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You heard it here first: George Starke is going to be mayor of Washington, D.C. OK, so maybe the 47-year-old Starke hasn’t ever even whispered that he aspires to one day hold Marion Barry’s job. But early in the second quarter of the Redskins’ loss to the Arizona Cardinals a few weeks ago, the ex-jock, brewer, reggae producer, and restaurateur finally conceded that his destiny is to sit atop his adopted city’s bureaucracy.
“Yeah, I’ll run for mayor,” he said, as he watched the game from the bar of his homey Bethesda eatery, George Starke’s Head Hog BBQ. “But not right now.”
The plain truth is, everything about the brainy, brawny, and damn handsome former Redskin offensive tackle’srésumé screams he’s the right man for the job. Why shouldn’t the Head Hog be D.C.’s top dog?
The name recognition Starke garnered during 14 mostly glorious seasons of pushing people out of the way should provide a solid political base. But in spite of the fact that he was one of the anchors of the storied Hogs, Starke truly distinguished himself by his behavior off the field.
As an All-American schoolboy athlete from tony Westchester County, N.Y., Starke rejected strings-attached athletic scholarship offers from football factories in favor of an Ivy League education. “Schools like Notre Dame and Ohio State would fly me out on recruiting trips, and I always went through the same routine: The best looking girls I’ve ever seen would pick me up at the airport driving the head coach’s big car, and they’d be given strict instructions to do whatever it took to get me to sign with their school,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, that was great for a young guy.
“But the problem was, I didn’t think of myself as a football player; in my head, I was a science guy. And I told the Notre Dame coach that I didn’t want to play football for him every year, and asked if that would be OK. He got mad, and I’ll never forget what he said: “You’ll play every year, or you’ll have to give all the money back!’ I knew right then I wasn’t going to put up with that bull.”
Starke decided to limit his recruiting visits to schools in the Ivy League thereafter. He eventually accepted a free ride—based on his academic record—from Columbia University, and went on to star in football, basketball, and the classroom there. Very few individuals in the history of the Columbia football program have made the big leap to the NFL, but something about Starke’s versatility found favor with Redskins Coach George Allen, who signed the physics (not phys-ed!) major in 1972 for a first-year salary of $15,500.
Starke showed his commitment to this city while the ink was still drying on that contract. Allen had just built the original Redskin Park near Dulles Airport when Starke joined the team. The devastating riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s slaying inspired a massive exodus from downtown D.C., and the football team followed the trend. But instead of joining every single one of his fellow Skins in the Virginia ‘burbs, Starke took a room on this side of the river. And he’s never left.
“I always knew I wanted to live in D.C.,” he says. “I’m black, and this was a city with a majority black population, and I always viewed living in the nation’s capital as a great opportunity. I didn’t want to live in the boonies, either.”
Starke’s D.C. roots continued to grow deeper. He built a home in Mount Pleasant that oozed ’70s bachelorhood: mirrors everywhere (including some two-way glass in a john adjoining the master bedroom), massive indoor and outdoor oak hot tubs, and a decorating scheme that wouldn’t have been out of place on Love, American Style. Starke was romantically linked with some of D.C.’s most well-heeled socialites and he was frequently sighted in the midst of nocturnal rambles throughout the city. A sandwich bearing his name found its way onto the menu at the Childe Harold (turkey, bacon, and cheese on a croissant with Russian dressing on the side). But the bond between Washington proper and Redskins players (other than on game day, that is) had gone feeble by the time Starke hung up his cleats. Now, it’s on life support.
“You won’t ever see a Redskin go out downtown anymore,” Starke says, with discernible disdain. “Never. Ever. And that’s really sad. I played with guys who knew how to play and have fun on and off the field. Today’s players are boring. They’re processed cheese food.”
And then there were the Hogs. Before the porcine nomenclature took hold, Starke was best known for that favored mantra of all NFL referees who called games at RFK: “Holding, Number 74.” (“I probably do have the record for holding penalties,” he confesses.) But in 1981, the Skins offensive line Coach Joe Bugel began using that barnyard term to describe his charges: Starke, Mark May, Russ Grimm, Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby, and Fred Dean. At that time, they made up the largest offensive line in NFL history and, eventually, the most successful: The 1983 Redskins set a record for points scored in a season that still stands.
“Forget Montana-to-Rice or Dan Marino or any great quarterback throwing to a great receiver,” Starke says, only momentarily sounding like the ex-footballer that he is. “The highest scoring team in the history of the NFL got the job done by running right over people. We changed the game, and we did it by doing nothing fancy. We had one running play. Really, that’s it: John Riggins would run that play either to the right or to the left. End of story. It was great to be appreciated for what we did.”
The general public and NFL general managers haven’t treated offensive linemen the same way since. Starke thanks John Madden (whom he describes as “the first TV commentator who ever understood the importance of offensive linemen”) for enhancing the Hogs’ celebrity to an exploitable level. While his linemates were content to count their newfound eminence as reward enough, Starke went out and trademarked the name “Hogs.” He then personally strong-armed local retailers into discontinuing sale of bootlegged Hogs paraphernalia in favor of articles licensed by the corporation he formed, Super Hogs. Starke dubbed himself Head Hog, and began marketing a variety of wares, including garments, posters and even beer, using the moniker. The barbecue joint he opened with partner Joe McKay last year is the latest business venture to take fiscal advantage of the goodwill the Hogs earned yard by muddy yard.
The restaurant’s address in Bethesda, not Washington—even though it’s within a good walk of the District line—is obviously a sore point for Starke. When asked if the site selection was in any way an indication that his devotion to D.C. had wavered, Starke emphatically denies it, and promises: “I’ll be in D.C. with two of these [restaurants] within a year.”
Starke says that he’s got more than vanity invested in the Bethesda restaurant. “This isn’t one of those Petitbon deals where I just sell my name and have nothing to do with the place. I’m involved here,” he proclaims. (Anybody who saw him sweeping the floor of the eatery during the dinner hour a few Sundays ago can second that proclamation.)
But most of Starke’s workdays are spent serving a much higher purpose. He has launched an ambitious attempt to revitalize the now-moribund vocational education programs in the city’s public high schools. He serves as an unofficial—and unpaid—procurer of equipment for the D.C. government, and has used guile and elbow grease to convince multinational corporations to donate products and training time to the schools. Because the city’s coffers are empty, the only carrot Starke can offer is a promise of preferential treatment in future D.C. contract awards. That was enough for Minolta, which recently contributed $2.5 million worth of copy equipment to the school system as the result of Starke’s beseeching. Earlier this year, he also convinced the Japanese conglomerate to start up a boot-camplike apprentice program for a handful of then-unemployed D.C. high-school graduates. In September, that program produced its first five accredited Minolta copier repairmen. Twenty more kids are currently getting the same training.
“That’s about preparing kids to work, and getting them jobs,” Starke says, getting emotional as he reflects upon the positive fallout of his do-gooding. “That’s really all D.C. needs.”
Well, that, a few new barbecue joints, and a mayor named George Starke.