Dougherty: Starr family eyes Lambeau visit

Pete Dougherty
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Bart Starr and his great-grandson Bryan Jackson celebrate Starr's 83rd birthday in early January 2017.

Bart Starr didn’t make it to Lambeau Field this season, but his family is hoping he might visit Green Bay for a game early in the 2017 season.

The former Green Bay Packers great last appeared at Lambeau on Thanksgiving Day in 2015 for the ceremony to unveil Brett Favre’s retired No. 4 on the stadium’s north façade.

That was a few weeks after he’d undergone an experimental stem-cell procedure to aid his recovery from a heart attack, and multiple strokes and seizures suffered in late 2014.

Starr had a second round of the treatments late last summer, after enduring months of difficulties because of frequent bacterial infections. His health has been stable since November, and his family is hopeful he’ll be well enough attend a game at Lambeau in September or October of ’17.

“He got so much benefit out of being there in Green Bay,” said Bart Starr Jr. on Tuesday, “seeing some friends, making some new friends, just feeling the excitement of Brett Favre’s weekend. Spending time with Brett and Aaron (Rodgers) before the game, did the photos and everything.

“Just being around the Packers and in the city they called home for more than three decades. All that was to his benefit. Those were just a few of the reasons we’d love to get him back.”

Experts emphasize that it’s far too early to say with any scientific certainty whether stem-cell treatments help stroke victims such as Starr, and if so, to what degree. Doctors are in the early stages of studying stem-cell treatments on human subjects, and until there is more extensive data, there’s no way to know whether perceived improvement in patients is because of the stem cells or from natural healing and physical therapy.

The company that produces the cells for Starr’s treatment, Stemedica, began clinical trials in the United States last year as part of the regulatory process for proving that the treatment is safe and effective. The trials are cheaper for companies to conduct in Mexico, and people such as Starr, former NFL quarterback John Brodie and former hockey great Gordie Howe have taken part in those trials.

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The family is inclined to think the treatments have helped Starr, who turned 83 on Jan. 9. After his first round of treatment in ’15, they perceived improvement in his ability to walk on his own within the first day after the treatment, and gradual growth in his energy and stamina over the first month.

Starr suffered a major setback, though, when he broke his hip in a fall in late 2015, about a month after his appearance at Lambeau. That started a cascade of infections that he had difficulty getting over. But after the treatment, Bart Jr. said, the infections subsided.

“You and I aren’t medical individuals,” Starr Jr. said, “but if you look at the history of how long it would typically take him to recover from any sort of setback, and you look at how quickly he recovered from that setback following his stem-cell treatment, the overwhelming evidence is it had a positive effect.”

The plan is to assess Starr’s health later in the spring and then call the doctors again to see if a third round of treatments is worth a try. Doctors have told Starr Jr. said that the evidence suggests there’s a decreasing margin of returns with each treatment and that they’re in the process of learning how many rounds are worth trying.

“They’ve been honorable and candid at every step along the way,” Starr Jr. said. “I’d be very open to considering (a third round) for him.”

Starr attends rehabilitation sessions three days a week – they consist of activities such as pedaling a stationary bike, and throwing and catching light balls at short distances. When he returned to Green Bay in November 2015 he was able to walk on his own but then sustained the broken hip that led to the infections.

Now he can walk on his own only very tentatively with the aid of a cane.

“That’s better than where he was,” Starr Jr. said.

The Starrs would like Bart’s stamina and walking to improve incrementally before making plans to attend a game. The Packers have assorted alumni watch each home game together from a luxury box – at some point in the game, the former players are shown on the stadium video boards – and that’s where he would sit if he can make it to a game.

Starr Jr. will attend a banquet at the Super Bowl in Houston late this week to present the Bart Starr Award, which honors an NFL player for his character and leadership on and off the field. This year’s winner is Matthew Slater, a standout special-teams player for the New England Patriots. Slater’s father, Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater, won the award in 1996.

Starr Jr. will return to Birmingham, Ala., the night before the Super Bowl, and then Sunday watch the game with his father and mother, Cherry, along with other family and friends.

“Given dad’s age and given all he’s been through, we could be having a discussion right now about how he was struggling with another issue that had come up,” Bart Jr. said. “That’s not the case. It’s important to recognize victories in the context of where someone stands in his or her life. Holding still right now, I definitely consider that a victory.”

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