BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Cherry Starr was sitting on her wraparound couch, next to the vacant seat that belonged to the love of her life. This is where Cherry and Bart always watched the Green Bay Packers upstairs in their home. This is where she is expected to sit Thursday night, across from the big-screen TV, to begin her first football season without Bart since 1951.
Cherry did not know who he was, or what position he played at their Montgomery high school, or how important that position was 68 years ago when he was staring at his feet while asking her out. She just knew that after she said yes, Bart looked up and gave her the most beautiful smile she had ever seen. Cherry spent the rest of Bart's quarterbacking days with Sidney Lanier High, the University of Alabama, and the Packers not worried that fire-breathing pass-rushers would break a few of his bones. Only that they might break his precious teeth.
No, she does not know how emotional she will be while watching the Packers and Chicago Bears without Bart by her side, in that seat of his, with three framed portraits on the wall behind it that capture his iconic Ice Bowl touchdown and his partnership with Vince Lombardi, the coach in the camel hair coat. Cherry's son, Bart Jr., is expected to join her. Bart Jr. used to punctuate every Packers touchdown by high-fiving a father who five years ago lost much of his motor functions and virtually all memory of his five championships after suffering strokes, seizures, brain damage and a heart attack.
Starr had defied a grim prognosis, and a near-fatal bronchial infection in the late summer of 2015, to make what turned out to be his final return to Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving night for the unveiling of Brett Favre's retired number. He endured rigorous physical training sessions and stem-cell treatments in an attempt to gain some of what was lost. In the last three months of his life, Bart started talking in full sentences again, compelling family and friends to believe he was launching one last comeback.
"It was like a light went on in his brain," Cherry said.
In the first week of May, the Starrs celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary and Cherry's 85th birthday at their place at the Sandestin resort on the Gulf of Mexico. It was a memorable getaway; Bart loved sitting on the balcony and watching the water. Back in their Birmingham home less than three weeks later, Bart was getting ready for bed when he suddenly started vomiting and running a temperature of 102. Cherry called 911, and rode with him in the ambulance to Brookwood Baptist Medical Center, She held his hand in the emergency room.
Bart wasn't moved into a private room until late the following morning. By midafternoon, a doctor was telling his wife that all the tubes pumping fluids and medicine into Bart's body were not going to save him. Cherry called for her son and grandchildren to join her at the hospital. When the doctor later told her that Bart was in tremendous pain, and that their treatments were doing him more harm than good, she prepared to say goodbye. One morphine injection gave Bart clear relief from the pain. The second, a half-hour later, diminished his breathing. The third left him on the doorstep of death.
Though she assumed Bart could no longer hear, Cherry put her face next to his cheek and whispered into his ear, "Bart, darling, I love you so much. Thank you for giving me such a beautiful life."
"I love you too," he whispered back.
Bryan Bartlett Starr, 85, died the moment he finished saying those four words.
Favre and Aaron Rodgers spoke at a private service. Roger Goodell broke down while speaking at the public memorial service at Samford University, where Cherry had the pianist honor Bart's request that Il Divo's version of "Unchained Melody" be played at his funeral. Bart was laid to rest in a black granite mausoleum next to his son Bret, who died of complications from cocaine use in 1988.
Cherry said she is lonely in her big, beautiful home. Only her closest confidants and the Starrs' longtime aide, Leigh Ann Nelson, have any idea what she gave to that man over the past five years. She fed him by hand. She bathed him. She dressed him. In fact, to preserve Bart's dignity, she never let him spend a single day in his pajamas. Cherry remembered that their first date, at a drive-in movie, ended with Bart buying hamburgers and sodas with the one and only dollar he had in his pocket, and still ended up with 60 cents change. She remembered, as Cherry Morton, asking her mother that night how the name Cherry Starr sounded because, she said, "I just went out with the nicest young man I have ever met."
But she also remembered that Bart was wearing khaki pants, a white dress shirt and a vest. Cherry had never been out with someone who wore a vest. Bart always liked to dress up, and all these years later, even if he couldn't lift himself out of a chair or remember the names of longtime friends and teammates, Cherry would make sure he was dressed up.
In the end, she was the only person Bart called by name for a reason. When he spent two and a half months in the hospital in 2014, Cherry moved into his room. She didn't spend a single overnight at home.
"Whatever you do to me, I want you to tell me I can go home afterwards, because I cannot leave Bart." Cherry Starr
Bart was tough, everyone knew that. Toughest man Cherry ever met. He called his own number in subhuman conditions to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, and he played through all kinds of injuries, including a broken sternum. One Sunday morning, after Bart suffered three broken ribs, Cherry watched him roll out of bed and onto the floor. He got on his hands and knees, somehow pulled himself to his feet, and left the house to go play the game.
But Cherry was every bit as tough as the quarterback. She had two large nodes removed from her neck last year. Though specialists could never definitely identify them as cancerous, her doctor said he would bet his entire practice that it was lymphoma. (A facial nerve was accidentally struck during the procedure, leaving Cherry looking as if she had suffered a stroke, and needing injections to adjust her smile.) She would face treatment for thyroid cancer, and then for breast cancer. Through it all she would make only one demand of her doctors.
"Whatever you do to me," she told them, "I want you to tell me I can go home afterward, because I cannot leave Bart."
The same woman who lived in the hospital for two and a half months for her husband wouldn't spend a single night there for herself.
This week, five days after surgery on a vein in her leg, Cherry was walking about and entertaining visitors to her home and wheeling her SUV with the Roll Tide license plates around Birmingham as if she were driving a cab around midtown Manhattan. Cherry was weighing plans to pick up her regular tennis game with friends on her backyard court; that leg won't keep her down for long. She stays active running errands, keeping up the house, and spending time with the neighbors who are so good about checking on her.
She is not living her life passively. A day spent in Cherry's company is a day spent understanding why, after hearing a despondent Bart describe how Lombardi had chewed him out in front of the team, and damaged his ability to lead, she was the one who told him to march into the coach's office the next morning and ask him to never do that again.
Cherry is a petite woman with not-so-petite opinions. She feels Andrew Luck has been criticized for retiring "only by people who never played the game." Asked if she is surprised Rodgers has won only one championship, or four fewer than Bart won, Cherry said, "Well, he hasn't had the right team. They've been weak in some areas. Of course he suffered the shoulder injuries, and last year he hurt his knee. He courageously played with that knee but didn't have the protection on the line. Plus our defense wasn't performing like they should either."
Asked to name the greatest quarterback in Packers history, Cherry tilted her head and responded, "Well, so far it's still Bart."
She has always protected Bart better than an All-Pro left tackle. A couple of years ago, after informing New England Patriots special-teams ace Matthew Slater by speakerphone that he had won the character and leadership award named after her husband, Cherry said she blitzed Tom Brady to the rest of the Pats in the room. "I said, 'Tom, I know you're listening to me, honey. You are a great quarterback, but you're not nearly as great as Bart was.' And the whole room erupted into laughter."
Truth is, Cherry is a big fan of Brady as a quarterback and man. The same goes for Rodgers, who can't get enough of the brownies she's forever sending him. Cherry has another tray for Rodgers waiting in her freezer; she is looking forward to seeing him at Lambeau for the Week 2 celebration of Bart's life.
But before she makes that trip, Cherry will watch Week 1, Packers at Bears, in the converted exercise room upstairs in her home. It's a pretty big deal. She had spent 68 straight high school, college and professional football seasons with Bart as a player, coach or fan. Even after Green Bay fired Bart as head coach in 1983, the Starrs followed and rooted for the Packers in 1984 and beyond.
"Bart felt it was such a great honor to be a Packer," Cherry said. "He had no sense of entitlement at all."
Never mind that Bart was one of two men, along with Lombardi, who made Green Bay a national treasure by showing how small-town America can beat the big-city heavyweights when given a level playing field. Known universally as one of the sport's most endearing gentlemen, Bart would be more concerned about the state of the Starr Academy, a New London, Wisconsin high school for at-risk youths at the Rawhide Boys Ranch, than the state of the Packers' offense.
In the end, while watching his old team try (and fail) to measure up to the dynastic past, Starr could not connect with the visuals on the screen. He could not recognize Rodgers or his own contributions to Green Bay's Hall of Fame history at Rodgers' position. He would take in the games anyway while his wife fed him chicken wings, barbecued ribs or his favorite cucumber and pimento cheese spreads.
Cherry gave him everything she had, and then some.
"And that's what he deserved," she said.
Before kickoff Thursday night, Cherry might find herself sorting through the pile of printed tributes sitting in the study, or add to the 270 personal thank-you notes she has already sent to those who offered their support. But experiencing a football game without Bart?
"I just don't know what it's going to be like," she said. "I know I'm going to miss him. But I miss him every day."
Somehow, some way, Cherry Starr will keep advancing from one day to the next. Just like her husband, she is definitely tough enough to play hurt.