, Bart lived in a dorm and spent several hours per day learning the quarterback position from one of the best who ever played the game.
On the first day, Starr was so nervous he dropped his food tray while moving through the cafeteria line, causing a clatter that reverberated throughout the large room, turning his face beet red. Eventually though, his butterflies subsided when he hit it off with Parilli, who quickly put him at ease.
“Bart was a great pupil and very respectful,” Parilli said. “He called me sir. I wasn’t much older than him, but he called me sir.”
Starr would lie in bed at night, away from his family for the first time in his life, unable to believe his good fortune.
“I’d never worked with someone who had played the position, so it was really an eye-opening experience for me,” Starr said. “A lot of the basic fundamentals and mechanics, I got from him. He was just such a fabulous player and I learned so much from him.”
Even after becoming one of the leading quarterbacks in professional football, Starr would rank Parilli as one of the greatest faking quarterbacks he ever saw—a skill he analyzed step by step during those two weeks, slowly mastering a technique that would become fundamental to his game.
“Babe had extremely fast hands,” Starr recalled. “He possessed the ability to keep his elbows tucked in fairly tight to the body so as not to show the defense the ball at any time. He would assume a position with his knees slightly bent, looking just like a master card dealer.…”
Parilli was impressed with Starr’s soft passing touch and his intense desire to learn the position.
“He was very detailed in his approach,” Parilli said. “He wanted to learn all he could. He wanted to learn what every player’s assignment was [in every conceivable situation], and that showed a level of thinking that was beyond most high school quarterbacks.”
When Starr returned to Montgomery, he covered the walls of his bedroom with photos of his tutor. “I just idolized him,” he said.
* * *
As their coach-player relationship developed, Moseley noticed something different about the way Starr related to him: “When you tried to give him a little instruction, he always looked you in the eye.”
This small bit of body language reflected the military training passed down from his father. It was a sign of respect—as Parilli and many others discovered, Starr was unfailingly polite and well mannered—and also suggested a surging confidence in his athletic abilities, which would become one of his most formidable assets as a quarterback.
But even as he became a big football hero at a school where nothing mattered more than football, he was still struggling to overcome his timid nature off the field, especially with the opposite sex. Throwing into an oncoming rush was easy, but trying to work up the courage to talk to a pretty young woman in the third row was torture.
But then he saw her.
Her name was Cherry Morton, and she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
“Cherry was so hot you wouldn’t believe it,” recalled classmate Gary Waller.
Starr spotted the stunning brunette across a crowded hallway, and was immediately smitten. He wanted to ask her out but was afraid to, especially after he learned she had been dating a guy from a wealthy family, fearing he would be disqualified by his family’s relatively modest means.
“I really had a mental challenge about asking her out,” he said. “But I wanted to ask her out real bad.”
Trapped between fear and desperation, Starr convinced his best friend and teammate, Nick Germanos, to approach her at school on his behalf. Cherry politely listened to the sales pitch before telling Germanos, “If he wants a date, he will have to ask me himself.”
The message, relayed by his amused friend, landed with an embarrassing thud, but finally, Starr worked up his courage, approached Cherry, and asked her for a date with his own trembling lips. Still, the big football hero could not bring himself to look the object of his affection in the eye.
“The entire time, he was looking down at the floor,” Cherry recalled many years later. “I promise you, he never looked at me. He was so painfully shy, it was really quite sweet.”
On one of their first dates, Bart was crushed when he returned from the concession stand at the drive-in, popcorn in hand, to see Cherry sound asleep in the car. He was sure he had blown it, but to his astonishment, Cherry’s dozing did not reflect boredom.
“I was just that comfortable with him,” she said. “He was the nicest person … very pleasant, very soothing.”
At some point, Bart actually worked up the courage to look her in the eye.
Dating the lovely Cherry Morton gave Starr a whole new level of confidence. But he could not yet conceive how profoundly she would affect his life.
In the fall of 1951, the Korean War raged without General Douglas MacArthur, who had been fired by President Harry Truman; Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” lifted the New York Giants past the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant, before they lost the World Series in six games to the Yankees; and a federal court sentenced Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to death for espionage. Montgomery, like much of the country, remained blissfully unaffected by a mounting cultural phenomenon. While millions of people in the metropolitan centers of the East—and a small but growing audience in the nearby cities of Birmingham and Atlanta—began altering their plans to stay home and watch I Love Lucy, Alabama’s capital city was still outside the footprint of television.
“I remember in high school learning the word television,” recalled Gary Waller, Lanier class of 1952. “I knew television was a word. But I didn’t know a soul who had a television. I mean, not one.”
Like his classmates, Starr came of age on the front side of a cultural fault line, just before television, rock ’n’ roll, and the civil rights movement.
These three developments were destined to impact American society in unimagined ways, shaping a new era embroidered by the cultural connectivity of television, the rebellion at the heart of rock ’n’ roll, and the barrier shattering personified by the civil rights movement, but in 1951, as the tidal wave slowly gathered, just over the horizon, Starr was focused on school, football, and Cherry Morton—not necessarily in that order.
Energized by his time with Babe Parilli, which improved his mechanics and bolstered his confidence, Starr entered his senior season at Lanier as the unquestioned leader of a very good team. The Poets’ bid for a second consecutive undefeated season ended in week four, with a crushing 26–6 defeat to Birmingham power Ramsey. But the All-America quarterback was impressive throughout the 9-1 season, highlighted by a road victory over Kentucky powerhouse DuPont Manual. After playing in a prestigious all-star game in Memphis, he was pursued by a long list of colleges who recognized his potential as a big-time quarterback.
All of his friends expected him to go to Kentucky, believing the tutorial with Sweet Kentucky Babe had sealed the deal.
“I was very impressed by Coach Bryant and the Kentucky program, and I fully intended to go to Kentucky,” Starr said.
His mind was made up.
But love intervened, proving more powerful than even than the charismatic Bryant.
When the romance turned serious and Bart discovered Cherry was planning to attend Auburn University to study interior design, he started reconsidering his desire to play for the Wildcats—because it was a long drive from Lexington, Kentucky, to Auburn, Alabama, especially in the days before interstate highways.
“I was afraid I would lose her,” he said.
Convinced he could maintain the relationship if he could stay within reasonable driving distance, Starr reversed field and accepted a scholarship to tradition-rich Alabama, Harry Gilmer’s old school, joining Lanier teammates Bobby Barnes and Nick Germanos.
It was probably the only time Auburn ever assisted archrival Alabama in landing a hot prospect.
“Best audible I ever called,” Starr surmised many years later, despite the burden of knowing what happened next.
Copyright © 2011 by Keith Dunnavant