By Mark Inabinett
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
It could have been awkward - the quarterback bound for the Hall of Fame at the end of the line, betrayed by his body after 15 seasons in the NFL and watching a rookie take his place under center with the Green Bay Packers.
But it wasn't, because the aging QB was "just the best," said Scott Hunter, who was the rookie.
After 192 games with the Packers, quarterback Bart Starr played in only four during the 1971 NFL campaign following offseason shoulder surgery. Hunter, a sixth-round draft choice from Starr's alma mater, Alabama, started 10 times for Green Bay that year.
"He just took me under his wing, both he and Zeke Bratkowski, who backed up Bart for years," Hunter recalled on Sunday afternoon. "They took me under their wing, and it just couldn't have been a better situation for me. Bart, with his career, was the pinnacle of quarterback in the NFL. But Bart just took me under his wing and made the transition so easy."
Starr tried to return in 1972, but after engineering comebacks through five NFL championship seasons for the Packers, he didn't have one more left for himself.
"We played together a year, and then he had to retire in training camp in '72," Hunter said. "Coach (Dan) Devine offered him the job to coach quarterbacks and call plays, and there couldn't have been a better situation for me than having Bart Starr coaching me and calling plays. I was just basically an extension of Bart Starr on the field."
After becoming the only franchise to win three consecutive NFL championships, the Packers had missed the playoffs for four straight seasons until a turnaround in 1972. Green Bay went 10-4 and won the NFC Central crown, with Hunter starting every game.
When Hunter got the news that Starr had died on Sunday morning, a particular memory from the 1972 season came to mind, he said.
"I was thinking of when we were playing the 49ers in Milwaukee," Hunter said, "and it was fourth-down-and-1 at about the 49ers' 28-, 29-yard line, and Bart asked coach Devine, 'Do you want to go for it?' Coach Devine said, 'Yes.' Well, coach Devine was thinking we're going to run John Brockington or MacArthur Lane in a wedge."
But Starr surprised the Green Bay coach and the 49ers defense. Instead of giving the football to one of the Packers' bruising running backs, who would combine for 1,848 rushing yards that season, Starr sent in a pass play to Hunter, who 47 years later still can call it as he delivered it in the huddle that day.
"It was the consummate Bart Starr - fourth-down-and-1, throw a pass," Hunter said - and it worked, too, as the Packers posted a 34-24 victory over the eventual NFC West champion that sparked Green Bay to a 6-1 record in the second half of the 1972 season.
Hunter maintained his relationship with Starr after their football days.
"Bart was always the epitome of class," Hunter said. "You'd be having breakfast with him in Milwaukee or Green Bay years after he'd played and coached - and me, too - and people would come up, and he'd stand up and always spend time with them.
"Like coach (Paul 'Bear') Bryant said, he said he didn't know the definition of class, but he sure knew it when he saw it, and that was Bart Starr."
Hunter said he knew he'd be thinking over his memories of Starr in the next few days.
"I couldn't have been luckier than being around somebody like Bart Starr," Hunter said.