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By CHRIS HAVEL
Hall of Fame quarterback’s wife reveals severity of back injury
Bart Starr was one of my idols growing up. He still is.
That’s why it was difficult to read Cherry Starr’s recent revelation that her husband’s chronic back pain arose from a barbaric hazing ritual at Alabama.
Cherry told AL.com that “members of Alabama’s A-Club would line up with a big paddle with holes drilled in it and it actually injured his back.”
Starr, 82, was said to have been injured during a punting exercise at practice. The reality was far different according to Cherry, who said Bart never refuted the tale because he didn’t want to look bad.
“But his back was never right after that,” Cherry said. “It was horrible. It was not a football injury. It was an injury sustained from hazing. His whole back all the way up to his rib cage looked like a piece of raw meat. The bruising went all the way up his back. It was red and black and awful looking.”
“It was so brutal.”
It also was unnecessary and quite probably illegal. Former Crimson Tide tight end Nick Germanos, one of Starr’s teammates at Alabama, corroborated the story according to ESPN.
“It was hell,” Germanos said. “Lord have mercy, it was a rough initiation.”
Clearly, Starr felt shamed by the assault but instead of blowing the whistle on Alabama, he suffered in silence. It was in Starr’s nature to respond with quiet dignity rather than stir up what quite likely would have been a story of epic proportions.
I remember hearing about Bart Starr, the Packers’ great quarterback, from my father and his friends. Sadly, by the time I was old enough to understand football, Starr was a shadow of his Hall of Fame self.
It was the 1970s. Starr lacked agility and seemed stiff in the pocket. His arm strength had been sapped by decades of punishment. I wondered what the fuss was all about concerning Starr. He looked so old, fragile and helpless at the end of his career.
Then, when I saw the highlights featuring his toughness, leadership and talent, I began to understand Starr’s greatness. Today, Cherry’s account of what really happened at Alabama makes Starr’s career even more amazing.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Dr. James Andrews – who also happens to reside in Birmingham – diagnosed and treated a vertebrae fracture in Starr. The account is sad on several levels.
Obviously, the Alabama football program under legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant wasn’t idyllic. College football fans talk about all the wins, but this story puts it in a different light. It reminds fans that football is a brutal game, on and off the field.
If something so terrible was allowed to happen to Alabama’s incoming players, imagine what other atrocities were thrust upon the student-athletes (no water breaks in searing heat, playing with severe injuries, etc.).
It also suggests that the Alabama coaching staff and administration either condoned the behavior or hid behind the notion of plausible deniability.
I wonder how Alabama’s athletics department would’ve handled assault accusations from a non-student/athlete.
Clearly, it is horrible to think that Starr, one of the NFL’s all-time greats, had to deal with being assaulted. The reality is that football is a rugged game. There is nothing easy about it. That goes double for the football culture in some places, where players are treated as if they were expendable.
The hope is that schools adopt a zero tolerance view on assault of any kind and then have the integrity to enforce it. Times were different in the 1950s, when Starr was a college freshman. Many practices in use then are considered dangerous and ill-advised today, especially in terms of on-field conditioning, weight training and nutrition.
Sadly, it’s taken longer for rituals such as hazing to disappear.
Starr’s assault puts a face on the victim, and it reminds us that football is a violent game, on and off the field. It also puts in perspective the lawsuit that has been filed against the University of Tennessee for allegedly allowing its football program to run amok.
Unfortunately, any advances in college football – especially the treatment of players – came far too late to help Starr.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’s MVP Parties the evening before home games.