About Bart Starr, Charles Russell Fleming and Other Connections


We were sitting at a table in Ham’s Restaurant this past Sunday afternoon when the sad news scrolled across the bottom of the Carolina baseball game on ESPN.

“Oh, man,” Rodney said after a sip of tea. “Bart Starr died.”

“Really?” I said, putting down my sandwich and turning to look at the screen. It was true, even though our heroes aren’t supposed to die.

The waitress came about then to refill our water glasses, bringing our reminiscence to an abrupt end. At that point, the restaurant’s pledge of “Food – Sports – Spirits – Fun” was only three-quarters true at best.

I’m not sure that either Timberley or Joyce could have guessed right then why an old football player’s death had drawn their husbands’ interest away from their lunch plates. We were there for a quick meal before attending that afternoon’s Hickory Crawdads game against the Greensboro Grasshoppers. It was the first time this season we’d had a chance to get together like that—something we used to do maybe once a month, ironically, back before Timberley and I retired.

I’m also not exactly sure what Bart Starr had meant to Rodney back in the 1960s when the Green Bay Packers quarterback was winning NFL and Super Bowl championships for coach Vince Lombardi. I think Rodney is a New Orleans Saints fan now. During football season, I live and die with our Carolina Panthers, though the Packers were my first favorite NFL team and Starr my first favorite football player for one reason: he led the best team of that era, like New England Patriots QB Tom Brady today.

I take that back—not that Bart Starr was like Tom Brady, but that there were actually two reasons I had liked him. The other reason was because Bart Starr had taught me how to throw a football back when I was a fourth-grader in the Ford/NFL Punt, Pass & Kick competition at the N.C. School for the Deaf field in Morganton. I’d never heard of the event until my father saw a newspaper ad a couple of weeks earlier and took me downtown to Giles Motors to sign up. Then we walked next door to the Goodyear Tire Store, and he bought me a regulation-sized leather football and tee.

No, I never met Bart Starr. But I did meet local Ford dealer Buddy Giles, who had shaken my grubby little hand as if I might someday buy a Ford and had given me an official PP&K booklet featuring tips from Atlanta Falcons punter Bobby Loughridge, Starr and St. Louis Cardinals kicker Jim Bakken on how to punt, pass and kick for distance and accuracy. On that humid Saturday morning on the NCSD gridiron, that’s how all of us 8- to 13-year-olds competed for trophies, with one punt, one pass and one kick apiece, no do-overs. The trophies were gold, silver and bronze. And I wanted one.

But back to our lunch Sunday at Ham’s with Rodney and Joyce before the Crawdads game . . .

A day earlier, on Saturday afternoon, Timberley and I had attended the funeral of Morganton native Charles Russell Fleming, who had died May 13th of acute mountain sickness while on a ski trip to Utah and Colorado. Russell, who lived in Washington, D.C., was one of Timberley’s Freedom High School classmates with whom she had reconnected on Facebook. I didn’t really know Russell other than hearing Timberley talk about him. My mother was an English teacher at Freedom High when Timberley and Russell were there, but I’m guessing that he wasn’t one of Mom’s students. I feel sure that if he had been, I would have heard his name at least once or twice at home. That’s based on all the amusing, yet ultimately inspirational stories I heard during Saturday’s “celebration of life.”

What an inspired life it was—and what a celebration, what a bittersweet gathering of Russell’s family and friends from all the times and places along his 60 years of joyful living, from his small-town beginnings in Morganton to his college and business connections in Raleigh, Greensboro, Asheville, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, and to his ski friends and students—he was a certified professional ski instructor—at Liberty Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania and Killington Ski Area in Vermont.

I learned something at Russell’s funeral Saturday other than what an extraordinary man he had been. I’d already heard about our fallen friend’s individuality and his carefree pursuit of his passions, whether in or out of school, in the small town or the big city, on or off the ski slope, but I learned that success in life isn’t always measured by achievement or wealth or influence. Sometimes it’s measured simply by the positive connections one makes and maintains with others, whatever their walks in life.

And maybe that should be the only standard of success—whether or not a person loves his neighbors in this world as he loves himself.

Jumping ahead in time again, when Timberley and I got home from lunch at Ham’s and the Crawdads game Sunday afternoon, I got out my grade-school scrapbook and found the newspaper clipping of my first Punt, Pass & Kick competition—the one Bart Starr had helped me win. I saw that another Charles Fleming—an older boy, not the younger Russell—had won the 12-year-old age group that year. How odd would that have been, I thought, if I’d had a personal connection with Russell after all.

Then I went upstairs to my study and looked at that gold trophy gathering dust on a bookshelf with five other PP&K trophies that I and my little brother won from 1968-76. I have all six trophies now because I, not Bart Starr or any other NFL star, had taught my brother to punt, pass and kick well enough to win two first places and a third, and because he died of cancer in 1977. His achievements meant more to me than my own, because I had helped him succeed at a pursuit he was passionate about.

But now, for me, is that connection positive or negative? Or is it both?

Connections are everywhere in our lives. We can’t avoid them. But like “Food – Sports – Spirits – Fun” at Ham’s, we might not be aware of them until we pay the check and walk out the door.