The story goes that Bart Starr’s college career at Alabama was derailed by a back injury he suffered during a punting drill before the 1954 season, his junior year. It’s a tale that’s been repeated in numerous biographies of the NFL Hall of Famer, including an autobiography published in 1987.
The true story, which came to light Monday in a fascinating story written by Joseph Goodman of AL.com, is horrifying: Starr’s back was permanently injured after he submitted to a hazing ritual in order to gain entrance into Alabama’s A-Club for varsity lettermen.
“He was hospitalized at one point in traction,” Starr’s wife, Cherry, told Goodman. “That was in the days when they were initiated into the A-Club, and they had severe beatings and paddling. From all the members of the A-Club, they lined up with a big paddle with holes drilled in it, and it actually injured his back.”
She continued: “But his back was never right after that. 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.”
Starr, who’s now 82, is unable to discuss the matter after suffering two strokes in 2014. According to Cherry, he never wanted the hazing injury to become public because “it would make him look bad.” Only now do she and her husband feel comfortable talking about an injury that required spine adjustments and epidurals until the 1980s, when famed orthopedist James Andrews discovered a nearly invisible crack in one of Starr’s vertebra, Goodman reports.
In a weird twist, the back injury is indirectly responsible for Starr’s standout NFL career. After his rookie season in 1956, Starr was called to active duty in the Air Force. But his back was so badly injured that he failed his physical and was deemed unfit for military service. He ended up playing 15 seasons in Green Bay, helping lead the Packers to five NFL titles. In 1977, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
The injury also helped shape Paul “Bear” Bryant’s path to Alabama. The Crimson Tide went 4-5-2 under Coach Red Drew in Starr’s junior season — he was severely limited by his injury — and 0-10 in his senior season under Coach Jennings Whitworth, who benched Starr for much of the year. Two years and only four more Alabama wins later, Bryant was coaching in Tuscaloosa.