Some of my earliest memories as a small child are of being wide awake at naptime, forced to lie on my bed, but studying the things in my bedroom: the wall hangings, toys, furniture, even the ceiling light.
Prominent among these things was a green and gold, 1960s-era pennant, a tribute to the Green Bay Packers that my dad had given me. Miraculously, it’s still in my possession all these decades and many houses and moves later.
I’ve always loved this little pennant. As a kid, I marveled at the words “World Champions” and the image of Bart Starr, the hall of fame quarterback, standing atop the globe, dropping back to pass as Paul Hornung runs a pass route across the solar system. Yes, these were over-the-top expressions of cosmic glory but they pretty much captured how everyone in Wisconsin felt at the time about Starr and Hornung, the Packers team, and the coach of all coaches: Vince Lombardi.
I was born right in the middle of the Packers glory years when Lombardi’s fierce discipline and iron will guided the franchise to multiple championships. Throughout the 60’s, the Green Bay Packers were the toast of professional sports around the country and the pride of everyone in Wisconsin. Our small-town underdog team was the model of excellence and success.
Unfortunately for me, I was too young to fully appreciate or even remember those years and don’t have any memories of watching football at all until after Lombardi left Green Bay. My awareness of the Packers coincided with the beginning of their two-decades swoon when they won only one division title and basically became an after-thought until the 1990s.
As a kid though, I still loved the Packers and idolized Bart Starr, whom my dad held up as an exemplar of humanity’s best qualities: intelligence, equanimity, perseverance, and so on. My dad he still thinks the world of him and continues to compare him (favorably, of course) to every superstar quarterback who has come along since then.
In high school sports, especially football, I remember trying to emulate the positive qualities of Bart Starr that I admired and that my dad had taught me since birth. I tried to be cool under pressure, do the unexpected, stay humble, but play to win. Boasting and trash-talking, even excessive celebration were completely out of the question. These were not the Bart Starr way. No matter what just happened, good or bad, he was always cool and focused and preparing for the next play.
Bart Starr, who just turned 81, suffered some serious health setbacks last fall. Reports are that his recovery has been slow. But I’m hoping he’s able to watch the Packers this Sunday when they compete in yet another NFC championship game. My family and I will be watching as well, with this tattered green and gold pennant hung in its “good luck” position above the TV.