Before Tom Brady and Eli Manning, before Brett Favre, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and John Elway, there was Bart Starr. He was “America’s Quarterback,” as the title of Keith Dunnavant’s new book would have it.
A case can be made that Starr stands alone, or at least beside Johnny Unitas. As a Green Bay Packer, he was the Most Valuable Player of the first two Super Bowls, four times a Pro Bowler, the personification of the virtues of Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi -- and a quarterback who called his own plays.
He’s not forgotten now, only diminished, but fortunately Dunnavant reminds us of the grace and grit of a man who was once a 17th-round draft pick (200th overall in 1956) but first in the heart of Packer Nation.
“Even now,” Dunnavant writes, “his DNA runs through the sport.”
“America’s Quarterback” traces Starr’s passage from calling signals in high school to installation in the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t an easy route, as Dunnavant shows; Lombardi was a skeptic. But Starr gained confidence, and then the confidence of the coach, who came to appreciate what Dunnavant calls “Starr’s quiet but forceful style of leadership.”
He and the fabled Packer Sweep blossomed just as the NFL was coming of age and before long he had emerged from the shadow of his teammates Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor.
Others mastered the long pass. Starr, drawing on what Dunnavant calls “the precision of his mechanics,” mastered the fake, and if he is remembered for one thing it may be calling his own QB sneak in the NFL championship game known as the Ice Bowl. (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99.)
‘Lombardi and Landry’
Everybody remembers Starr and his iconic coach, but who remembers Jim Lee Howell? Some old New York Giants fans and a few NFL history buffs, perhaps, but his name doesn’t slip off the tongue like that of Lombardi or Tom Landry -- the two signature pro-football coaches in the 1960s.
But in “Lombardi and Landry,” veteran sportswriter Ernie Palladino shows how these legends were shaped by their time as assistants to Howell, who coached the Giants in a period of glory between 1954 and 1960.
It wasn’t so much the lessons Howell taught Lombardi and Landry as the freedom he gave them that mattered. Lombardi was the offensive general, Landry the defensive commander-in-chief, and together they helped build a team that appeared in three NFL championship games, winning the title in 1956.
And then they left, Lombardi to Green Bay, Landry to Dallas -- and both eventually to the Hall of Fame. (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95.)
Joe Ehrmann takes on the coaching arts from a vastly different perspective. He was a star athlete who had a childhood of abuse and anger, a victim of the winning-is-everything ethos and of coaches out for themselves. But he came to recognize the potential of coaches to “impart life-changing messages.”
And so “InSideOut Coaching” is a how-to book of a different kind: how to recognize and celebrate the kind of coach who makes a difference, one who isn’t authoritative but transformative.
“A transformational coach is dedicated to self-understanding and empathy, viewing sports as a virtuous and virtue-giving discipline,” he writes. “Transformational coaches believe young people can grow and flourish in sports in a way that is more liberating and instructive than can be achieved through almost any other activity.”
How did Ehrmann, a Syracuse All-American, learn this? Through hard knocks -- he had them in his youth; he dealt them out on the Baltimore Colts defensive line. Through hard thinking, during off-seasons at the Dallas Theological Seminary. And through hard questions, asking people who had made a difference in their lives.
Often that difference was made by coaches, even though so many of them were afflicted with what he calls “empathy-deficit disorder.”
As a result he developed his own definition of success for coaches, not defined by wins: “Success is defined and measured by the content of their character, their leadership and their contribution to the betterment of their families, their communities, and the world.” Memo to the NCAA: Buy scads of copies of this book. (Written with Paula Ehrmann and Gregory Jordan. Simon & Schuster, $24.)
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)