Q&A w/ George Starke: Super Bowl Winner & Ivy League Baller

June 16th, 2009

George Starke was a true two-sport star. A center on one of Columbia's better basketball teams, Starke also played in football in college, and went on to have a solid 12-year NFL career. CHN's Jon Teitel chats with Starke about his days in the Ivy League and beyond.


Q&A: George Starke, Columbia Class of 1971


Q: What was it like being an African-American student/athlete at Columbia in the late-60s?

A: For college kids back then, if you were not in the top 30% of your class then you risked getting sent to Vietnam.  This made it harder to be at an Ivy League school (it was better to be a B+ student at Florida State than a B student at Columbia), so Columbia decided to abolish class rank.  Columbia was the first Ivy school to recruit black students: there were approximately 30 in my freshman class, after having only 1-2 per class in the past.  It was a big deal back then, but it is kind of silly today.  Ivy League schools are “intellectual islands of light”: I was around a lot of bright people, and I felt I could talk about anything without having to push anything under the rug. 


Q: Why did you choose Columbia over other schools?

A: I played high school football (All-American defensive end) and basketball (won county title) while growing up in New York.  I looked at several big-time schools (Ohio State, Notre Dame, etc.), but I never thought that I would play college football: I was more comfortable as a basketball player or swimmer.  The violence of football did not appeal to me, but I was good at it.  I asked Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian (now in the College Football Hall of Fame) what would happen if I only played for a couple of years, and he said I would have to “give the [scholarship] money back”.  I preferred to go to an Ivy League school where I would not be pressured to play, so I got an academic scholarship to Columbia, played 2 years of football, and majored in physics.  I walked onto the basketball team as a sophomore, and my roommate was Jonathan Schiller (Columbia Hall-of-Famer and co-founder of law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, which has been involved in such major lawsuits as US v. Microsoft and Bush v. Gore). 


Q: Why did you leave Columbia after your freshman year, and what did you do?

A: It was not one of my brighter moments.  Since Columbia did not have an undergraduate architecture major, I left to attend the Institute of Design & Construction in Brooklyn.  The IDC did not have a deferment, so I had to run from Selective Service people for a year, and got back to Columbia before they could draft me. 


Q: After you returned, how did you do as a sophomore?

A: In the fall of 1968 we beat Purdue (featuring Rick Mount, the first high school athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated) in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, and were ranked #2 in the nation behind UCLA (featuring Lew Alcindor).  Mount got all the press, but he had a good team around him, and my teammate Jim McMillian shut him down.  However, Penn (featuring Dave Wohl) and Princeton (featuring Geoff Petrie) were ranked #3 and #4 in the nation, so it was a very competitive conference.  We scored 103 points against Georgetown later that year, but lost to them the following season by 4 points.  I firmly believe that a team of smart guys (both players and coaches) will beat a team of dumb guys every day of the week.  Basketball is a very intellectual game, so a smart guy like Maryland coach Gary Williams has a great advantage.


Q: What differences did you see between Ivy League teams and teams from other conferences?

A: The size of the players was definitely different.  The major key to our team was balance: I was a 6’5” center, McMillian (3-time All-American who later helped the Lakers win the 1972 NBA title) was a 6’5” forward, and Heyward Dotson (2-time 1st-team All-Ivy and Rhodes Scholar) was a 6’5” guard.  We were well-prepared thanks to Coach Jack Rohan (national coach of the year in 1968), and played a big-time schedule against opponents who were bigger than us.  Due to my own size, I could compete on the college level, but I did not feel that I was going to play pro basketball. 


Q: How did you manage to play both basketball and football at Columbia, and which sport did you enjoy more?

A: I am a multi-tasker, and liked both sports, but probably favored basketball more.  I was good at football, but not great.  Despite being the biggest guy on the football team, I decided to play tight end in an attempt to “rig” the system.  I figured that since Columbia was 1 of the worst football teams in the country, a switch from defensive end to tight end would intrigue the NFL scouts (which it did).  I was also the fastest guy on the team: after telling the coach that I could outrun every one of the wide receivers in the 100-yard dash, I went out and did it.  I was 255 pounds, which was very big for a tight end back then, but I was drafted as an offensive tackle due to my athletic ability.  Thanks to playing basketball, I had a lot of lateral mobility on the football field. 


Q: Who were your favorite teammates at Columbia?

A: McMillian (from Brooklyn) was 1 of my close friends.  He later became 1 of the first small forwards in the NBA: big guys who could handle the ball did not really exist prior to the 1970s.  Dotson (from Staten Island) was an odd fellow.  He possessed “athletic arrogance”, so he always thought he was going to win.  However, after he was picked up by the Knicks and said they could not win without him, he was subsequently cut. 


Q: Why did you decide to play in the NFL instead of the NBA, and how did you make the adjustment from tight end to right tackle?

A: I was drafted by the Redskins, who already had All-Pro tight end Jerry Smith.  Hall-of-Fame Coach George Allen asked me if I played any other position besides tight end, and I told him offensive tackle because I had been training at that position.  When I was with the Cowboys in training camp in 1972, there were smart people everywhere: Jean Fugett (Amherst) was trying out as a tight end, and Calvin Hill (Yale) was already on the team as a running back.


Q: How did you go from an 11th round pick to a 9-year starter (as 1 of the “Hogs”) to beating the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII in 1983?

A: Pro football is like the presidency: you can grow into the job, but you cannot prepare for it.  I had natural athletic gifts, but I was also tough, and after incorporating my intellect into the game, I ended up as captain of the Redskins for 5 years.  At the end of the day, it does not matter how you do it, but the key is to win the damn game.  A player who can bring basketball skills to the football field will be great, assuming he is tough enough.  You cannot teach speed or balance, but you can develop those skills: Antonio Gates of the Chargers is a perfect example. 


Q: How did you make the transition to TV, and did your Columbia education come in handy?

A: My Columbia education helped me be able to put a sentence together.  Back then nobody made any money, and the violent nature of the game meant that every day could be your last.  From the first day of training camp, I knew that it was important to have a second career.  So, I would play during the day, and then go into the TV studio to work at night.  There was no such thing as guaranteed money, multi-year deals, pensions, etc., which is why I never got married: how could I support a family with a job that could end at any time?  I later became a Ford dealer and took over for an existing dealer in Emmitsburg, MD, who retired after winning the lottery.  The east coast headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan was about 5 miles south in Rocky Ridge, MD, so that made for an interesting situation.  However, a lot of poor white families in the area would ask me to try to convince their teenage children to stay in high school, so I did my best to help out. 


Q: Why did you found the Excel Institute, and what has it accomplished so far?

A: Excel is a school with a training program that provides $20,000 annual scholarships for vocational training in the field of automotive technology for at-risk youth and adults: everyone is admitted, but if you show up late then you get kicked out.  Historically we have a 50% success rate, which is better than the DC public school system.  I was sick of reading newspaper articles about “10 kids who shot 10 other kids”, and I felt that I needed to do something.  The average automotive service technician makes $100,000/year, but there are not a lot of 2-year technical schools, and the key for car dealerships in this economy is their service department.  If young people stayed in school and then got a job, then they would probably not be shooting each other.