Saturday, December 19, 2015
For Bart Starr, the fight goes on after Thanksgiving's 'magical moment'
December 15, 2015 A week or so ago, Bart and Cherry Starr were turning in for the night when Bart turned to his wife of more than 60 years and said, "Honey, do you have the front door locked?"
It was a question he once asked out of habit. But his wife hadn't heard those words in 18 months.
Recovery continues in small steps. A spark of recognition here, a task performed without assistance there. Starr, the five-time NFL champion quarterback for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, is fighting with his winner's heart.
For months, he prepared for his Nov. 26 halftime appearance at Lambeau Field as if he was going through two-a-days under Vince Lombardi. Rehabbing from a heart attack, two strokes and a series of seizures and supported by his family and a team of doctors and therapists, Starr made enough progress to fly to Green Bay for what Cherry called "a magical moment."
Carted to midfield at halftime of the Packers-Bears game, Starr hugged Brett Favre, who had tears in his eyes, and beamed from ear to ear as Favre's name and retired number were unveiled on the stadium façade.
"Oh my goodness, it was just a magical moment; that's the best way I could put it," Cherry said. "We weren't sure it would ever happen. It took a lot of effort and a lot of sacrifice on a lot of people's parts. He definitely was ready. I'm so glad we went through what we did with a lot of help and a lot of support.
"It definitely was the most special moment that I've experienced with him in a long, long time. I could tell how much he was enjoying himself and just responding to all the people cheering for him."
It was an emotional reunion for the Starrs, for Favre and for Packers fans. One more indelible memory for a franchise built on them. But when it was over, Bart and Cherry returned to Birmingham, Ala., and resumed their daily routine of rehab and therapy without the adoration of 80,000 fans washing over them.
It's hard work. It's exhausting not only for Bart, but for Cherry. Zeke Bratkowski, Starr's best friend and his former backup quarterback and assistant coach, visits regularly and is worried about her.
"She's Cherry Starr," Bratkowski said of the woman known for her warmth, charm and impeccable manners — the quintessential Southern belle. "She takes care of everything and everybody. But she is worn out."
Cherry laughed softly when Bratkowski's comments were relayed to her.
"Zeke doesn't have to worry about me," she said. "I'm thankful that I'm healthy enough to do the things I do for Bart and the guests we have."
They're a team, Bart and Cherry. They've experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. They've lived remarkable, philanthropic lives. And Bart's recovery is a battle they're fighting together.
"He still has lots of issues and I don't know that Bart will ever be the same man that he was," Cherry said. "But he's still Bart."
Starr, who will turn 82 on Jan. 9, started showing signs of advancing age five years ago, Cherry said, when he was diagnosed with short-term memory loss. She took over the driving duties after her husband got lost a couple times. But physically, he was in excellent shape for a man his age.
That's probably what helped him survive those traumatic few days in early September 2014 when he suffered a stroke, then a heart attack, a second stroke and a series of seizures.
"He's so gentle and kind and sweet, but he's tough as he can be inside," Cherry said. "He had to be for 16 years (in the NFL). He's just a fighter. He has defied all odds. An 80-year-old man almost never survives that much trauma. But he fooled everybody."
Starr was hospitalized for 2½ months and lost 20 pounds. When he came home, he couldn't even sit up in bed unassisted.
Progress was slow but steady. He improved enough to travel to Tijuana, Mexico, for a stem cell treatment. But then a bronchial infection left him, once again, in grave condition. His temperature flared and Cherry called 911. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, his heart rate spiked at 200 beats per minute.
"At the hospital they told me, 'Cherry, it is amazing. A man his age will almost never survive a heart rate of 200,'" she said. "It just shows you how tough he is."
The Starrs recently returned to Tijuana for a second stem cell treatment, and Cherry said there were signs that it was working.
"Just in the last two weeks it's like a switch has been turned on," she said. "His cognition has improved dramatically."
Starr is walking independently and reminding his wife to lock the door at night. When Bratkowski visited a couple weeks ago, Starr greeted him with, "Well, hi there, Coach." Previously, there were flickers of recognition when his old friend visited, but Starr had never been able to verbalize it.
His physical therapist told Bratkowski that Starr had been throwing short passes with a football as part of his therapy, and that he'd thrown a perfect spiral.
"I said, 'Well, that's the first time he's ever done that,'" Bratkowski said. "That got a big smile out of him. Every time I see him, he's a little bit better, he's made more progress."
The people who work with Starr — his medical team and family members and friends — are optimistic he will continue to improve. They haven't put a ceiling on his recovery. Cherry said a third stem cell treatment was possible.
"I think we're just starting to see the potential in him," she said.
She had a message for Packers fans, who have inundated the Starrs with an outpouring of love, messages of encouragement and prayer.
"They gave us one of the most beautiful moments of our lives when we came out on that field," she said. "We felt the love for both of us, but mostly for Bart. We felt it so strongly. I've always said we were the luckiest people in the world to go to Green Bay because the people are so special there.
"The fans are so loving and supportive. We're just so grateful to them. They've given us so much and it's just been a blessing to us. We could never repay the people for all the love and support they've shown us."
They already have.
Just by being Bart and Cherry Starr.