By Donna Cornelius
Journal feature writer
Two days before the Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers accepted an award off the field.
The Bart Starr Award annually recognizes an NFL player for outstanding character and leadership on the field and in the community. It honors the man who led the Packers to five NFL titles, including two Super Bowl championships. Starr was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1966, was MVP of the first two Super Bowls, was selected for the Pro Bowl four times and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
Starr, who lives in Riverchase, has made character and community service priorities in his own life. The former quarterback knows the importance of teamwork—and not just in sports. He and his wife, Cherry, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary May 8.
Bart and Cherry met when both were students at Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery.
“We had gone to different junior highs,” Cherry said. “I wasn’t a football fan and didn’t know who he was.”
While Bart may have been a confident athlete, he wasn’t as self-assured around his beautiful brunette classmate.
“He was so incredibly shy,” Cherry said. “Now, he can talk to 1,800 people and give the most beautiful, inspirational speeches. But that shyness appealed to me.”
Bart first sent Nick Germanos, his best friend, to ask Cherry for a date on Bart’s behalf, she said. That approach didn’t go over too well.
“I told Nick that Bart had to ask me out himself,” Cherry said.”
Bart remembered the couple’s first date.
“We went to see a movie at a theater downtown,” he said.
After paying for the tickets, Bart had $1 left over, the Starrs remembered.
“We went to Krystal and got hamburgers for 12 cents and Cokes for a nickel,” Cherry said.
After graduating from high school, Bart might have ended up playing football for an out-of-state school.
“I was committed to the University of Kentucky,” he said. “Bear Bryant was the coach, and I knew Babe Parilli.” Vito “Babe” Parilli was UK’s All-American quarterback.
Cherry, however, had decided to study interior design at Auburn University.
“I was excited about going to Kentucky, but I was smart enough to know that if I was in Lexington and Cherry was in Auburn, I might lose her,” he said.
That’s when he made the decision to stay closer to home and play football for the University of Alabama.
“That was the greatest audible of my life,” Bart said, smiling.
Their long-distance courtship continued until 1954, when the two eloped to Columbus, Miss.
“We knew his parents wouldn’t approve of us getting married,” Cherry said.
Taking Germanos along to serve as best man, the couple left to get married wearing casual clothes, Cherry said.
“I took a nice dress, and Bart took a suit, and we stopped at a service station to change and then went to a justice of the peace,” she said. “We got married in May, and I didn’t see him again until August.”
The secret got out when Cherry, who was living in Jackson, Miss., with her parents, got a letter from her new husband.
“My mother went out to the mailbox, brought in a letter from him and said, ‘That silly Bart! He’s addressed this letter to Mrs. Bart Starr,’” Cherry said. “So I confessed.”
The couple later had a formal wedding ceremony conducted by Bart’s minister at Montgomery’s First Methodist Church. Then they began life as a married couple at UA.
“It was hard then for married students to find a place to live,” Cherry said.
Like many of their fellow collegiate couples, the Starrs ended up living on UA’s Northington Campus in old Army barracks.
“There were weeds coming up between the cracks in the living room floor,” Bart said.
“Our house was tiny,” Cherry said. “But everybody there was in the same boat, and we had good neighbors.”
In 1956, Bart was drafted by the Packers.
“I went up first for training camp and to meet the folks in the organization,” he said.
Cherry, who said she’d never even heard of the Packers before the team drafted her husband, joined him later. Just as in Tuscaloosa, finding living quarters was an adventure.
“There were no apartment buildings. A lot of players and their wives lived in the only hotel,” Cherry said.
They ended up renting a small house “that must have belonged to somebody’s elderly mother, because there were about 100 little doilies everywhere,” Cherry said.
Maintaining a strong marriage could be a challenge for players and their wives, the couple said.
“The players went away for training camp, so I was alone for about three months,” Cherry said. “You’re alone an awful lot. The guys had to study films at night, and the wives didn’t travel with the team to away games.”
Bart said having the right attitude is a key to a healthy marriage.
“Attitude is a strong word,” he said. “Next to God, that’s the strongest word in our vocabulary.”
Cherry said that little things are important, too.
“Be polite to each other and make the other person know he’s appreciated,” she said.
While Bart found success on the field, he and Cherry also wanted to contribute to their community. In 1965, they co-founded Rawhide Boys Ranch near New London, Wisc. The ranch, still in operation today, provides homes and services for delinquent and emotionally-disturbed adolescents.
The Starrs used a creative fundraiser to jumpstart the facility. Bart had won a pretty snazzy prize for being the MVP of the first Super Bowl.: a red Corvette convertible.
“We had an old station wagon at the time,” Cherry said. “And we didn’t have much money. Bart’s first contract with Green Bay was for $6,500. He used to work during the off-season to pay the bills.”
The couple decided to raffle off the Corvette and sold 40,000 tickets for $1 each in just a few days. They used the money to help buy property for the ranch, they said.
After their younger son, Bret Starr, died in 1988, a fund was established in his memory to help the ranch’s residents attend college or get established in careers.
“That fund stays at about $1 million now,” Cherry said.
The Starrs still consider Green Bay their second home, they said, and they returned there four times last year to attend Packer games.
The couple was living in Scottsdale, Ariz., when Bret died. Their older son, Bart Starr Jr., was about to move to Birmingham at the time “and asked us if we’d consider moving here,” Cherry said.
Bart and Cherry have now lived in their Riverchase home for 23 years. They have three grandchildren and three step-grandchildren. Their granddaughter, Jenny, and her 2-year-old son, Bryan, currently are making their home with the Starrs. Cherry turned an area adjoining the kitchen into what she smilingly calls a “giant playpen” for their great-grandson.
The Starrs have been staunch supporters of many Birmingham civic organizations, including the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, and Bart often has piles of footballs waiting for him to sign and donate to charitable causes, Cherry said.
And when Bart celebrated his 80th birthday in February, he shared his special day with Cornerstone School. The party raised money for the Woodlawn nonprofit Christian school of which he’s been a longtime supporter.
“Cornerstone did such a nice job hosting us,” Bart said. “It was really a unique event.”
While Bart’s study and the Starrs’ media room are full of mementos from Bart’s stellar career, one tribute that’s especially meaningful to the couple isn’t in Alabama but at the Packers Heritage Trail Plaza in Green Bay.
“It’s a statue that’s not so much about football,” Cherry said. “It’s a little girl reaching up with a book in her hand to have Bart sign it”
The little girl’s likeness is that of the late daughter of Phil Hendrickson, a Green Bay businessman and former Packers treasurer.
“That statue epitomizes Bart,” Cherry said. “He always had time for the fans—and especially for the children.”