Monday, October 3, 2011

#71: America's Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the NFL by Keith Dunnavant

Thomas Dunne Books, 2011: 386 pages

Keith Dunnavant is a very respected football researcher who brings to light much that I did not know about Bart Starr. I agree with Dunnavan't assertion that Starr is perhaps the most underrated QB in the history of pro-football. However, I do not think that he was in any way the best QB in history. Dunnavant turns to the "Hardware" equation, meaning Starr won more NFL championships than anyone else did. I respect that, but do not agree with it. Overall, this book is quite good. Bart Starr seems like a true mensch.

The title is both a statement and a swipe at Johnny Unitas, the subject of a book entitled "America's QB" in 2004. Starr and Unitas were compared throughout the 1960s; Starr had the hardware, Unitas the stats. Between 1961 and 1967, the Green Bay Packers were the best football team on earth. Period. End of Story. In those years, Starr's record as a starting QB was 78-18-4, a winning percentage of .780. Starr was 9-1 in the postseason. Unitas was no slouch, earning a record of 63-29-3 in the same span, a .663 winning percentage. The Packers were an excellent team, consistently in the top five in the league in both running offense and defense. When other QBs started for the Packers, they put up a record of 5-2 during those years. When others besides Unitas started for the Colts, they were 2-3.

The single most fascinating thing in this book for this reader was a comment from Starr himself. Starr was (still is) heavily involved in charity work in Wisconsin and Alabama. While working for a home for troubled youth in Wisconsin, he has this exchange with a student:
Starr: I hear you're a tough kid.
Tough Kid: So?
Starr: I hear you like to beat people up in the street.
Tough Kid: I like to get in fights (insert you're next, oldster, right here)
Starr: If you do that on the street, you're a thug. If you do that on a football field, you're a hero.

Some will take from this the legitimization of thuggish violence. To "legitimate" something is to make it legal, but more importantly to justify it. Starr saw the violence around him, but I don't think he found it justified. It was part of the game. What Starr was, as Dunnavant points out, was on the other side of a great generational divide. Violence, in whatever form, is a defining element from the point of view of a child. Were you ever spanked? Beaten by a parent? Chances are, your parents were of Starr's or the next generation. Starr would spank his kids, but never flat out beat them; Starr's father, gathering from the book, was very similar. There is a huge difference between a spanking and a beating; trust me, I know. Starr left the violence there on the field, likely because he was on the receiving end of some truly brutal stuff; some of the pounding that Starr took courtesy of Tommy Nobis, Butkus, Bubba Smith and the rest were no doubt legal. To steal a recurring and annoying construction from the book:
Men hurting others to win a game?
Men with concussions going back out to play?
Not knowing where they are or who they are?
Is that justified?
That is the question of football, not the bull shit "it makes you a man" crap that peppers the text.

What I wanted far more of in this book was what Dunnavant opens but does not develop. The place of Starr and Unitas as counterpoints to the non-conformist AFC and the anti-war movements is well known, being referenced on The Simpsons, no less (Johnny Unitas! Now there is a haircut to set your watch to!). The writing seemed strained during these passages, as if Dunnavant wanted to punch those dirty hippies for belittling Bart Starr and his "small town values". What Starr thought of the changes in society is mostly hinted at; Dunnavant at one time states he was "a great symbol of Nixon's Silent Majority." Starr himself probably thought this. In any event, while welcoming and a great attempt at citing the historical significance of Starr, this part of the book failed from non-development and author bias. A small gripe, however. In Dunnavant's defense, this is a biography and not a work of cultural history.

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