Bart Starr had quite a meal Tuesday morning in Alabama — three pancakes and an omelet with three eggs and cheese.
It was made by his wife Cherry, his bride of 61 years. And it didn’t take him long to eat it.
“He fed himself the entire breakfast,” Cherry Starr said. “It was great.”
It was another small but significant moment for Starr, the legendary former Green Bay Packers quarterback. Before he underwent an experimental stem cell treatment in June, Starr, 81, could barely walk or feed himself. His condition had deteriorated after suffering a heart attack, two strokes and a four seizures in September.
But now he can walk and eat unaided, seemingly sparked back to his feet with the help of this treatment.
“It’s just been really exciting to witness,” Cherry Starr told USA TODAY Sports. “Some of it might have been natural. It might have happened without the stem cells to some degree. But there’s no question that has absolutely helped him, and some of his cognition has improved rather dramatically really. He can do things like tie his shoes. He’s feeding himself. He can read. I could go on and on about a lot of things that we’re witnessing that are really, really exciting to us.”
She said Starr received an infusion of 90 million stem cells in June, when he traveled to the San Diego area for treatment. During the trip, they also met with two other sports heroes who previously received similar treatments: hockey great Gordie Howe, 87, and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback John Brodie, 79.
It was quite a moment — three iconic former athletes disabled by strokes but brought together by their faith in an experimental new medicine that has not yet been approved for widespread use in the U.S.
Brodie and Starr both were NFL MVPs and had competed against each other as recently as 1970, when Brodie led the 49ers over Starr and the Packers 26-10. Starr received his stem cell treatment the same week Howe had returned to the area for a second round of a similar treatment.
“We had a good visit when (Starr) and Gordie were here, and John was chief of enthusiasm,” John’s wife Sue Brodie told USA TODAY Sports. “I think it rubbed off on Bart, as he now has a personal trainer and has had numerous improvements. He realized that he can get better. That is the key also. He is being treated like an athlete and not a patient. Very important for these guys.”
Both Brodie and Howe received stem cell treatments at a clinic in nearby Tijuana, Mexico. Cherry Starr said she agreed not to talk about the companies and location involved in her husband’s treatment until a later time. But she described a treatment pattern similar to Brodie’s and Howe’s.
She said Bart Starr is returning to the San Diego area for more stem cells in September, this time to receive stem cells that are believed to help the brain. Similarly, Brodie and Howe received two separate injections of two different types of stem cells — mesenchymal stem cells derived from the bone marrow of an adult donor, and neural stem cells, derived from a single donated fetus. Those stem cells were manufactured by Stemedica, a company in San Diego, which didn’t return a message seeking comment about Starr.
Such a two-cell treatment is not yet available in U.S. clinical trials, but a spokesman for Stemedica previously told USA TODAY Sports that the company soon would apply to begin one in the U.S. In the meantime, its products have been tested in foreign clinical trials, including at a licensed clinic in Tijuana, where it’s less expensive to conduct.
“I think people have a strong and legitimate interest in what’s happening with stem cells, and I’ll be glad when this country will permit stem cells for the brain,” Cherry Starr said. “You shouldn’t be forced to go out of the country to receive this help.”
Experts caution that this is unproven medicine and that natural healing and physical therapy also can cause improved conditions. That’s why it’s being tested in clinical trials — to determine if it’s safe and effective. Experts also generally caution against getting unproven medicine in foreign countries because they don't have the same safety and efficacy standards as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
"It is understandable that patients and families facing major health issues such as strokes are looking for hope from stem cells, and I wish them the best," said Paul Knoepfler, a biomedical scientist and associate professor at the University of California, Davis. "At the same time, there is little if any evidence that these kinds of non-FDA approved treatments actually work and are safe."
On the other hand, some families just don’t feel like they have other options after a loved one suffers a debilitating stroke.
“Honestly this (condition) is the just the most undignified thing that can happen to a person,” Cherry Starr said. “It totally robs a man or a lady of their dignity.”
Cherry Starr said her husband wasn’t expected to live much longer after suffering his strokes, a sequence that started with a rare complaint of a headache. About three weeks after returning from San Diego in June, she said they started noticing significant improvements.
“This last week, he’s been walking all by himself,” she said. “It’s been pretty amazing.”
Starr spoke briefly in a video that aired in Green Bay Saturday honoring Brett Favre, another legendary quarterback who was joining him in the Packers Hall of Fame.
“Four weeks ago, he could not have done this,” Cherry Starr said. “He was able to read the teleprompter, and that was just amazing to me.”
His son, Bart Jr., spoke at the ceremony and said his father “had begun turning the corner in a significant way.”
Cherry Starr declined to say what the procedure cost. “It is an expensive procedure — that I will say,” she said. “And I’ll be glad when it’s more affordable for more people.”
She said the family has hired a therapist to work with him and is anxious for their upcoming return to the San Diego area. The two are high school sweethearts from Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, Ala.
“I just want a better quality of life for him, and I’ll do anything to make that happen,” she said.
Follow sports reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
VIDEO: JOHN BRODIE'S ROAD TO RECOVERY
A stroke left him struggling to walk, but the former NFL quarterback has improved after stem cell treatments in Moscow, Kazakhstan and Mexico, plus regular workouts.