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Bart Starr was the toughest football player who ever lived

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Nearly four years ago, when I visited Bart Starr in his Birmingham, Alabama, home, he did not remember the five NFL championships he had won, or the Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, he had won them for. He could not place Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers, even though he studied Rodgers closely through the DirecTV package his wife and high school sweetheart, Cherry, had bought him as a Christmas gift.

Starr even asked me if I had played for Lombardi, the former coach at my New Jersey high school. We shared a small laugh over that before I brought up the 1967 Ice Bowl, one of football’s most iconic games settled by one of football’s most iconic players. Starr did not remember anything about that either.

The then-81-year-old former quarterback had suffered multiple strokes, a heart attack, four seizures, and significant brain damage within the previous year, and some doctors could not believe he was still alive. During one stay in the hospital, a doctor told Cherry her husband likely would not make it through the night. Bart woke up the next morning in much better shape.

He lost his memory long before he lost his life Sunday at 85. But Starr never lost his dignity while he reminded the world, in his last great comeback, that he was the toughest NFL player who ever lived.

When we think of old-school toughness on the football field, we often think of big and vicious hitters, fire-breathing defenders who played through injury and enjoyed cutting skill-position players in half. Chuck Bednarik, Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus. Mean Joe Greene, Jack Tatum, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary.

But at 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, the gentlemanly Starr made the most difficult championship play under the most difficult circumstances in a game that never should have been played. With the ball at the 1-yard line at Lambeau Field, down three points to the Dallas Cowboys with 16 seconds to go, Starr ignored his frozen hands and body, the subhuman Green Bay conditions (the wind chill was minus 48 degrees), and the fact that he was an aging, athletically-challenged quarterback who had already been sacked by Dallas eight times. Starr asked to keep the ball in a huddle with Lombardi, who ordered him to push it across the goal line. “And then let’s get the hell out of here,” the coach cried.

Starr scored, of course, behind Jerry Kramer’s famous block on Jethro Pugh, and afterward his wife was stunned by the severe swelling in his face. No NFL player had ever been asked to give more on a single drive or a single play. Starr would be named Super Bowl MVP for a second straight time two weeks later, and he never again managed a winning record as a starter.

He would endure profound tragedy in his life, losing his son Bret to cocaine addiction at age 24 in 1988, when he found his boy’s body on the floor of his home. Only Starr didn’t quit, because he would never quit on anything. He was a fighter, the son of a tough-love World War II veteran and Air Force master sergeant who lost his favorite child, Hilton, to tetanus when the boy was 11, and who didn’t think Bart would amount to much. Starr was the 200th overall pick in the 1956 NFL draft, a non-prospect who was benched during his final, winless season at Alabama and who was only drafted in the 17th round because the school’s basketball coach had a connection with the Packers’ front office.

Starr played 10 postseason games for Lombardi, and he won nine of them. He willed himself into the Hall of Fame; no quarterback has ever been drafted as late as Starr and still made it to Canton.

After the strokes and seizures, Starr tried to will himself back to health. Cherry and his personal aide and nursing assistant would wrap their arms around him and, on a count of three, lift him out of his chair and get him going through his day. He underwent stem-cell treatments, and rigorous exercise sessions with his trainer, Brian Burns, who kept reminding the old quarterback of his greatness to motivate him to keep a scheduled farewell appearance at Lambeau in 2015 for the halftime unveiling of Favre’s retired No. 4.

Starr barely survived a bronchial infection in late summer to make that trip, and his trainer saw considerable gains in his physical and mental capacities. “I ask him what his number was, and he says, ‘Fifteen,'” Burns told ESPN.com at the time. “I ask him who he played for, and he says, ‘Vince Lombardi.’ I ask him what position he played, and he says, ‘Quarterback.’ One time he said, ‘Linebacker,’ and we got a good laugh over that. But he’s made incredible progress. He is really coming back.”

On a desk in Starr’s study stood a captioned photo with the Lombardi quote, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” By all accounts, the quarterback didn’t just chase perfection on the field. Strangers from all over would show up at his Green Bay doorstep, and Starr was forever willing to pose for their pictures or even invite them inside. As a young boy at Packers training camp, Bart Jr. asked his old man why he had just spent so much time signing autographs for so many fans.

“Everybody who wants an autograph will get one as long as I’m not holding up the team,” Starr explained to his son. “One thing you have to remember: These are the individuals who make this team possible.”

Starr was the individual player who made Lombardi’s dynasty possible. In the end, Cherry, his wife of 65 years, never stopped pushing him forward. She helped feed him and transport him from one appointment to the next. Even on nights when sundown syndrome dramatically altered his serene disposition, Bart asked Cherry to play him Il Divo’s rendition of “Unchained Melody” before he fell asleep. Starr once asked her to promise she would play that song at his wedding. He meant to say his funeral, and his wife wouldn’t stop teasing him about that.

Cherry believes that football contributed to her husband’s decline; she saw too many concussive hits, and too much postgame pain, to think otherwise. His fingertips remained pale in later years, she thought, because of what he put himself through in the Ice Bowl. But Bart was not a man defined by regret, even if he had trouble finishing a sentence in the hours I spent with him in his home.

On exit that day in 2015, I told Starr that I thought he was the toughest man to play in the NFL.

He looked at the floor, as if the compliment embarrassed him. “Well,” he responded, “I’ve been the luckiest football player ever.”

Go look at the film of the Ice Bowl. When it came to Bryan Bartlett Starr, luck had absolutely nothing to do with it.

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Panthers’ Cox cited for speeding, marijuana

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BESSEMER CITY, N.C. — The North Carolina Highway Patrol cited Carolina Panthers defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. for speeding, possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia on Wednesday, the final day of the team’s training camp.

Sergeant Christopher Knox of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety said troopers pulled over the 25-year-old Cox on Interstate 85 northbound near Bessemer City for driving 90 mph in a 65 mph zone in a 2015 Nissan. Cox was cited for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana. He has an Oct. 14 court date.

The incident came about an hour after the Panthers broke camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and players began returning to Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Panthers released a statement Wednesday night, saying, “The club is aware that Bryan Cox Jr. was cited by law enforcement today. We are gathering information and have been in contact with the NFL and Bryan. We will have no further comment at this time.”

Cox has been with the Panthers since 2017. He is the son of Bryan Cox, who played 12 seasons in the NFL and was named All-Pro three times.

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Beckham Jr. dealing with hip injury

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This story has been corrected. Read below.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. sat out the team portion of a joint practice with the Indianapolis Colts on Wednesday with what coach Freddie Kitchens termed a minor injury.

Sources told ESPN’s Dan Graziano that Beckham is dealing with a hip injury, but he could participate in team drills against the Colts on Thursday. Beckham took part in individual drills on Wednesday.

The Browns are in Westfield, Indiana, for two joint practices with the Colts before their preseason game on Saturday.

Beckham did not play in Cleveland’s first preseason game against the Washington Redskins.

An August 14 story had sources incorrectly describing Beckham Jr.’s injury as a hip pointer. Later, sources said it is simply a hip injury and not a pointer.

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Brown faces lawsuit over unpaid $38K chef’s bill

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Oakland Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown is facing a civil lawsuit that alleges that he stiffed a chef’s bill of nearly $40,000 during Pro Bowl festivities in 2018.

Stefano Tedeschi — who goes by the name “The Sports Chef” — filed suit in Osceola (Florida) County on July 30, claiming that Brown’s balance of $38,521.20 remains unpaid.

Brown rented an Orlando-area mansion and hired the chef to prepare food for multiple days, a culinary show and other services for nearly 50 Pro Bowl teammates and many other party guests, Tedeschi told ESPN in an interview Wednesday.

Brown wrongfully terminated the agreement and did not allow Tedeschi to retrieve his equipment and food from the premises, the lawsuit states. A Brown associate told Tedeschi not to make eye contact with Brown on his way out, Tedeschi told ESPN.

Tedeschi added that he never got an official reason for the lack of payment. He paid staff members out of pocket for their work and forwent other work opportunities by committing to Brown.

“I’ve cooked for countless NFL superstars and celebrities,” said Tedeschi, who says he has prepared food for Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, among others. “Never once have I had one problem [until this]. My food is so good, and my mannerisms in someone’s home is second to none.”

Brown’s attorney, Darren Heitner, responded to the lawsuit, saying only, “We expect to be filing a motion to dismiss the complaint and will let the filing speak for itself.”

Tedeschi claimed that Brown later offered to pay Tedeschi in social media advertising, which Tedeschi said he didn’t accept.

This is the latest legal incident for Brown in Florida. The All-Pro faced two lawsuits from an April 2018 incident in which Brown allegedly yelled at security and threw items from inside an apartment off a balcony, according to documents obtained by ESPN. Both lawsuits were for “damages in excess of $15,000, exclusive of” attorney fees and interest.

In April, Brown settled the lawsuit brought by the guardian of a 2-year-old boy alleging “intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault” after items flung from the 14th floor of The Mansions at Acqualina nearly hit the child.

In January, Brown was involved in a domestic dispute during which he allegedly pushed the mother of his daughter to the ground in Hollywood, Florida. No arrests were made and no charges filed. Heitner called the allegations “baseless and false,” and Brown later filed for majority custody of his daughter.

Traded from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Raiders in March, Brown recently filed a grievance with the NFLPA over the expiration of his Schutt AiR Advantage helmet. Brown lost the grievance on Monday and reported to the Raiders on Tuesday. He is also dealing with a foot injury that’s keeping him off the practice field.

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