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COPING WITH A TRAGEDY : After the Death of a Son, 24, From Cocaine, Bart Starr Is Committed to Having an Impact on Battle Against Drugs

August 28, 1988|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

Bret Starr had plenty of reasons to go on living. Bright and sensitive, he was also young and good-natured. He loved music and animals.

And he was the son of a prosperous former National Football League quarterback and coach, Bart Starr of Green Bay, Wis., a sportsman widely esteemed for high principles, exemplary behavior and plain decency.

Nevertheless, Bret lived only 24 years. Plagued by a drug problem that had gripped him in his teens, he died a lonely cocaine-related death at his home in Florida, where he was found dead July 7.

How could that happen to Bart's boy?

"It's frightening," Bob Long, a former teammate and now business associate of Bart Starr, said the other day. "It shows you how insidious cocaine is."

And how has the tragedy affected solid citizen Starr?

Said Connie Grunwaldt, a young Milwaukee businesswoman who grew up with Bret: "He has gone public with a message of warning, discipline and hope.

"Parents who tragically lose a child to drugs can either bury themselves in grief or try to reach out to others. Bart and (his wife) Cherry have made a decision to reach out, to fight.

"They loved Bret so much, and they were such caring parents. They never abandoned Bret, and they don't want to abandon him now--though this is hard on Bart because he's such a private person."

Starr, forfeiting his privacy, delivered the eulogy at Bret's memorial service in Green Bay.

"I don't know any other parent who would have had the inner strength to do that when their child died of a drug habit," Long said from Milwaukee.

"The human tendency is to cover up ugliness. Bart is reinforcing a lot of people by sharing his private agony and by dedicating himself to helping others."

Since last winter, Bart and Cherry have been in their new Arizona home in Paradise Valley near Phoenix. In a recent interview there, Bart said he doesn't minimize the problem that they and others face in seeking to convince a seemingly reluctant public to forsake drugs.

"I hate cocaine," he said. "I hate the cocaine evil. I'm angry that it's doing all this damage, but I question whether the country is angry enough even now to lick it.

"Killer drugs are destroying and debilitating us, and we still haven't got serious about (the problem). It lapped us long ago. We'll have to race hard now just to catch up."

But he intends to be in the race.

"I think education and awareness are much of the answer, but the job is tougher than it seems," Starr said. "We don't any of us know as much as all of us should know about this evil. I want to know, and then I want to help in the area of (public) awareness. I want to try."

He acknowledged that to an increasing number of therapists and scientists, there really are two problems today: drugs and crime--meaning street crime as well as international crime, the widespread crime of dealing in dope.

And some experts are predicting that nobody ever will get a handle on the drug problem until there is some kind of legalization and decriminalization--until, that is, the massive profits in illegal drug dealing are somehow eliminated.

Starr said he keeps hearing this. And though he always listens carefully, he isn't convinced.

"We desperately need better information," he said, adding that, with the start of a new NFL season next weekend, he might not bless pro football with the kind of attention he used to give it in Green Bay.

There, from 1956-71, he led the Packers to a record five league championships and two Super Bowl titles in 16 years. And there, from 1975-83, he coached the Packers for nine years.

"Being the conservative I am, I feel that there are more crucial things to do at this time than (decriminalize drugs)," Starr said, speaking calmly, softly and carefully.

"But I feel that we should all keep an open mind. The problem is so severe that every parent, every church, every organization should be willing and anxious to get all the evidence--to listen to all the information--before making inflexible decisions on (decriminalization) or anything else."

Starr is particularly concerned about young parents today. What does he tell those troubled by drugs?

"I think the greatest form of (parental) leadership is by example," he said.

"There are no guarantees that you won't fail. But your chances are good if the example you set stresses the proper values: good morals, the work ethic, the right perspective on living, continuous, unconditional love."

Those who know the Starrs say that for two decades, they made a home with those values for their two children, Bart Jr. and Bret.

A Green Bay friend, Chuck Lane, said: "Bart, Cherry, Bart Jr., Bret--that was as All-American a group as you could find for a portrait. All of them trim, athletic, caring, handsome."

But indeed, there are no guarantees.

Bart Jr., 31, is a lawyer in Tennessee, married, with two daughters and a bright future--"everything you could ask for in a son," Bart said.

Bret is dead at 24.

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