Bart Starr is back on course to make it to Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving night.
“If it were tomorrow, he’d be there,” Starr's wife, Cherry, said Monday.
That’s a big statement, because early last month the odds didn’t look good for Starr’s historic return to Green Bay. The 81-year-old Packers icon is scheduled to appear with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers at the unveiling of Favre’s retired No. 4 on the Lambeau bowl façade at halftime of the team’s game against the Chicago Bears in what, if Starr can attend, promises to be one of the most electric moments in franchise history.
In early September, Starr’s chances of appearing at the ceremony sustained a major setback. About a year after the heart attack and multiple strokes that had debilitated him, Starr suffered a life-threatening lung infection. Although he was able to leave the hospital after four days, the illness undid much of the progress he’d made since his first round of an experimental stem cell treatment in June.
But after his return home, Starr embarked on a rehabilitation program that in the last several weeks has him back to nearly the same condition as before the infection. He’s scheduled for his second stem-cell treatment in about 10 days, and barring another setback, everything’s a go for the Thanksgiving celebration.
“We feel great about it happening, better than ever,” Cherry Starr said in a phone interview conducted from the gym where her husband worked with his trainer as part of his three-workout-a-week rehabilitation program. “He’s having such a good day today.”
Starr’s appearance at Lambeau, at Favre’s request, has proved to be an important motivator in his recovery. Although he has significant cognitive and motor impairment from the September 2014 heart attack and strokes, he seems to understand that he’ll be going to Green Bay for an important occasion concerning the Packers and Favre.
“He bounced back from that (lung infection) a little better than I feared he might,” said Starr’s son, Bart Jr. “When that happened, my heart sank. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve come all this way, and are you kidding me?’
“He came home, and the positive talk we’ve given him about the Packers organization, the Packers’ fans, the players, the staff and Brett Favre, just keep reinforcing that. I don’t know how much he fully grasps about his career, he has suffered some memory issues. But I think he understands why we’re enthusiastic and why he should be enthusiastic about getting up there.”
Starr still can’t get up or walk without assistance, though he can get into a car on his own. He can’t engage in full conversation, but he can speak. For the ceremony he’ll be driven to the field on a cart.
The Starrs also are hopeful he might improve after his second set of stem-cell treatments. They will travel to San Diego and then an undisclosed location outside the country for the experimental procedure. Cherry Starr said the company conducting the trials has asked her not to name it publicly or identify where they’re going for the treatment.
According to a USA TODAY story in July, Starr is believed to be on a protocol similar to that of former NFL quarterback John Brodie and hockey great Gordie Howe. They received two infusions of stem cells, one of mesenchymal stem cells derived from the bone marrow of an adult donor, and another of neural stem cells derived from embryonic stem cells. Starr's treatment was scheduled for about three weeks before the ceremony, which is enough time for it to take effect.
“The way I look at it, it’s a very low risk and possibly a decent reward opportunity,” Bart Jr. said. “Will it be a little benefit? Even a little benefit will be really welcome. Momentum counts in everything, and if he’s just even a touch better as a result of it, then that’s great. We’re not counting on it, but we’re hopeful.”
The family's greatest challenge for the ceremony will be ensuring that Starr is as fresh and energetic as possible. He goes to bed about 7 p.m., but the game starts at 7:30 p.m., and the halftime ceremony won’t be until about 9 p.m.
So as the game draws nearer the family will try to adjust Starr's internal clock. Bart Jr., along with Starr's administrative assistant, Leigh Ann Nelson, and a close family friend who has been helping to care for Starr, Brady James, will be among those assisting Cherry on the trip.
“He seems when he gets closer to a specific event to sort of rise to the occasion and kind of grasp it,” Bart Jr. said. “If I spoke to him about it today I think he might generally have a handle on it. But as you get to the day of the event I suspect it will start hitting him why he’s there, why all the people are there, why it’s so important for Brett to have him there.”
Said Cherry: “I think when he gets (in the stadium), he’ll know.”
So barring a serious setback, the family is determined that Starr will make the trip to Green Bay. The poignancy of the moment resonates with them deeply: Starr, Favre and Rodgers, the three quarterbacks who led the team to Super Bowl wins, together in Lambeau Field.
It will be a huge moment for Packers fans, a national TV audience and for the families involved, most especially the Starrs.
“This will probably be our last trip to Green Bay,” Cherry Starr said.