GREEN BAY - When Matt LaFleur was named head coach of the Green Bay Packers in January, Francis Bailey was the first to stop by the home of his parents, Denny and Kristi LaFleur, to give them a “Go Pack Go” flag for their yard in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.
The LaFleurs were already representing the Tennessee Titans, where Matt was the offensive coordinator, and the San Francisco 49ers, where their younger son, Mike, is the passing game coordinator. Bailey didn’t want them to have to wait to show off their newfound Packers joy.
He has more than enough green and gold to spare — so much so he knows it’s probably not a bad thing Lake Michigan stands between him and Green Bay, or at least the Packers Pro Shop.
“I don’t know if I could live here,” he said Monday from his room at the Mariner Motel in Allouez, a light-up Packers hat on the table and his Bart Starr jersey on a hanger. “I wouldn’t have any money left. I’d be buying Packers stuff all the time.”
Bailey has been a proud Packers fan for 54 years, ever since he was a 6-year-old who claimed Starr as his hero. He was born in New Jersey but lived all over the country as a kid whose dad was a metallurgist. For the last 40 or more years, he’s been cheering the team on from Michigan, where he owns Bailey’s Old Skool Boxing Club in Matt LaFleur’s hometown and lives in nearby Alma.
At least once a year, he makes the 7½-hour drive to Green Bay to catch a game at Lambeau Field, usually for the Lions vs. Packers. He loves everything about Lambeau, from the sea of tailgaters nestled among the rows of houses in the surrounding neighborhood to the tremendous spread of food to the metal bleachers.
“It doesn’t have the cushy seats. It’s got high school seats. It’s not a Jerry Jones-run organization,” he said. “This isn’t a conglomerate that’s owned by one person or a corporation. This is owned by people like you and I that care about the team.”
When he took the official Lambeau tour, he was that guy who yelled “Go Pack Go” from the field and took child-like delight in hearing it echo back at him.
“That was a dream come true,” he said. “To see a team I’ve rooted for for 50-some years, and to have the hands-on experience, to be able to say I saw that, that memory is something that no one can take away from me. That’s part of the reason why I come to a community-owned professional team. Community. Community. And they have faith in it, and it’s been going on a long time.”
Bailey soaked all those things in on Monday night, but with fresh eyes and a different perspective, because the thrilling Packers victory over the Lions in the last seconds of the game will be his last at Lambeau.
The former boxer has been throwing his best punches at cancer for two years, ever since an egg-size lump was discovered in his neck. He’s done radiation and chemotherapy, putting on 1,300 miles a week driving back and forth from Mount Pleasant to the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, five days a week for 7½ weeks. He did it alone so his wife, Dawn, wouldn’t have to miss work. He had hoped they could cut the cancer out, but it wrapped itself around his carotid artery. Continued radiation will weaken the artery and jugular vein.
Doctors have told him his cancer is terminal.
“It’s just a matter of time before it gets me,” Bailey said. “It sucks when they tell you they can’t do anything more for you. In reality, you think you’ve got it bad, but there’s always somebody worse. So to feel sorry for me, I don’t. I feel sorry for the people that are going through worse than I am.”
This isn’t Bailey’s first fight for his life.
He cheated death two years and four months ago when he hit a deer while driving his 2008 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic near his home. He escaped injury, but as people from his church stopped to help and direct traffic, Bailey was hit by a Jeep at 60 mph. The vehicle ran over his legs and spun him around. His head hit the bumper, the scar still visible.
He suffered a brain injury and was given four days to live.
“I’m tough, so I made it,” he said. “I’m not supposed to have a left leg, but the bone doctor did a good job. They had to put cadaver bones in.”
He walks with the aid of a walker and goes to physical therapy three times a week for his legs. He's alive, he says, because of the care of Dawn and because his father was plenty hard on him as a kid — something he didn’t always appreciate back then — “but it toughened me up, and it allowed me to get this far, and I wasn’t supposed to.”
He’s not interested in getting a free pass at therapy. He’s there to get better, so he challenges his Detroit Lions-loving physical therapist to give him all he’s got. There’s no better way to ensure that happens than to strategically slip in a hushed “Go Pack Go” as the therapist is bending his leg.
“I wear my Packers stuff all the time. He just shakes his head."
It was only two months after the accident that he learned he had cancer — far more than one person should have to bear, except that’s not how Bailey looks at it. That’s glass half empty. He’s a glass-half-full man. How you approach life, no matter how rosy or how heavy the burden, is a mindset, Bailey said, and he got his from watching the Packers for a half-century, through Super Bowl highs and 4-12 season lows.
“I never smoked, but I got cancer. I got it here,” he says, pointing to the right side of his neck where the swelling is slightly noticeable. “It is what it is. You just live with it. It’s the same thing with the Packers. You hope they’re going to win today, but if they don’t, we’re just going to go on to the next game. It’s the same thing with cancer. I made it through today. We’ll see how tomorrow goes, and that’s the way you’ve got to look at it.”
Bailey hasn’t told the kids yet at his USA Boxing-registered gym, where he works with troubled youths, sometimes from broken families or those struggling in school.
He has two simple rules there. Everybody must get C’s or better. Absolutely no fighting. He’s never had a problem with either.
There's a sense of pride when he talks about one young man who has gone on to be the long snapper at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and another on the dean’s list at the University of Michigan.
You can tell Bailey how strong and inspiring he is, but he’ll give you the ol' bob and weave.
“If you write anything, cancer’s cancer, but kids go through a lot, so if there’s any inspiration behind it, help kids out,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
He and Dawn have been married for five months. He surprised her in Vegas. She’s a Michigan native and “a Lions fan, more or less,” Bailey said.
“I remember the first time he and I met. He told me he was a Packers fan, and I looked at him kind of funny. He said, ‘I hope that’s not a deal breaker,’” Dawn said. “He’s kind of converted me.”
Bailey hasn’t asked his radiologist or oncologist how much time he has left. He doesn’t want to know. He thinks he has a pretty good idea. He suspects that as the cancer grows it will cut off his carotid artery or jugular vein, and that’s what will ultimately get him.
It meant a lot to him that the “Monday Night Football” game was the annual Packers vs. Cancer game to raise awareness of the disease and money for the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation. U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edward Schrank, a six-time head and neck cancer survivor, sang the national anthem. Standing on the Lions sidelines was special teams coordinator John Bonamego, the former Central Michigan University football coach who survived cancer on his tonsil. He and Bailey shared an oncologist in Ann Arbor.
The Baileys’ trip to Lambeau was planned before he got the terminal cancer diagnosis a couple of weeks ago. It was never a question of whether he’d still be in the stands on Monday.
“I would’ve come in an ambulance,” he said. “This is probably my last one. I’m hoping to be able to go to the one in Detroit, the last game of the season (against the Packers on Dec. 29). That would be nice.”
He turned 60 on Sept. 7, a milestone Bailey randomly set for himself when he was 12. He just wanted to make it to 60.
“That’s the magic number, so anything after that is a good day,” he said. “I’ll take each day as it comes, hope for the best, and when my time is here, God warned me. He’ll get me.”
Contact Kendra Meinert at 920-431-8347 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KendraMeinert.