GREEN BAY, Wis. — For 10-year-old cancer survivor Maggie Conlon, hanging out with Aaron Rodgers at her family’s home was an unforgettable experience.
“It was probably the best day of my life,” Maggie said.
For a young girl who battled — and defeated — rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer that she was born with, Maggie didn’t make that statement lightly. But that’s the type of impact that the Green Bay Packers’ star quarterback has had on children like Maggie through Rodgers’ work with the MACC (Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer) Fund.
Rodgers, along with Milwaukee attorney David Gruber, set out in October to visit three children who had successfully overcome cancer. These visits were filmed for an online series titled “It’s Aaron” that help raise awareness for the MACC Fund.
“Aaron was so real and sincere when meeting with these families,” Gruber said. “It’s so positive and gives hope and some normalcy to their lives. They smile and the families are so genuinely happy that we’re bringing recognition to this cause that otherwise wouldn’t get this recognition.
“That’s what Aaron does. He brings recognition to this.”
Many Wisconsin athletes have given their time and money to the MACC Fund since its inception in 1976. Rodgers, however, has taken his involvement above and beyond what others have.
“When you get somebody like Aaron, he elevates the awareness level,” MACC Fund executive director John Cary said. “Aaron once said, ‘What I’ve come to realize, being a Super Bowl MVP gives me a platform and I’m happy that I can have the MACC Fund on that platform.’ He wasn’t prompted to say that. You can just tell there’s a genuineness there and sincerity.”
During an off day this past NFL season, Rodgers traveled two hours south to Milwaukee where he would soon surprise Maggie, Dijon and Brandon. All three were told that they’d be doing some type of interview for the MACC Fund, but none of them had any idea what had actually been planned.
“They said we were doing a mic check, then the doorbell rang,” Maggie said. “I opened the door just expecting the producer to be there, but then I see this guy wearing a t-shirt and black hat and he said, ‘Hi, Maggie.’ He wasn’t in his uniform so it took me a couple seconds, then I was like, ‘Hiiiii, Aaron.’ I was nervous.”
Maggie’s father, Eric Conlon, was told that Rodgers was scheduled to be at their house for 45 minutes. It turned out to be nearly two hours.
“Truly, as great as he is on the football field, he’s a better person,” Eric Conlon said. “He was just wonderful. He wasn’t in a hurry, he wasn’t looking at his watch. He was very interested in Maggie’s story, who she is now and who we are as a family.”
In addition to talking about life, Rodgers and Maggie jumped on a trampoline, played basketball and soccer outside and teamed up to perform a song on the keyboard.
“It didn’t seem like he was a famous superstar,” Maggie said. “He was just someone that was really nice. He was easy to talk to. He was really kind.”
Spending time with Rodgers didn’t just bring a smile to Maggie’s face on that particular day. She still speaks about it in a gleeful tone that displays the importance of how it, in a way, signaled the end of a difficult journey for her that fortunately has a happy ending.
“She was born with a giant bulge under her tongue and her tongue sticking out of her mouth in the birth canal,” Conlon said of his daughter. “Most of her toddler years were spent in the hospital.”
Now, Maggie’s good health and positive attitude shone through brightly while exchanging hugs with Rodgers in what was the first of three “It’s Aaron” videos that were released in recent months.
That same day, Rodgers met with Brandon Novack, a now-23-year-old who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 12.
“Sports was my life, but when I got cancer I could no longer play sports,” Brandon said. “That was one of the most devastating things to me personally was not being able to ever play sports again.”
As a young child, Brandon played football, soccer, basketball and baseball, but his leukemia treatments left his bones brittle. Both of his feet, as well as his spine, fractured just from walking around.
When Rodgers arrived, though, he and Brandon were able to toss a football around in the yard.
“In those two hours, that basically made up for all those years that I couldn’t play sports,” Brandon said. “Getting to play catch and spend a day with the quarterback of your favorite team is pretty remarkable. Being with my favorite player, it was pretty awesome.”
Brandon recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with a degree in business administration and is working an internship with Harley-Davidson.
“I personally believe without the MACC Fund that I wouldn’t be here today,” Brandon said. “Just that in itself is a big deal.”
According to Cary, Rodgers heard Brandon make that exact comment previously. That prompted Rodgers to sign a football for Brandon with a message on the bottom that read: “Brandon, you are an inspiration to me.”
Rodgers first became involved with the MACC Fund three years ago. His passion for the cause is evident. When “60 Minutes” chose to do a feature story on Rodgers, there was an expectation that his work with the MACC Fund was going to be featured. When it wasn’t, Rodgers took several public jabs at the producers.
“I give Aaron all the credit in the world,” Gruber said. “When we first got involved, we were trying to educate people. Aaron decided to do something to share our passion, and that’s how this all came about; shared passions.
“The awareness that he brings to something as important as cancer, it’s so helpful. He brings this awareness and with the attention comes dollars, and with those dollars comes research, research, research.”
In the 37 years since the MACC Fund began, it has raised $45 million that went to cancer research in Wisconsin.
“The overall cure rate for all types of cancer for kids has gone from 20 percent in the mid-1970s up to 80 percent now, and we’ve certainly played a role in that,” Cary said. “The problem is it’s not 100 percent.”
Rodgers’ involvement with the MACC Fund is important in many ways, but spending time with Maggie, Dijon and Brandon on his day off was an important moment for them.
“Without overstating, I think it’s going to make a profound difference in their lives, and that’s a pretty strong statement,” Gruber said. “He follows these kids. He knows what’s going on. It’s not just when the camera is on.
“He’s not one of these folks that just talks about it. He’s special. He’s in the middle of it. He’s real. That’s just who he is.”