Starr, Unitas made this a rivalry

Four decades before Sunday's two Rodgers vs. Manning matchup, Hall of Famers Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas dueled in classic games. Packer Report's Tom Andrews remembers the rivalry.

Wasn't it just yesterday? Or was it really more than 40 years ago that Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts would venture to Green Bay to face Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers?

As a youngster growing up in Wisconsin during the 1960s, I remember the Packers-Colts rivalry as one of the most intense and entertaining. And at the center of that rivalry were two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to lace 'em up.

Starr and Unitas were coached by legendary Hall of Famers. Unitas by Weeb Ewbank and then Don Shula. Starr by Vince Lombardi. Both teams featured star-studded lineups that read like a Who's Who in Canton. Raymond Berry. Lenny Moore. Jim Taylor. Paul Hornung. Gino Marchetti. Ray Nitschke. Willie Davis. Jim Parker. Willie Wood.

It was a different game back then. A game when they actually did play "smashmouth" football, not simply pay the term lip service and then pass all day. They would beat each other into a pulp until one team emerged victorious. And that especially included destroying the other team's receivers. None of this, "after 5 yards you can't touch me" nonsense. As long as the ball was not in the air, defenders could level the receivers mercilessly. After all, it's hard to catch five or 10 passes in a game when you spend most of the afternoon on your butt.

Despite playing at a time when passing the football was not emphasized nearly as much as it is today, Starr and Unitas were magnificent. They called their own plays. They were daring. They ran the ball down your throat and then threw the bomb when it was least expected. It was truly a legendary, face-to-face matchup.

Though Unitas, with his big arm and high-top shoes, always seemed to get more national publicity in that era, it was the cool Starr -- the "thinking man's quarterback" -- who generally got the better of things when these two teams met, especially in Green Bay.

In 1960, the Packers stomped Baltimore 35-21 at Lambeau Field (then known as City Stadium). In 1961, Paul Hornung scored 33 points on four touchdowns, six extra points and a field goal as the Packers prevailed 45-7. The Colts won both rematches in Baltimore.

The Packers won all four contests in 1962 and 1963 before the Colts won back-to-back games in 1964 when they reached the NFL championship game. Green Bay beat Baltimore three times in 1965 -- once in Milwaukee, once in Baltimore (Hornung scored five touchdowns in the fog) and the still hotly disputed, sudden-death playoff game at Lambeau Field.

Oddly, neither Starr nor Unitas had anything to say about the outcome. Unitas was on the bench with an injury and Starr was knocked out of the game on the first play. Tied 10-10 in overtime, Don Chandler kicked a 25-yard field goal, sending Green Bay into the NFL championship game against Cleveland and putting the Colts on a long, angry flight back to Baltimore.

Recently, former Packers historian Lee Remmel laughed heartily when asked by a reporter to recall that playoff game and Chandler's first field goal, which sent the game into overtime.

"To this very day, Don Shula still turns purple when you bring up the sudden-death game," said Remmel. "The Colts claim the kick sailed wide to the right. The league raised the height of the goal post uprights the next season because of that kick."

The Packers-Colts rivalry produced yet another thriller the next season in Baltimore. On Dec. 10, 1966, the Packers came into town needing a win to clinch the Western Conference title. Starr was injured early and, as he had in the sudden-death game, Zeke Bratkowski stepped in to guide the Packers' fortunes. Thanks to a pair of touchdowns by Elijah Pitts and a staunch defense, Green Bay clung to a 14-10 lead until the game's closing moments.

Unitas decided to take the game into his own hands, guiding the Colts on a furious drive through the fog and the rain and the mud. With little more than 1 minute left to play, Unitas dropped back to pass but found his receivers covered. He tucked the ball in and bolted downfield, all the way to the 10-yard line before Willie Davis nailed him from behind and forced what was later dubbed the "Million Dollar Fumble." The ball plopped into the mud and bounced right into the waiting arms Packers linebacker Dave Robinson.

Game over. Packers' title secured. Colts' upset dreams snuffed out.

This week, the Packers and Colts meet again at Lambeau Field. Two different quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, will face off in what promises to be an entertaining football game. With Manning playing as well as he is and Rodgers healing from his shoulder injury, it could be an old-fashioned shootout.

For Green Bay's sake, the pass defense had better be ready. Manning is one of the best to ever play the game. As one might say during this presidential election season, "Mr. Frye, I know Peyton Manning. Peyton Manning is a friend of mine. Charlie Frye, you're no Peyton Manning!"

Tom Andrews writes for Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com. He has been covering the Packers since 1974, including for Packer Report since 1999. Contact him via e-mail at andrewst@charter.net


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