I think it’s safe to assume everyone watching this past weekend’s celebration at Lambeau Field was surprised when Bart and Cherry Starr appeared on screen to congratulate Brett Favre as joined Packer greats in Green Bay’s Hall of Fame. For me, that was the most emotional part of the weekend. Starr is the elder statesman of the organization, and a stroke would not keep him away from a celebration of this magnitude.
Yet the Starr we saw on television was not the Bart Starr we are accustomed to. He wasn’t the same legend we have seen emerge from the Packers’ tunnel to the roar of the crowd welcoming home its favorite son. Time has caught up with him, and he looked frail, like an elderly parent or grandparent we pray can live forever. There’s no question there are still lingering effects of his heart attack and two strokes that he suffered last October. His message was brief, and he sat in a chair, unspoken proof that he has not yet recovered. While he offered his congratulations, his voice sounded thin, and his wife Cherry did most of the talking. His stroke had affected his ability to talk, and I can’t help but wonder if he has not yet fully regained this ability as well. Painful reminders that no one–kings and queens, heroes and legends, and even football players–are not immune to wear and tear of the human condition.
Let’s be honest, it pains fans of all generations to see absolute face of the franchise for decades to enter the final chapters of his life. For my father’s generation, they still see him as the robust quarterback that was the best in the land, the most valuable player that led his team to two Super Bowl victories and placed the Green Bay Packers on top of the world. For my generation, he was the coach of the team our parents loved and an icon of a bygone era of greatness when the team wallowed in mediocrity.
For my children’s generation, he is the elder statesman that embodies everything that it means to be a Packer. Starr bridges the generations and has been a part of the Green Bay tradition for fifty years.
That’s why seeing his physical frailties is so painful for so many. He wasn’t just a Green Bay Packer. He is the Green Bay Packers. His legacy has not just been his time on the field as a player, coach or general manager. He has been an ambassador for the team he loves so much. His victories are celebrated and his shortcomings as coach and general manager have been forgiven. He has been a father figure and role model for both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers–iconic quarterbacks as well. He has guided both along the way and has present to encourage and congratulate each of them. That said, it is not surprising that Starr wanted to be a part of the magic this past Saturday.
Not to take away from Favre’s weekend, but Starr’s surprise appearance this past weekend was absolutely wonderful, and his son has stated that his father wants to be there at midfield to hug and welcome Brett Favre home this coming Thanksgiving when Favre’s number is officially retired. And if health issues and the sands of time don’t catch up with him, Starr will likely be there in Canton to welcome Favre into that fraternity as well (and hopefully will live well into his nineties to welcome Rodgers to the club, too.)
News had sounded grim last winter as word of Starr’s health was parsed out in small amounts. His speech and strength had been stolen from him. He spent three months in the hospital and didn’t walk until December of last year. But just like he was a fighter on the gridiron, Bart Starr has not backed down with this fight. Soon he will be undergoing a second experimental stem cell treatment just over the border in Tijuana, Mexico. It’s a therapy not yet approved by the FDA, but Starr appears to be following Detroit hockey great Gordy Howe. Thus far the FDA has only approved the use of stem cells derived from bone marrow or cord blood for therapies in the United States. Starr will be receiving not only bone marrow stem cells to hopefully improve circulation to his brain, but he will also be receiving neural stem cells (ie, the cells that go on to form nerve tissue) to hopefully heal the brain itself. The treatments are while unproven offer hope at a chance of a greater recovery.
Stroke recovery is often measured in single footsteps and words that one did not have the day before. It is often a a road that is long and arduous. Bart Starr is making it his goal to be at that Thanksgiving Game. With that determination, he underscores why he remains the greatest quarterback to ever suit up in a Packers uniform. While this challenge to return to Lambeau may seem huge, he has already come a long way in his recovery. This road to recovery is likely the greatest challenge of his life, more difficult than any quest for a Super Bowl ring. but I have a feeling nothing is going to keep him away. And when he does, the applause will echo that of this past Saturday’s festivities and will match the noise when the Lombardi Trophy has been carried aloft for fans to see. Both men that look to him as a mentor and a roll model–Favre and Rodgers alike–will welcome him back.
It may be Brett Favre’s ceremony that day, but the elder statesman will be home, and Packers fans around the globe will be celebrating that homecoming as well.--------------