It’s been forty years since I last laid eyes on him. Now here he is, tumbling out from between the pages of an old book I’ve brought down from the attic.
Untouched and undisturbed all this time, my old Bart Starr football trading card shows the great Green Bay Packers quarterback casually holding his helmet and looking into the middle distance. The card is in nearperfect condition after spending so many years inside the book, and it would probably be a collector’s item today if not for the rips on the back from the tape I’d used to stick it to my bedroom wall when I was a kid.
Yes, sir. Bart Starr. It’s good to see you again. But as I look at that laconic face and buzz-cut hair, I feel an awkwardness slowly creep over me. Because I have a confession to make, and I guess now is as good a time as any to make it.
Sports just aren’t my thing.
It’s strange to admit it, especially for a dad who has a young son itching to score some touchdowns of his own. Almost eight now, my boy Will is finally past the age when every ball he owns is stuffed with foam or made by Nerf. This year he’s got a bigger, tougher football to call his own, and he’s ready to throw it harder and faster. Most of all, he wants me on the receiving end. Am I ready to rumble?
Don’t get me wrong, I like to play some sports. Golf, tennis, a bit of friendly whiffle ball. And I play fairly well when I do.
But the truth is, team sports leave me cold. Maybe that’s because my own gridiron career was pretty much over before it started. As a kid, I started out well enough on an elementary school intramural football team, playing a key defensive position even though I was a certified shrimp. But the next year, a new coach stuck me in another spot where the opposing players regularly mowed me down. Play after play, game after game, I nobly served our team as a real-life crash-test dummy.I mean, come on, why would you even think to put an underweight kid at offensive tackle when you’d know he couldn’t possibly—
Well, as you can see, I have issues.
The years fell away, and I slowly lost track of the games, the seasons, the players, and a good chunk of the rules. Sure, I’d sometimes try to join the conversation when it turned to sports chatter, but the nicknames for teams of all stripes—Skins, Sox, Nats, Pats, Bucs, Yanks, Cubbies—never rolled off my tongue quite the right way.At Super Bowl parties, I was always more interested in watching the TV commercials—and chatting up single women who’d retreat to the kitchen during the game.Even now, there’s little chance you’ll ever find me spending a weekend watching sports on television.
To this day, I still don’t know exactly what a “draft” is.
But long before I turned into a sports refusenik – even before the year I spent as a human battering ram – there was Bart Starr. Now, gazing at the trading card with his name and face, my earliest sports memory comes back.
In December 1967, my dad and I sat down together in front of the TV to watch a football game that would make sports history. Famously known ever since as the “Ice Bowl,” that freezing-cold Super Bowl playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers was up for grabs until, literally, the last second. Then, only one yard away from a touchdown and with just a single play left in the game, Bart Starr carried the ball over the goal line in a surprise “quarterback sneak” that won the game and immediately passed into legend.
The game came back to me this year when Will started bringing home books about sports from the school library.Each book highlighted a pro football team, giving history, stats and major players for each club. We learned that the San Diego Chargers named a passing strategy “Air Coryell” after their coach at the time. And did you know that part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ stadium is built to look like a pirate ship?
In the Packers book, I found out things I never knew about the Ice Bowl. The temperature in Wisconsin that day was 21 degrees below zero, not including the wind chill. The referees couldn’t even use their whistles—they froze to their lips. And on that final freezing play, Starr chose to run the ball himself because he knew nobody would ever expect it.
I look at the card again, and the football hero with the regular-guy face looks back at me as if he always knew this day would come. I like to think he’d been waiting for this moment just to score one more time—one last great quarterback sneak. The leaves are falling now, he seems to say. The snow and ice are on their way. It’s time to play, and there’s a boy outside who’s ready to throw the football. Go ahead. Get ready. Maybe sports are more your thing than you know.
Thanks, Bart Starr. Yours wasn’t the only card I ever owned. But it was the one I kept.