The following is a commentary blog from WBRC FOX6 Sports Director Rick Karle:
The email came my way as I was preparing to air my TV interview with Bart and Cherry Starr over the Super Bowl weekend: As comments poured in from around the world following the posting of a clip of the piece, it was a note from a life-long Green Bay Packers fan that grabbed my attention. I was politely asked if I would be interested to hear his story of how Pro Football Hall Of Fame Bart Starr saved his life- the catch? Neither men knew one another. This resident of Wisconsin warned me that his story was a bit too lengthy to post on Facebook and asked if he could offer up his story via email.
As promised, the email came my way a few days ago. My reaction? Shock, sadness, empathy, the list goes on. Yet, after finishing his story, I realized the impressiveness of not only this fan but his sports hero.
After talking with this fan today, I received his blessings to post his story, as I promised him that I would keep his name anonymous.
A quick perspective before you read his story: To this day, Bart and Cherry Starr remain heartbroken over the loss of their own son. It was Bart who found his 25-year-old son Bret dead in 1988 at Bret’s Florida home. Bret had fought drug addiction for years. Since that dreadful day, the Starrs have helped troubled teens via their Rawhide Ranch in Wisconsin, and have also founded the Bret Starr Memorial Fund that helps those struggling with drug addiction.
So then: Here is the amazing story of a life saved by an NFL hero. The video above includes comments from Cherry Starr about her late son and the video below includes my piece on Bart and Cherry that ran after Super Bowl LI: As always, your comments are welcomed.
I frequently think about Charles Barkley’s controversial statement from many years ago about being a role model. I believe Charles’ meaning was that athletes shouldn’t be role models; ideally, it should be parents or other people, like teachers or coaches or policemen or soldiers. And I agree with that, but we don’t live in that ideal world. We live in a world full of evil people, some of whom are parental figures. If a child is lucky, he has someone to look to as a role model, and if that child is unlucky, he or she may only have TV, and the world of sports.
I was a very unlucky child. When I was eight years old, my divorced mother became involved in a relationship with a man named Tim. Tim was the worst human being I have ever personally known in my entire life, the textbook definition of sociopath. Tim did things to me, without my mother’s knowledge, that no child should ever endure. These things were evil, painful, and illegal. To me, Tim was the Devil. Because of him, I feared for my life on a daily basis. I was routinely beaten, tortured, sleep-deprived, and worse. This was not punishment for some transgression real or imagined; there were never any reasons given. To be clear, “tortured” is neither hyperbole nor exaggeration; I was literally tortured, at night, or whenever my mother left the house. The worst of it I will not divulge here. This went on for five years, from the time I was eight until I was thirteen. It screwed me up mentally and psychologically for a long time.
This timeframe corresponds with Bart Starr’s tenure as head coach of the Packers. There were not many good days for me during that five-year period, with all of these things happening under my mother’s nose. Starting around age 10, I ran away five times, twice to my biological father, once to a grandmother, once to an aunt, and once to the police. None of these people believed me, and I was promptly returned home each time. I walked a long way to reach these people; the longest walk was about six miles to the Town of Wilson, from the north side of Sheboygan. It was 1978 and I was ten. My mother of course denied that anything was going on that she didn’t know about. But my mother was struggling financially, and she really needed Tim’s help.
I started thinking about killing myself. No one believed me, and no one would or could help me. I was too small to fight back. I was too tired all the time, and too beat up. I was too humiliated. My mother left for work before I left for school; and Tim made me dress in dirty clothes, or clothes that he knew would invite ridicule. I’d change again when I got home from school, before mom got home.
At Grant Elementary, I finally thought of a way to do it. There was a basketball hoop outside with steel chains, and it was low enough for me to jump up and grab on. It wasn’t attached all the way around. It would look like an accident; just a kid being stupid. During recess, I stuck my head through the chains and let go. It didn’t work; but I ended up with a pretty horrible looking neck and face. I was right though; no one knew what I was really doing. That was the last time I tried anything like that, but for the next few years I routinely thought about taking a bottle of aspirin.
There were some good days, and it was usually Sunday during the football season. Despite being a textbook sociopath, Tim was a big Packer fan. I looked forward to Packer games, because I knew that I was safe for at least three hours, maybe longer if the Packers won. It seemed to be about the only thing he really cared about. Packer games were the only times Tim ever really looked at me without hate on his face; the only time he ever really talked to me in a normal, human-to-human way. He liked to talk about football.
In those days, the Packers were not a good team. I watched Bart Starr very closely, wondering how such a great player came to be the coach, and wondering why the Packers weren’t as good with him as a coach as when he was the QB. In the way that a young boy thinks, I wondered why so many people were so mean to this man who always seemed to be so nice to everyone. I decided that when I grew up, I would never treat people like Tim treated me. I would act like Bart Starr.
My father deserted me when I was two. There were no other father figures in my life; I had no role models, and I didn’t get out much. But knowing that everything about my life just had to be wrong, I looked for better examples. I never believed that I was bad or that I deserved what I was getting. So, I adopted Bart Starr. He became my role model. When I was looking for a father-figure and no one else in my life could fill that role, I looked to him, because of the class he showed despite being criticized.
When I was twelve, some new neighbors moved in. Their dad came to Sheboygan to establish a new car dealership, and he had nice family with three kids, one of whom became a good friend. Not long after this, I began rebelling against Tim. I was almost thirteen, I was growing, and it became harder for him to do the things that he used to. Simultaneously, I was watching how my new friend’s father treated his kids; and I discovered a new role model. Mr B would never know any of this, but like Bart, he meant more to me than anyone will ever know. Many years later, I became an officer in the US Army, partly because I was attracted to the way that officers are expected to conduct themselves, because of the officer code of conduct. My personal code of conduct is a combination of those three sources. I’ve always tried to live my life in a way that would make Bart Starr proud, and he’s never been far from my mind. Many times in my life, I’ve asked myself: “What would Bart do in this situation”. This was never more true than when I looked at a bottle of aspirin from the time I was ten until I was thirteen. It is not my intention to be melodramatic, but Bart Starr saved my life. That’s a simple fact. Since then, at times I’ve admonished myself for how I handled certain things. I tried, but I often failed to live up to his standard. But at least I’m still around, still trying.
I have never shared most of this story with anyone; even my wife only knows small parts of it. I’m surprised I’m doing it now; and if I had to give a reason, it’s not only to show my utmost respect and gratitude to Bart, but also to tell people that kids are always watching; and you never really know how much of an impact you could be having on a child. I don't know how much longer Bart will be with us, and I regret that I’ve never met him. I wish I could tell him all of this, and Cherry too. You can share this with her if you think it's warranted. I’m sure most people would think it weird that someone you’ve never met could have such a positive influence, but he has.
This story has indeed been shared with Bart and Cherry, who are grateful this man is doing well. Their prayers are with him.
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