BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Bart Starr sits quietly in his favorite chair in the corner of his study, his hands clasped tightly on his lap. He is wearing the uniform of an athlete in retirement -- faded golf shirt, dark sweat pants, light-gray sneakers. He is 81 years old, and his trim build and erect posture suggest he is ready to spring out of that chair any minute now to start a three-mile jog through his Birmingham neighborhood or to play a quick game of tennis on his backyard court.
On the wall over his left shoulder are two framed Sports Illustrated cover shots of Starr in his Green Bay Packers prime, and on the wall to his right is a photo of the quarterback walking onto the Lambeau Field grass with his wife and two sons on the 1973 day the team retired his number, 15. On Starr's desk stands a captioned photo of Vince Lombardi quoting one of the coach's many enduring lines. "Perfection is not attainable," it reads, "but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence."
Starr is wearing a Lombardi Classic logo on the left breast of his shirt, so it seems a good time to make small talk with the iconic quarterback about the iconic coach. But a few sentences in, it's already clear Starr is not connecting with the name or the memories of the man who helped him win five championships in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls. His eyes narrow and search for meaning in words that drift aimlessly in the air.
Now it's time to head into the kitchen for lunch, and it's the job of the three women in the room to get him there. Leigh Ann Nelson, the personal aide. Denise Williams, the nursing assistant. Cherry Starr, the 81-year-old wife. A guest motions to Cherry that he's willing to help, but there is no need.
They surround Starr, place their hands under his arms and remind him that the snap count is three, always on three. The women count in unison -- one...two...three -- and drive this dignified 180-pound man to his feet. This is what the women in Bart Starr's life do. They pick him up and move him from one monumental challenge to the next.
Their ultimate goal is to return him to Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving night, when Brett Favre's retired No. 4 will be unveiled. Favre delayed his ceremony a year to give Starr a puncher's chance to make it, and Bart's family and support network of friends, neighbors and employees are forever telling him he must meet that objective.
"I've been the luckiest football player ever."Bart Starr
Starr is taking small steps on the road back to Green Bay. He shuffles his feet slowly, carefully, as he leaves the office and makes his way through the hallway and into the kitchen as the women guide his every step, just so he doesn't fall on the African stone floor like he did the previous week. Truth is, it's a small miracle that Starr is upright and walking at all, and heading for lunch while absorbing the training camp images on the TV screen wedged between the cabinets above.
He suffered his first stroke on Sept. 2, 2014. Five days later he suffered a second stroke, a heart attack and four seizures that some doctors thought would kill him. Cherry was with him in intensive care, and she held onto her husband and caressed him when his body shook violently, uncontrollably, trying to make it stop. She'd never witnessed a seizure before, and she was terrified. Soon one doctor was telling her that her high school sweetheart, the man she'd loved unconditionally for 64 years, was not going to make it through the night.
Hospital officials asked Cherry if she wanted Bart placed on life support if necessary, and she explained that they both had living wills and that neither wanted to be sustained by a machine. Cherry called their granddaughters and told them they were needed at Bart's bedside. But she never said her own goodbye to her husband; she couldn't bring herself to do it. And the very next morning, that goodbye was no longer necessary. Bart Starr had launched his comeback.
He had been a walker, a jogger, an 80-year-old man who worked out regularly in the gym he maintained upstairs in his home. His physical strength helped him endure two-and-a-half months in the hospital and then the better part of eight months in a wheelchair. To everyone around Starr, this much was certain:
Vince Lombardi's quarterback was not going down without a fight, even if he was no longer sure who Vince Lombardi was.
Now Starr is sitting at the kitchen countertop, picking at a bowl of fruit. On the good days he can feed himself; on the bad days Cherry has to help with the knives and forks. He drinks from a small bottle of Sprite, and waits to dig into a bowl of soup and a tray of crackers and his favorite cucumber spread. It's a stormy day in Birmingham, and Cherry complains a bit about the puddles on the backyard tennis court that reduced her morning game with friends to a half hour.
Her husband keeps looking up at the TV and the images of Cam Newton about to take a snap in a Carolina Panthers practice. "Here we go," Starr blurts out. He says those words three times throughout the day, each time in response to the sight of an NFL quarterback about to run a play.
He still watches every Green Bay game on the DirecTV package Cherry bought him as a Christmas gift. Starr doesn't say much when he's watching -- Bart Jr., meanwhile, is "the most miserable human being in the world to watch a game with," his mother jokes -- and the old quarterback only occasionally recognizes Aaron Rodgers or realizes what he's seeing in clips of Brett Favre. "Even though he has a beautiful relationship with both of them," Cherry says.
Starr generally doesn't recognize himself, either, when ol' No. 15 turns up on the screen. Lombardi? Does he recognize that gap-toothed man in the camel hair coat? "No," Cherry says. "You know, Bart may grasp it at times, but he's just not fully conscious of his career or anything."
Bart Jr. sat with his father recently to watch parts of the Ice Bowl, the Packers' 1967 NFL Championship victory over the Dallas Cowboys played in a wind chill of minus-48 degrees. "He doesn't remember it like you wished he did," Bart Jr. says. "It's not verbal, but he might understand more than we realize."
One thing Starr understands on most days is the mission to return to Lambeau. The people in his life tell him he has to be there to wrap his arms around Favre and hopefully Aaron Rodgers, too. He has to walk onto the field under his own power. He has to let the Green Bay fans thank him one more time for winning the Ice Bowl on that daring sneak, for winning more championships than any quarterback dead or alive and for always opening his front door when strangers knocked unannounced and asked if they could take a picture with him, or maybe come inside for a minute to see a plaque or two.
That's why they adore Starr in Green Bay. He was never about personal gain and glory, and always about the betterment of the team and the feelings men generate for one another when they work as one. In other words, he was about the love.
That's a good thing, too, as far as this Thanksgiving night mission goes. Eight hundred and seventy-nine miles separate Starr's Alabama house from his old house, Lambeau Field, and only the care and nurturing of his new team will get him from A to B. So his last great drive is a love story, and it begins and ends with the woman who keeps blocking for him in ways Jerry Kramer never could.
"When he first saw Favre play Dad himself said, 'That's the best quarterback I've seen play for the Packers.' He would say Favre and Rodgers are the two best ever ... He would never feel the slightest bit threatened to say that Favre and Rodgers can do things on the field he could never do."Bart Starr Jr.
CHERRY MORTON WAS about done dating a basketball player at Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, Alabama, when Bart Starr had a friend approach her on his behalf. Cherry told the friend to go back to Bart and tell him he needed to ask for a date on his own. In the schoolyard vernacular of the day, Cherry Morton was a knockout. Starr's friend and intermediary, Nick Germanos, would wait 60 years to confess he'd wanted to date Cherry, too.
When a trembling Starr summoned the nerve to ask her out, he didn't make eye contact and stared instead at his shoes. They went to a drive-in; Cherry fell asleep during the movie, and it didn't matter.
"How does the name Cherry Starr sound?" she asked her mother that night.
"Why are you saying that?" her mother responded.
"I just went out with the nicest young man I've ever been out with," Cherry said.
She decided to attend Auburn, and Starr turned down a scholarship to play for Bear Bryant at Kentucky to sign with Alabama, much closer to his girl. They eloped in college, jumped in a borrowed car and got married by a justice of the peace in Columbus, Mississippi. "We stopped at a service station and changed clothes," Cherry said.
Her husband got the Tom Brady treatment in college, times ten. Hurt as a junior at Alabama, he was benched as a senior in an 0-10 season. He was the 200th pick in the 1956 NFL draft (Brady would be picked 199th out of Michigan 44 years later), and only because the Alabama basketball coach, Johnny Dee, knew a decision-maker in Green Bay's front office. Starr signed with the Packers for $6,500 and to get ready for camp, he threw footballs through a hanging tire in Cherry's parents' yard. She ran down the errant throws and couldn't think of a better way to spend her summer.
Starr initially was given No. 42 because the Packers didn't think he had a prayer of making the team. When Lombardi took over in 1959, he wasn't sold, either. Starr didn't have a powerful arm, or overwhelming size, or any foot speed to speak of, and his record as a starter was 3-15-1. But over time Lombardi came to see Starr as a worker, a meticulous notetaker, his kind of serious-minded leader. In 1961, a year after losing to Philadelphia in their first championship game together, Starr rewarded Lombardi with a 37-0 title game victory over the coach's previous employer, the New York Giants.
Starr was always motivated to win the approval of the dominant male figure in his life, and it wasn't Lombardi. His father, Ben, was a hard-driving World War II veteran and master sergeant in the Air Force who made it clear he had a favorite son in Bart's younger brother, Hilton, who died at age 11 of tetanus after stepping on a dog bone. Young Bart was too shy for his father, or too soft, or too something, at least until he took that championship from the Giants.
Ben Starr apologized to his son. "He had never told Bart he loved him in his entire life until that game," Cherry said. "Bart was the toughest man alive but not in his father's eyes."
The Packers won three more championships through the 1966 season, and the quarterback who grew up idolizing Joe DiMaggio was emerging from Johnny Unitas' shadow and becoming a legend of his own. He even confronted Lombardi in a way that would've made his old man proud. The coach once shredded Starr in practice, and the quarterback went home and told Cherry that Lombardi had embarrassed him in front of the other Packers.
"I told Bart, 'You need to go talk to him and tell him that you don't mind being chewed out, but that you can't be his leader if he's going to demean you in front of your teammates,'" Cherry said. "Bart was so respectful and so really shy, I didn't think he would do it. But you know what, he did it the next day. And afterward Lombardi never, ever chewed him out in front of the team again."
"I told Bart, 'You need to go talk to him and tell him that you don't mind being chewed out, but that you can't be his leader if he's going to demean you in front of your teammates. Bart was so respectful and so really shy, I didn't think he would do it. But you know what, he did it the next day. And afterward Lombardi never, ever chewed him out in front of the team again."Cherry Starr on her husband's relationship with Vince Lombardi
The Ice Bowl was his signature conquest. Although comparisons of football's physicality to real-world combat trivializes the tragedy of war, no football player was ever closer to a simulation of war than was the master sergeant's son with 4:50 left at Lambeau on Dec. 31, 1967. Trailing by a 17-14 count, Starr had to persuade a circle of numb, frozen, exhausted men to make one last push from their own 32-yard line against an indomitable front in brutal conditions. The Dallas defense had battered Green Bay in the second half, and Starr was asking his men to do something no men should be asked to do.
Up in the stands, Cherry was wearing a heavy turtleneck, gloves and boots, and was zipped up in a stadium bag. "That game never should've been played," she said. Cherry looked down on Bart and his bare hands and wondered how in the world he was completing passes on that final drive.
As Starr took his team down the field, Cherry said, "I was scared to death. I really didn't think we could do it." Bart Jr., 10 years old and wrapped in a blanket, was sitting with friends near the opposite end zone and feeling a much different vibe. "We looked at each other," Bart Jr. said, "and I do remember thinking, 'This is it. He's going to find a way.'"
Starr led his team to the Dallas 1 with 16 seconds left before calling his last timeout on third down, and then jogging over to his coach for final instructions. The quarterback told Lombardi that his running backs couldn't secure their footing, and that he thought he could punch it in on his own. Lombardi spit out the order to go do it. "And then let's get the hell out of here," he famously cried.
Starr called 31 Wedge for his fullback, Chuck Mercein, who had been a destructive force on that drive, and didn't tell his teammates he had no intention of handing off to anyone. Keeping the ball was an incredibly bold move. Starr already had been sacked by Dallas eight times, and he hadn't rushed for a touchdown all year. He had thrown 17 interceptions against nine touchdown passes during the regular season and, though nobody knew it at the time, the cumulative pounding Starr had taken at age 33 ensured he'd never again post a winning record as a starter.
Cherry studied her husband as he approached the line of scrimmage and still didn't believe. "It just seemed like an impossible task," she said. "The clock's going to run out on us if we don't score, the conditions are horrible, and I just never dreamed Bart was going to take it in himself."
"I was scared to death. I really didn't think we could do it."Cherry Starr on the final drive of the Ice Bowl
"I do remember thinking, 'This is it. He's going to find a way.'"Bart Starr Jr. on the final drive of the Ice Bowl
Starr raised his raw hands to signal the crowd for quiet, ducked under center and took the snap from Ken Bowman. He planted his left foot, lowered his head and followed the powerful block his right guard, Kramer, put on Jethro Pugh. A stunned Mercein threw up his arms not to signal a touchdown but to show the refs he did not illegally shove his quarterback into the end zone.
Starr didn't need the extra push to make the Ice Bowl his and to advance to a second consecutive Super Bowl he would win as the game's MVP. Afterward, in the bowels of Lambeau, Cherry was startled by the sight of Bart's swollen face. In the locker room, 10-year-old Bart Jr. was struck by the devastating physical toll the conditions had taken on the winners. He saw scarred, frostbitten hulks doubled over at their stalls, beaten in victory, just relieved the damn thing was over.
Even a child could grasp the magnitude of the moment: His father had just won the greatest battle of wills pro football had seen. On that godforsaken day in Green Bay, Bryan Bartlett Starr stood as the toughest man in the world.
CHERRY STARR IS talking about the day Bart found their dead son Bret on his dining room floor. She is sitting in a living area near her kitchen, facing opposite the running water fountain and the Japanese maple, magnolia and pine trees out back. Cherry drew up the floor plans for this four-bedroom stucco home as a testament to the times she shared with Bart in Arizona in the 1980s, when he was preparing to run an NFL expansion team, the Arizona Firebirds, that would never be.
Cherry and Bart moved to Birmingham after Bret died to be closer to Bart Jr. and their granddaughters. Their neighborhood is one of well-appointed brick houses guarded by towering pines; it's a place where people value peace and quiet. The Starrs' property rests at the bottom of a street that brushes up against the back nine of a golf course, and imported palm trees welcome visitors to their front door. Cherry wanted to recapture something of a southwestern feel in her corner of Alabama, even if her time in Arizona included the worst day of her life.
Bart had been fired as Packers coach after the 1983 season with a record of 52-76-3. Wounded, he retreated to the desert to rebuild his post-playing NFL career with the expansion concept known as the Firebirds. Bart was knocked out of that game after the 1987 season when Bill Bidwill announced he was moving his Cardinals from St. Louis to Arizona.
Bart could deal with that. He and Cherry were comfortable in their Paradise Valley home, and Bret had been drug free for about 18 months. Bret was making almost daily phone calls to Bart and Cherry and running an exotic animals shop in the Clearwater, Fla., area that his parents helped set up for him. When the calls suddenly stopped, Bart knew enough to get on a plane. He told Cherry to keep her appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale (she had an Achilles injury), that he would handle this one alone.
Outside Bret's home, doors locked and his two Rottweilers barking, Bart looked through a window and saw his lifeless 24-year-old boy on the floor. Cocaine had killed him, a small dose of it. In his biography of Starr, "America's Quarterback," Keith Dunnavant wrote that Bret's father later "slid down by the side of the house and began to cry."
"I know Bart saw that [his son's body] in his mind a lot, and that was really hard on him."Cherry Starr on the death of their 24-year-old son Bret
In her retelling of the tragedy, Cherry says her lasting image of Bret is that of the handsome young man she put back on a plane the last time she saw him. Bart? His lasting image is of his son's decomposed body. "I know Bart saw that in his mind a lot," Cherry says, "and that was really hard on him."
Bret's mother is choking back her tears. She pauses. She mentions that Bret was found with a card folded in his back pocket, a card she'd given him about the meaning of love. "It was all dog-eared," Cherry says, "which told me he read it a lot. It made me really happy to know that." She's in the master bedroom now, opening drawers and pulling out Bret's final notes to his parents. There's a small wheelchair for Bart in the corner; the bigger, custom-made one is stashed in the garage. These letters, Cherry says, kept them going for a long time. She passes a Christmas card from Bret thanking his parents for never abandoning him through his drug addiction. "Isn't that sweet?" Cherry says.
She then passes the last card Bret wrote to Bart, delivered a little more than two weeks before Bret died. "Today is the day which I give thought and thanks for the fact that you are my father," it reads. "People always tell me how much they admire you and respect you. I always tell them that, to me, you are just Dad. That is true, but I also know that you are the greatest father that anyone could dream of, and the finest person I know. For those reasons, I am doubly thankful today and want to tell you that I love you more than anything in the world. Happy Father's Day, Bret."
Bret's death didn't break Bart and Cherry; Bart Jr. says his mother convinced his father there is a difference between sorrow and guilt, and that they couldn't spend the rest of their days imprisoned by guilt. They became anti-drug advocates and remained committed to the Rawhide Boys Ranch program for at-risk youth in Wisconsin that they helped start in 1965, three years before Starr donated to Rawhide the red Corvette he won as MVP of Super Bowl II.
Cherry says they recently moved Bret's body from a cemetery in Montgomery, where Bart's parents were buried, to a cemetery about fifteen minutes from their Birmingham home, a tranquil place with swans and lakes and benches for visiting families. She says Bret is resting in a black granite mausoleum with three open spaces for Cherry, Bart and Bart Jr.
And just as Cherry is done talking about her lost son, Bart reappears from his study, walking with his personal assistant by his side. "Well look who's back," Cherry says. "Hey darling."
"Hi beautiful," her husband says through his brightest smile of the afternoon. Good days, bad days, mediocre days ... it never, ever matters. Bart Starr is always a 17-year-old boy when Cherry Morton is in the room.
HE FIRST STARTED forgetting things about five years ago. Bart Starr could get lost while driving and lose track of where he was intending to go. He had at least three mini-strokes known as transient ischemic attacks, each one worse than the one before it. Starr collapsed after making a December 2012 speech in Madison, Wisconsin, and Cherry said he passed out at a Super Bowl breakfast for the Bart Starr Award, given to an NFL player who displays character and leadership.
Doctors prescribed medicine for high blood pressure, believing that to be the root cause of his issues. Meanwhile, his memory kept failing him. On May 18, 2014, Starr had serious foot surgery that required the removal of a bone in his heel and the insertion of screws to keep the area intact.
The first night her husband was home from the hospital, Cherry fed Bart some ice cream in bed, got up to rinse the dish and then turned in the kitchen to find Bart standing right behind her. He'd forgotten he had the surgery, and he'd left his bed in search of his wife, leaving a blood trail from his foot all over her kitchen, bathroom, the white carpeting, the hallway, everywhere.
Some three-and-a-half months later, Bart Jr. thought his father appeared too sluggish to be driving and gave him a lift to their healthcare real estate and investment business. They were having lunch with Leigh Ann Nelson at the office when Bart Jr. noticed his father having trouble responding to questions. The paramedics were called. As a test, Bart Jr. showed his father a copy of David Maraniss' biography of Lombardi, "When Pride Still Mattered," and asked him to identify the man on its cover.
Starr paused. "OK," he said.
"Not OK," Bart Jr. replied. "What's his name?"
Starr couldn't provide it. Soon enough the diagnosis came in of an ischemic stroke, a clot in the vessel supplying blood to the brain. On Sept. 7, a hemorrhagic stroke (a bleed), heart attack and multiple seizures nearly killed him.
Cherry stayed with her husband in the hospital for those two-and-a-half months, and watched him lose 20 pounds. After Bart was released, she investigated options beyond the physical and speech therapies that would become part of his weekly routine. Bart was accepted into a clinical stem-cell trial, and in June he flew to San Diego with Cherry, Nelson, family friend Brady Thames and a flight attendant who doubled as a nurse on a corporate jet provided by Century Insurance; Starr had served on its board of directors for 34 years.
The Starrs' first stop was a company that manufactures stem cells. From there, they drove across the border to a facility in Mexico for a treatment not yet authorized for use in the United States. Cherry would not identify the companies, citing an agreement she made with biopharmaceutical officials. But she did say her husband received 90 million stem cells in a procedure that lasted three-and-a-half hours.
Cherry returned Bart to the San Diego airport a couple of mornings later, and Thames was responsible for getting him back aboard that jet. He is a big man with a big personality, a VP of operations for a large trucking firm and former junior college baseball player who used to do some landscaping for the Starrs. Cherry describes Thames as her third son, and he came into their lives not long after Bret died. Thames once dreamed of being a baseball coach, and now he coaches a football player. He shows up at the Starr house three or four nights a week to help feed Bart, put him to bed, and spend a little time with Cherry, too.
On the ride to the airport, Thames and Nelson planned to persuade Bart to make a go of the stairs leading up to the jet. On arrival, Nelson got his attention and pointed to the orange medical chair waiting for him. "You can get in the plane in that," she said, "or you can walk up those stairs."
"I don't see why I wouldn't walk," Starr said.
So he walked and climbed stairs for the first time since suffering his strokes nine months earlier. Nelson held Starr's right hand until he grabbed a railing with it, placed his surgically repaired left foot on the first step and pulled himself up. These seven-step stairs had no railing on the left side, so from the higher steps Thames grabbed Starr's left hand and guided him forward. After three steps, Starr stopped and took a break as an airport employee provided support from the rear. Bart switched to his right foot for step No. 4, swung his left foot up to step No. 5 (bypassing No. 4), and conquered two more steps before making it aboard. Everyone cried, pilots included.
No witness would say for sure this was the direct result of the stem-cell treatment in Mexico. But on the sky-high ride back to Birmingham, they all agreed with the sentiment expressed by Thames. "Boy," he said, "this could be the beginning of something special for Bart Starr."
DINNERTIME APPROACHES, and this isn't always a good thing in the Starr household, not when Bart and Cherry are facing another night of the sundown syndrome that often impacts the cognitively impaired. It unleashes a series of events Cherry wouldn't wish on her worst enemy; Bart's confusion and restlessness and anxiety can send his arms and legs flailing at anyone in his path.
"It's not the Bart I know and love," she says.
Some nights, Starr unleashes all the profane words he was too much of a gentleman to use for seven decades -- "The worst language you can possibly imagine," Cherry says -- and she laughs it off. Laughter has kept them together for 61 years of marriage, and that isn't changing. After one particularly rough night, Cherry told Bart she was contacting a divorce attorney, and he got a kick out of that. But even when the sundown syndrome compels Bart to wrestle with his caregivers, one thing doesn't change: He never forgets his manners. He always thanks them for their work and wishes them a pleasant evening when they leave.
He also asks his wife to play a recording of "Unchained Melody" every night before he falls asleep. Cherry has a cute story about that song. Three years ago she was driving around their Florida home in Sandestin, near the Santa Rosa Beach place owned by Bart's friend and former backup, Zeke Bratkowski, when Il Divo's version of "Unchained Melody" came over the radio. Bart put his hand over his wife's and said, "Honey, I want you to promise that you'll play this at my wedding." He meant to say "funeral." Cherry teased Bart about it all the way home, and Bart made her swear she'd never repeat that story.
Three weeks later she told it to 1,400 people at the Lombardi Classic golf tournament.
Bart is sitting at the kitchen countertop again when the phone rings. Cherry answers, and it's Bratkowski calling from a Packers charity event. Sometimes Bratkowski makes the four-and-a-half-hour drive up to Birmingham with his wife, M.E., and gets right in the starter's face. "Are you coachable today?" Zeke will ask.
He'll also diagram a couple of Green Bay plays for Starr, like 74 Flat and 76 Flat, and talk to him about tight end and wide receiver responsibilities. "It's sad that one of the best representatives in the history of the National Football League is going through this," Bratkowski says. "But I try to treat him like there's nothing wrong with him."
Cherry tells her husband that Bratkowski has some old friends on the line who want to say hello. She introduces them one by one, emphasizing their first names so her husband can repeat those names back to the callers. John Brockington, the fullback who played with him and for him. Ezra Johnson, Lynn Dickey, Steve Luke and others who played for him. They extend their best wishes, and Starr's common decency breaks through the walls that confine him.
These are the things he tells men he clearly doesn't remember: "We want you to know we love you. ... We think the world of you. ... Thank you for calling, and we want you to know how much we care about you. ... Send our best to everyone out there. ... I'm so grateful. I hope you're making a great comeback, too."
Cherry hangs up the phone. A family friend, Linda Wintter, has brought over a tray of marinated beef strips. Bart makes a robust play with his fork and is successfully moving his dinner from plate to mouth. Brady Thames tells him he's doing a good job, then points up to the NFL Network image of Steve Mariucci. "You remember who that is?" Thames asks. Bart doesn't answer.
"I kept telling him, 'This is who you are. You are Bart Starr.'"Brian Burns, owner of Cahaba Fitness, trains Starr three times a week. He encourages Starr to remember himself as a superhero.
But there have been major breakthroughs for sure. Starr works three days a week with the owner of Cahaba Fitness, Brian Burns, who was stunned the first time he saw the Hall of Famer in a wheelchair. "It messed me up a lot," Burns says. "You think a guy like him is Superman." In fact, Burns wants Bart to remember himself as a superhero. He shows Starr pictures of his championship self and treats him as an athlete, not a patient.
"I kept telling him, 'This is who you are. You are Bart Starr,'" Burns says. To get him ready for Thanksgiving night at Lambeau, the trainer wanted Starr's wheelchair and walker stored away as soon as possible. They recently played a game of catch with an exercise ball while standing five to eight feet apart. Bart was smiling when he told Burns, "I really like that reception you just made." Bart caught the trainer's underhand tosses without any bobbles, and threw chest passes in return.
They've been doing band work, leg exercises and balancing drills since the middle of June. "His body is waking up in every way," Burns says. "Cognitively, he's coming back. He's an athlete again, and he enjoys it. I tell him, 'We're getting ready for that Lambeau Field crowd going bonkers, and you're going to have to raise your hand to them.' It's like flipping a switch. He lights up, his eyes get big, his eyebrows go up. He says, 'That's right. It's going to be great.'"
DID FOOTBALL DO this to Bart Starr? The collisions, the concussions, the Ice Bowl? The time he got knocked cold on the field and Cherry thought he might be paralyzed? The time he damn near bled to death over a shoulder surgery gone awry? How about all the painkillers? Bob Skoronski, one of his offensive linemen, remembers Starr on the training table taking four consecutive needles into his stomach. "It scared the hell out of me," Skoronski says. "I had to walk the other way."
Bart Jr. isn't sure football did anything to his father that the natural aging process didn't. Cherry, meanwhile, thinks the game at least contributed to her husband's physical and mental state. "There's no question in my mind," she says.
She motions toward Bart's fingers. They're a ghostly shade of pale from the middle to the tips, and she believes the Ice Bowl is directly responsible for that. In the end, husband and wife have bigger concerns.
Bart has another stem-cell treatment scheduled for October, and what it will do for him nobody knows. Two people who have seen his reports described his brain damage as "significant," yet Starr now reads full verses from the daily devotionals on the Upper Room website. Burns recently walked into Starr's home office and heard him recite The Lord's Prayer with Nelson's prompting.
In a video posted on the Packers' website and played for Favre's induction into the team's Hall of Fame last month, Starr managed to read the following from a teleprompter: "Good evening everyone. Cherry and I wish we were in Green Bay to share this very special occasion with you." Cherry handled the balance of the two-minute tribute. She says her husband needed multiple takes to nail his two lines.
Even if some fans might've gotten the wrong impression from the video that Starr is doing just fine, the response has been heartwarming to Cherry. She says the fan mail keeps coming in from all over, sweet notes of appreciation and thanks. Cherry reads them to Bart, and even if he doesn't fully comprehend the meaning behind the words, these feelings definitely travel on a two-way street.
Bart Jr. remembers being about seven or eight years old one day at the team's training camp at St. Norbert College, where his father was signing autographs. The son mentioned to the father that he'd just spent a lot of time with an endless line of fans.
Bart Sr. looked down at Bart Jr., and effectively explained why no big-city market connected with a dynasty quite like small-market Green Bay connected with the 1960s Packers. "Everybody who wants an autograph will get one as long as I'm not holding up the team," Bart Starr told his son. "One thing you have to remember: These are the individuals who make this team possible."
THE STARR HOME is a community center, a revolving door of people coming and going and supporting the cause. Cherry Starr prefers the constant activity. She wants to share her husband with the world, and yet she wants to protect his dignity more than anything. That's how she sees the strokes that altered their lives last September. She sees them as an assault on Bart's dignity.
It was always his best trait. The son of a man who was not a progressive thinker when it came to black and white in Alabama, Starr would invite Nate Borden -- the only African-American player on the team -- over to his home for dinner when other white Packers from the South refused to stay in the same hotel with him. "We became dear friends with Nate," Cherry says.
Her husband was a unifier, not a divider. And now everyone unifies around him, Bart Starr, a great-grandfather sustained by the goal of making it through that Lambeau Field tunnel one last time.
Denise Williams and Monique Jordan, the nursing assistants. Dale McKee, the neighbor who can't do enough to help. Nelson and Thames, Bart Jr. and Burns and the Bratkowskis. And Cherry.
They're his Packers now. They've established a goal that once seemed impossible, and now appears reachable. "There's not a doubt in my mind he's going to be there for Brett Favre on Thanksgiving," Burns says. "He wants everyone to know that he's taking this very seriously, that he's fighting hard to get back."
No, this isn't going to be an easy fight. Starr ended up back in the hospital last week after he ran a 103-degree fever, causing Cherry to worry that he was facing yet another serious health crisis; Bart's heart rate was up to 200 on the ambulance ride over. But Cherry said her husband was diagnosed with the same bronchial infection she had the previous week, and he was released and back home in three and a half days.
"We now have a longer road to Thanksgiving but that date remains our goal. ... I think he was ready 10 days ago to walk onto that field. The infection knocked him down, but our attitude is we will figure out a way."Bart Starr Jr.
It was the first time Starr was hospitalized since the fall of 2014, and his support team believes the setback won't stop Bart from returning to Lambeau in November. Cherry says her husband seemed exhausted at home over the weekend, but Starr was back in a rehab session with Burns by Monday. Bart Jr. says the new challenges brought on by the infection won't change their commitment. "We now have a longer road to Thanksgiving," he says, "but that date remains our goal. ... I think he was ready 10 days ago to walk onto that field. The infection knocked him down, but our attitude is we will figure out a way."
Not that the Starrs are desperately trying to make it back to Green Bay for the Starrs, for one last standing O. The family knows Bart would just want to honor Favre and Rodgers and everything it means to be the quarterback for that team in that city.
"When he first saw Favre play," Bart Jr. says, "Dad himself said, 'That's the best quarterback I've seen play for the Packers.' He would say Favre and Rodgers are the two best ever. ... He would never feel the slightest bit threatened to say that Favre and Rodgers can do things on the field he could never do."
Starr wants to stand with these great quarterbacks one more time at Lambeau. "Now, we can't sit back and say, 'Dad, we're going to try to get you there,'" Bart Jr. says. "Every comment from us has to be along the lines of, 'Dad, we know you will make it there on Thanksgiving. We are certain of it.'"
THE DARKENING SKIES have had no negative effects on Bart Starr. He is done with dinner and in good spirits. Thames brings up Starr's decision to sign with Alabama instead of Bear Bryant's Kentucky, and teases him about the reason behind that choice by looking directly at Cherry. "That's right," Bart says. Everyone laughs. It's the Starrs' best medicine.
The conversation veers back toward the trip to Green Bay. "I really think we're going to make it," Cherry says. "I really do." She admits she's a little nervous, but then again, she's also nervous when she watches Ice Bowl reruns. "I'm still not sure Bart's going to make it in," Cherry says.
Anyone who spends time in Bart Starr's presence can see he is still giving it his all, still refusing to accept the terms of his illness the way he refused to accept the idea he was the 200th best player in the 1956 draft. Ask him a question, and his response sometimes stays on point for eight, nine, ten words before his thoughts scramble away from him, never to be recaptured. He does a little better with Cherry. They still kiss and snuggle and hold hands. In bed one recent night, Cherry told Bart he has been a wonderful husband and that she only wants to make him happy. He looked up at her and said, "You're the greatest wife in the world."
Now it's quitting time for a visitor to Starr's home, and Thames reminds the quarterback the snap count is three, always on three. Starr comes out of his chair on the right number, and walks with Thames' aid to the front door to extend his hand and say goodbye. He starts to speak, but the attempt hits another roadblock. "You know, I didn't have a lot of ... I didn't have a lot of ..."
"Losses," the visitor says. "You didn't have a lot of losses."
"You got that right," Starr shoots back. More laughter in a home that demands it.
There is a pause, not an awkward one. "I think you are the toughest man to ever play in the NFL," the visitor tells him.
Starr lowers his head and fixes his eyes on the floor. "Well," he says. "I've been the luckiest football player ever."
He's right, of course, because he has Cherry and a selfless and passionate team behind her. This is why Bart Starr's last great drive is about love, not glory, and this is why winning won't be everything, or the only thing, at Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving night.
This time just showing up will be good enough.