Maggie Conlon thought she was taking part in a documentary on childhood cancer last October when the doorbell rang at her home in Brookfield.
The film crew asked her to open the door. When she did, the man standing in front of her looked familiar, even though she couldn’t quite place him.
“It’s him, and I don’t realize it. He’s not in his uniform,” said Maggie, who was 10 at the time. “He has to tell me who he was, but I realized it after a few seconds. I realized it was him.”
It was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, visiting Maggie as part of his work with the charitable group Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer.
It was the first of three surprise visits Rodgers made that day, two days after he led the Packers to a win over the New Orleans Saints.
But the people — Maggie, 11-year-old Dijon Williams and 22-year-old Brandon Novack — represent is a bigger victory for Rodgers. They are cancer survivors who have been helped by the MACC Fund, an organization into which Rodgers has put significant time and effort since joining in 2010.
The MACC Fund was co-founded in 1976 by Milwaukee Bucks guard-forward Jon McGlocklin and Eddie Doucette, the Bucks’ original radio announcer. It has contributed more than $48 million to research. Since its inception, the overall cure rate for childhood cancer has gone from 20 percent to 80 percent.
In his short time with the MACC Fund, Rodgers has helped raise more than a million dollars.
And he doesn’t just lend his name.
Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, Rodgers is meeting, talking and helping cancer patients. Sometimes it’s as simple as checking in on a child. Other times it’s signing and sending an autographed picture to Denver for a 15-year-old boy named Sam who recently was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma and soon will lose one of his legs.
Rodgers listens to their stories, he asks questions. For those who have been around during these visits, they are convinced nothing he is doing is contrived or for publicity. They throw out words like “solid” and “consistent” and “steady” when describing him.
MACC Fund executive director John Cary said he’s amazed at how many people and their stories that Rodgers remembers. When someone mentioned Novack to Rodgers recently, a smile came across his face.
He is good at remembering faces. Sometimes names will elude him, but never the stories those faces have told him.
“He’s priceless,” Cary said. “To have somebody of his stature elevate the MACC Fund on a local, statewide and especially national level, it’s just unbelievable. It doesn’t come around very often.
“We would be hard pressed to think of anybody who has done it to the extent Aaron has.”
This all really started when Rodgers was 19 and playing at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., just 15 miles from his hometown of Chico.
His high school youth pastor knew the father of an 11-year-old boy named Daniel who had leukemia. Rodgers befriended the boy and was struck by his courage and what he was going through at such a young age.
Rodgers had suffered a significant knee injury a few years before while playing basketball. He knew what having surgery was like. He understood how difficult going through rehab could be.
But watching his young friend battle cancer was something he couldn’t fathom.
“I just remember thinking how difficult it must be for a kid who is 11 to be going through this,” Rodgers said. “When I was 11, I was playing baseball, basketball and soccer and being active. Not at the hospital going through chemo treatments. It had a big effect on me.”
Rodgers said he never forgot the time he spent with Daniel. When he broke into the NFL and became a star player who could use his name for good, he thought about the things in life that had meant the most to him and the experiences he held tightly.
It led him to the MACC Fund.
He doesn’t like to take credit for the amount of money he’s generated, which includes his annual “An evening with Aaron” event in Milwaukee that raised almost $300,000 in May.
Rodgers points out the organization was around long before him and will be around after him, and it’s people like Cary who are on the frontline. He considers them to be the true heroes.
But a lot of people think Rodgers is a pretty important part, too. It’s why Cary never forgets to thank Rodgers whenever he sees him, even three years into their relationship.
“Let me put it this way, off the field Aaron is as humble as they come,” said Milwaukee attorney David Gruber, a friend of Rodgers who has teamed with him on projects to help raise money and increase awareness for charitable organizations in the state. “I think that’s what people love. John Cary and the people of the MACC Fund, they are eternally, eternally grateful. The families he has touched are eternally grateful.
“When you see these kids, he’s actually become friends with the kids and the families. He stays in touch. He has a tremendous amount of integrity, and he doesn’t necessarily want people to know some of the things he is doing. I respect that.”
Hanging with Maggie
Rodgers was supposed to visit Maggie for 30 minutes. He stayed for more than two hours. He’s her favorite player, not just because he plays for the Packers, but because of what he does for the MACC Fund.
Four days before Rodgers surprised Maggie, her friend, Bo Johnson from Sister Bay, died from cancer at 13.
Maggie was born with a tumor the size of a golf ball under her tongue. She was five weeks old when she was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma and started undergoing chemotherapy. It took 19 months before she was considered cured.
Maggie showed Rodgers the toys in her room, and they tried on hats together. He didn’t seem to care that the cowboy hat he wore around the house was too small for his head.
They played soccer, jumped on the trampoline and together did a rendition of “Heart and Soul” on the keyboard. Rodgers gave her an American Girl Caroline doll as a gift and signed a football, jersey and a Fathead on the family’s ping-pong table.
“A lot of people might look at that and think he’s just doing that for his own PR,” said Eric Conlon, Maggie’s father. “But I’m here to tell you that he couldn’t have been any more genuine. He was here for Maggie and even (her older sister) Catie.
“It was like the cameras weren’t even here. He just did his own thing. They were running around and having a great time. He’s just very genuine. I can’t say that word enough. Genuine.”
When it was time to leave, Rodgers told Maggie how great a job she was doing and how much fun she was to hang out with. He gave Maggie, Catie and her parents a hug.
“It just shows that the MACC Fund means a lot to him,” Maggie said. “And that he’s awesome not just on the field but off the field, too.”
Teaching Dijon to throw
Cary can’t help but get choked up when he thinks back to Rodgers’ visit with Dijon.
Dijon was born with sickle cell anemia but was cured thanks to a bone marrow transplant from his brother, Devin, in 2008. If not for the transplant, Dijon was told he’d live to be no older than 42.
He was doing a promo for the MACC Fund with a film crew at his house in Milwaukee when there was a knock on the door.
Dijon answered to find his favorite player looking back at him.
The two eventually made their way to the backyard to throw the football. Dijon was having trouble with some of his throws, so Rodgers walked over, took Dijon’s hand and put the child’s fingers on the laces, showing him how to grip the ball.
“I was there when he did it,” Cary said. “I cry when I look at it now.”
Rodgers and Dijon also sat down to play a college football video game. Rodgers took his alma mater, California, while Dijon picked Georgia.
Dijon and his Bulldogs beat Rodgers, who uncharacteristically threw a few too many interceptions.
“He is a talented video game player,” Rodgers said. “I don’t play the football games, usually. I’m more an in-person football player. But he beat me fair and square. He whooped me. There were a lot of bad throws.”
Spending time with Brandon
Novack, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2012, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia T-cell when he was 12. He believes he wouldn’t be here without the MACC Fund.
Novack was caught off guard when Rodgers came to surprise him. He had done other interviews for the MACC Fund, so this time wasn’t out of the ordinary.
But like Maggie and Dijon, Novack opened his door to find an MVP quarterback.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Novack said. “It’s like, ‘Is this real life?’”
After he got sick, Novack entered a battle that included a 108-week treatment at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee.
He wasn’t able to play sports at Cedar Grove High School due to how fragile his bones had become while on medical steroids. That turned out to be the hardest part for him, almost as cruel a blow as the cancer itself.
He now helps coach the football team at the school and also has an internship at Harley Davidson.
That day with Rodgers is something he hasn’t forgotten. He likely never will.
“You wouldn’t know him as the quarterback of the Packers,” Novack said. “You would think he’s just another average guy making small talk. That’s probably the coolest thing, is that he’s just so down to earth and makes you feel comfortable with him.”
The work continues
These are some of the success stories, but Rodgers understands things aren’t perfect.
There will be losses for him, far bigger and more painful than any on a Sunday afternoon. They include his friend, Jack Bartosz, who was 10 when he died in August 2012 after an almost 7-year battle with Neuroblastoma.
The fight must go on for people like him.
“That’s the toughest part of being associated with the MACC Fund, is that you realize that we are not at a 100 percent cure rate,” Rodgers said. “There are going to be some major disappointments. The thought might be, ‘Don’t get too close to the kids, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.’
“I’ve tried to take the opposite approach. To love these kids as much as I can in the time I get with them, and let them know that they have somebody who cares about them and is fighting for them.”
Scott Venci writes for Press-Gazette Media, Green Bay