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Faith, family and football
How Molly Crosby’s cancer battle strengthened her husband’s own comeback
By Wes Hodkiewicz Oct 05, 2020

There was a bite in the air as Mason Crosby drove his opening kickoff 5 yards into Lambeau Field's south end zone to start off the Packers' Week 6 matchup with the Detroit Lions.

Across town, Molly Crosby was getting the couple's five children ready for bed with an assist from close friend Laura Hawk, who flew in for the weekend to help around the house.

Molly lives for game day. There's no place she'd rather be than in the stands, absorbing the energy of the crowd. That passion dates back to when she was a member of the Colorado-Boulder cheerleading squad, while Mason was a two-time All-American.

This year was different, though.

Molly hadn't attended a single game through the first five weeks of the 2019 NFL regular season in the aftermath of her Aug. 31 surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to remove a neuroendocrine tumor on the bottom lobe of her right lung.

Molly's cancer diagnosis rocked the Crosbys. Mason already had lost several grandparents to the disease and his 30-year-old sister-in-law, Brittany, had been battling ovarian cancer for the better part of three years.

But this hit even closer to home. It was Molly, the spunky, larger-than-life everywoman who ran a half-marathon one month prior to discovering she had cancer.

"A lot of disbelief," Mason said. "She's just the epitome of health. The way she lived is cancer prevention. She did everything in her power."

On that night of the Packers-Lions game, Oct. 14, 2019, Molly and Laura had a standing offer from a family friend to join them in their suite in the south end zone, providing a barrier from the euphoric bumps that accompany big plays in the stadium bowl.

With the kids down for the night, Molly and Laura made their way to the stadium for the second half – and it was only after they took their seats it dawned on Molly the significance of her first in-person game since surgery.

"It wasn't until I got there I realized, 'Oh my gosh, this is the first Detroit game since the game that must not be named,'" Molly said.

The game that must not be named was when Mason lived a professional nightmare against the Lions inside Ford Field the previous October, missing four field goals and an extra point.

This time around, however, things were going considerably better. While the Packers were trailing 13-10 when Molly arrived, Mason already had hit from 37 yards out to close the second quarter and then again from 48 to open the third.

But it wasn't until the waning moments, with the Packers down 22-20, that it became apparent the game likely was going to come down to Mason kicking a game-winning field goal.

"To have Laura there, literally holding my hand while I'm trying to breathe and Mason's taking a kick against the team that just about ended his career in Green Bay, it was craziness," Molly said. "It felt like a year in the making."


The diagnosis

The nightly coughing fits were the first sign something wasn't quite right. They were uncontrollable and relentless, but for some reason, only when Molly sat down or went to bed.

At first, Molly chalked it up to the stress of raising and caring for 1½-year-old twins in a busy household. Mason still encouraged her to see a doctor but Molly was reluctant.

"I was like, 'And do what? Tell them when I sit down at night I cough like crazy?'" Molly said. "He said, 'Yes, that's exactly what you say.'"

As time passed, it became more difficult for Molly to climb the stairs. She also experienced a bloating stomach that had the kids asking if she was pregnant again. "God bless them," says Molly with a laugh.

Finally, at bible study with other Packers wives, Molly told Abby Bulaga how she was feeling. Alarmed, Bulaga gave her the number for Dr. James Ebben, her primary physician who had just joined the Packers, and implored Molly to give him a call.

On the way home, Molly called Dr. Ebben and scheduled an appointment across the street from Lambeau Field at the Bellin Health Titletown Sports Medicine and Orthopedics building.

The initial diagnosis was a middle sinus infection, which would explain the drainage into Molly's lungs every time she sat down. The doctor still wanted to perform additional tests on her chest, though, to check for possible pneumonia. While they were at it, they also scheduled her annual physical.

Molly brought the couple's two eldest children, Nolan and Charlotte, for the checkup, while Elizabeth, Felicity and Christine were napping. Figuring everything would be fine, Molly wanted to bring Nolan and Charlotte over to Titletown afterward to play.

Upon receiving the results of her CT scan, however, Dr. Ebben asked colleague Dr. Pat McKenzie to take the kids down the hallway for a minute.

"And my heart kind of immediately started beating a little faster," Molly said. "I'm pretty sure he held my hand and said, 'You know, we're pretty positive you have a tumor.' He called it that day. 'I think it's a neuroendocrine tumor.'"

Neuroendocrine tumors, like all forms of cancer, are serious, but the blueprint for treatment is rather straightforward. It's a slow-developing cancer that sometimes takes years to diagnose. As long as it wasn't the atypical variety that can spread to the liver, surgery often is successful without the need for further radiation or chemotherapy.

Molly called Mason over from the stadium and told him to meet her and the kids over at "46 Below" in Titletown. She bought the kids ice cream and told Mason what was going on.

"I told him, and he just held me as I cried," Molly said. "I knew it wasn't like you got two months to live. But I still, the amount of fear I felt is not what I expected from myself in that sort of situation. But it was very real. I was terrified."


'Pure shock'

Telling the kids was the hardest part. Mason and Molly didn't want to scare them, so they sought advice from friends who'd battled cancer and bought books to make it relatable.

The Crosbys pulled aside their three eldest children individually and Nolan was by far the easiest. It wasn't just how well the 9-year-old took the news – he turned out to know more about the lungs than either Mason or Molly.

"We sat Nolan down and said, 'Nolan, I have lung cancer. It's my right lobe. They're going to take it out surgically,'" Molly said. "And he gives me a big hug and says, 'Mom, I think you're going to be OK. Your right lobe has actually more lung to it so … they're just going to take the bottom one off. You're going to be OK.' He gave me a hug and got up."

Nolan was correct – the right lung, where Molly was set to have roughly 25% removed, was larger.

The talk with Charlotte, their 6-year-old at the time, also went OK. As "the biggest feeler" in the Crosby household, Charlotte teared up a little as her parents expected but was reassured when Molly told her how the doctors felt about mommy's prognosis.

The hardest conversation was with Elizabeth, who was coming up on her fourth birthday. Given Elizabeth's serious and "stone-cold" demeanor, Molly expected her response to be, "Can I help cut you open?" when they told her.

She immediately burst into tears, a reaction that choked up both Mason and Molly. Looking to cheer the kids up, Molly took them to swim at the Oneida Country Club pool. The water was good for everyone – maybe even a little too good.

The Crosbys hadn't told many about Molly's cancer at that point, but that didn't stop Charlotte from exclaiming to anyone who could hear: "Everybody, mom's got the cancer but she's gonna be fine," and then doing a cannonball into the pool.

"Our kids were just so great through it all," Mason said. "I talk about my faith some, and just knowing (the kids) had the faith and trust in us that we were picking the right doctors, that mommy was going to be OK. They didn't have to worry or be fearful about what was going to be happening to their mom because of the faith we've created in our house."

After informing hers and Mason's families, Molly's next move was to send a text to her group chat with several other Packers' wives – a group that's communicated with each other on almost a daily basis for a decade.

Laura Hawk, now an interior designer in Ohio, was driving with her assistant to a project site in Cincinnati when she received a text from Molly asking to FaceTime with everyone because there's something she needed to tell them. That raised a red flag.

"We're like, 'Either she's pregnant with another kid or it's really serious,'" Laura said. "I had the audio on when she told us and my heart just literally sank since I knew they'd already been going through stuff with Mason's brother and his wife Brittany, who has been sick and battling."

And that call to Brittany and Mason's brother, Rees, might have been the most difficult of all. The Crosbys already had been through so much after Brittany was diagnosed with Stage 3-C ovarian cancer at only 27 years old in 2016.

"Pure shock," said Rees of their reaction. "Cancer doesn't discriminate but Molly's in fantastic shape and she probably never even touched a pack of cigarettes with her hand.

"It's hard knowing what you know and then hearing someone else have that diagnosis. It gets real. Because you know it's not easy. You know what could happen. You know what they might have to go through."


The good fight

The summer was long and arduous. Not only was Molly scheduled for surgery the day before the Packers were set to begin training camp, but Mason also was fighting for his job against credentialed kicker Sam Ficken.

Once they gathered themselves, Mason and Molly put together a plan for how they were going to attack her diagnosis. Before the surgery, at the insistence of close friends in the medical community, the Crosbys flew over to Rochester for a consultation at the Mayo Clinic.

The doctors at Mayo performed one additional test that revealed a blood clot in a tricky spot in Molly's lung, tucked below her heart and near her spine. If not for that test, the clot could've ruptured during surgery.

Molly was put on blood thinner shots for the remainder of August and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed Molly to enjoy an extra month of summer with the kids, while Mason concentrated on the kicking competition.

Molly was finally scheduled for surgery the morning after the Packers' preseason finale against Kansas City. With Molly's father, Dan, helping her with pre-op in Rochester, Mason played against the Chiefs and flew overnight with Molly's mom, Cheryl, to be there in time for the 5½-hour procedure.

The surgery, performed by Dr. Shanda Blackmon, was a massive success, as Dr. Blackmon needed to remove only 10% of Molly's right lobe than the 25% the Crosbys anticipated.

When Molly came to on Saturday morning, she woke up with Mason at her bedside in the hospital…and soon a phone call.

"He said, 'Hey, you did fine. Everything went really good,' and then he said, 'Oh my gosh, it's the Packers calling.'" Molly recalled. "I'm just sitting there looking at him. I couldn't really tell what was going on. And then he said, 'Well, they're going to keep me one more year.' The relief we felt that morning – I had a great cancer surgery. We weren't going to be moving. Just the relief and the joy was so complete."

Rees and Brittany hadn't flown at all in 2019 due to chemotherapy treatments compromising Brittany's immune system, but there was no way they weren't going to be there when Mason and Molly needed them most.

So Rees and Brittany flew into Austin-Straubel International airport, grabbed the keys to the Crosby family van and were there to pick up Molly and her parents once they landed back in Green Bay.

"I will always remember seeing the two of you at the airport to get me and she was so sweet about it all," Molly said. "Rees and Brittany hadn't been around us much because of our walking petri dish of a family and her need for extreme cleanliness to protect her fragile immune system. But they wanted to be there – and they were the ones who got me from the airport when I flew back from surgery. That was the last time I saw Brittany."


'Live Life On Purpose'

Cancer was no match for Brittany Crosby. She embraced obstacles with unapologetic positivity, sorrow with endless love, and setback with unflinching resolve.

She never looked back – only forward. She never asked why – only trusted. Even in the darkest moments, Brittany saw light. Her motto, "Live Life On Purpose," was engrained in her soul.

The Crosby kids adored their Aunt Brittany, especially Charlotte. While cancer made it increasingly difficult for Brittany and Rees to trek up to Green Bay as often as they would've liked, every trip was deep and memorable.

So when Brittany heard the news about Molly, she was willing to move mountains to be there to support her sister-in-law.

"It wasn't like we should go do this – it was we have to go do this," Rees said. "Brittany was like, 'This sucks but we're going to be OK. I'm right here. I've gone through all these things and I'm still right here. We're going to be good. It's one of those things where we're not going anywhere. You're not going anywhere. We're family. We're right here together.'"

Molly used a breathing machine for those few days post-op, technology Rees and Brittany knew all too well, and a specialty pillow covering her lungs to protect against the realities of being a mother with five children who are ecstatic that mom's home.

Molly and Brittany laughed together about using spirometers to work out their lungs, and Molly wound up buying more off Amazon for everyone to sit and have competitions with the kids.

Brittany and Rees stayed to celebrate Mason's 35th birthday on Sept. 3 and even drove down to Chicago with family friends to watch the Packers' opener with the Bears two days later before then returning home to Texas.

"It meant a lot, just knowing what it took for them to get up here and the risk she took of her own health," Molly said. "Part of me felt so bad because (of her prognosis), but she was like, 'No. You need to be fully happy. Don't feel bad for a second that I'm not getting the news that you are,' which is very much like her."

Brittany and Rees continued their adventures for another two months, with a couple more procedures in Texas mixed in. Then, in the wee hours of the morning after Thanksgiving, Mason's parents, Karen and Jim, woke the couple.

"We sat up, and they said, 'Brittany just went to be home,'" Molly said. "We just lost it. It was terrible. We all just sat there and held each other and cried. I called my neighbor and I said, 'Hey, I need help. We need to go right now. Mason needs to hold Rees.'"

Friends helped the couple pack, and the Crosbys booked a flight to Texas that night. Mason spent Saturday morning with Rees and family, and then caught an evening flight to New York to rejoin the team before its game against the Giants.

Mason made all five kicks he attempted at MetLife Stadium in a 31-13 win over the Giants before going back to Texas that night to be there for his only brother and celebrate the incredible life of the young and powerful woman who inspired so many.

"We're sad every day that that light in our world is not here anymore but she left such an amazing legacy – not because of cancer, in spite of cancer," Mason said. "You just saw a light in the world through people who were going through some really tough times and not making excuses. Just trying to live life to the fullest."


Inner strength

With Mason set to embark on his 13th season with the Packers, a tidal wave of friends and neighbors came out in support of the family during Molly's recovery in September 2019.

A rotation of parents picked up the kids and ran them to school, while others brought food. There's one family that continues to bring over chicken parmesan once a month to this very day.

Family friends Marcia and McKenna Coffey were essential for Molly during that first month post-op, especially when it came to keeping the kids entertained and the house right-side up.

"I feel much more comfortable helping other people than being helped but I could literally do nothing," Molly said. "I thought for sure a week after surgery I'd be OK because I'm prideful like that. But I can't hold our twins. I can't pack lunches. I can't do hair. About all I can manage right now is to be awake for two to three hours at a time."

Laura Hawk, as the wife of former Packers' first-round pick A.J. Hawk and sister of former Cleveland quarterback Brady Quinn, understood how trying an NFL season can be on a family under even optimal conditions, let alone one battling cancer.

So Laura made a standing offer to her longtime friend to fly up to Green Bay to help around the house whenever there were no family or friends on-site…and Molly took her up on it before the Packers' Monday Night Football game against the Lions.

"As a mom, that is harder than anything that you could possibly do is to ask for help," Laura said. "That is a sign of the strongest woman you can have because she has so much on her plate and she never wanted to sit. She wanted sit there and help with homework. She wanted to be a part of things. It was almost like I had to mom her a bit. Like, 'I need yourself to rest.'"

Laura could only smile when she put her bags down in the Crosby's spare bedroom and saw Molly had prepared a welcome basket on the nightstand, complete with snacks and toiletries.

The two hit it off from the moment Mason was drafted to Green Bay in 2007 and had their four pregnancies at the pretty much the same intervals, with the Crosbys' last resulting in twins.

That's what made the weekend so special for Laura, who hadn't seen Nolan, Charlotte and Elizabeth in some time. She cleaned, went to the grocery store, cooked and played with all five kids.

"She is a force of nature. We used to joke she had a twin locked in a closet somewhere," Molly said. "The amount of love in that woman is unbelievable. She has an incredible business, four children of her own, A.J.'s just exploding with his reporting and broadcasting. And she put it all aside to come out and clean my house, and cook for me."

As the weekend drew to a close, Molly got an offer from Dan Ariens and Jeff Schwager to stop by Lambeau Field to watch Mason from their suite if she physically felt up to it.

After thinking it over, Molly and Laura joined them in the second half of what turned out to be one of the most memorable games of Mason's career.


The perfect ending

Temperatures hovered near freezing as Aaron Rodgers knelt down to close a monstrous 6-minute, 44-second drive. Now, it was up to Mason to drill a game-winning kick with two seconds left and complete a comeback one year in the making.

It was a relatively simple kick, especially in comparison to everything the Crosby family had been through over the prior months. But yet it felt so far from where Molly was seated.

With Molly watching from that same end zone, time stood still as long snapper Hunter Bradley delivered the ball to holder JK Scott and Mason drilled it through the uprights from 23 yards away to the roar of the Lambeau Field crowd.

One year after missing five kicks against the Lions, Crosby made all five of his attempts (three field goals, two extra points) to seal Green Bay's 23-22 comeback victory to improve to 5-1.

"When he kicked that thing through, her face – you could tell," Laura Hawk said. "I know she was exhausted. I know her body was telling her I need to go to bed. It was so late and you could see her whole self just lit up, and she was so thankful for being there.

"It was the greatest moment and it was such a beautiful ending to this perfect story of recovery and survival. It couldn't have been in a book or in a movie. It could not have ended more perfectly than that."

It had been a recurring joke that Mason, the second-longest tenured player on the roster behind Rodgers, had never performed a Lambeau Leap before.

It was the veteran kicker's contention that only a long, game-winning field goal would be worthy of the honor. Even then, he'd have to run down the field to do it and that seemed anticlimactic.

Scott and Bradley disagreed. After Mason nailed the kick against the Lions, the two specialists ushered him to the stands with Bradley helping lift him into the crowd. An emotional Molly cheered on Mason from above.

"I'm just so proud of the fight and the woman that she is," Mason said. "We joked now, after the fact, I should've seen if I could've gotten the fans to like crowd surf me up and I could've gotten all the way up and given her a hug."

Despite all the adversity, Mason had the best season of his career in 2019. He made 22-of-24 field goals to tie Jan Stenarud's franchise record for single-season accuracy (91.7%).

It was the perfect opportunity for the franchise's all-time leading scorer to test the waters in unrestricted free agency. But after talking things through with Molly, Mason made it known there was only one place he wanted to work and officially re-signed with the Packers on 2-22-2020.

"How do you leave the people who held your hand? And brought meals? And picked up your kids? And did so much more. It made it impossible," Molly said. "What more could you ever ask for? Because we feel like it's such a special place filled with special people and the organization is second to none.

"You have to take a second and just look at the blessings and realize the grass is never going to be any greener than Green Bay."

As Mason moves into his 14th season in Green Bay, this past year has crystallized the reasons behind his and Molly's longstanding partnership with the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation and why it's important to continue funding cancer research, especially after Molly's adopted father, Dan, was diagnosed with bladder cancer in January.

Molly was deemed cancer free during a checkup right before the country went into a lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her next appointment is scheduled for this week, a biannual process that'll continue for the next four years.

If cancer taught Molly anything, it's to appreciate today. She quotes a line from the Richard A. Swenson book "A Minute of Margin," in saying not to live "in the tyranny of the urgent."

There was time when her life revolved around whether the laundry was finished, but no longer. Instead, she values the time she has with Mason and her kids because those are precious moments you can't get back.

In September, Mason and Molly got a box of butterflies for their five kids and released them together as a family in memory of Aunt Brittany. While Brittany no longer is here with them, her mantra of living life to the fullest is something the entire Crosby family carries with them.

"Every once in a while, I would say maybe once a day, I take a breath for some reason and I just get tears in my eyes, just so thankful breathing doesn't hurt," Molly said.

"Cancer puts this very healthy pressure on me to be spending my days the right way. I'm not guaranteed anything. If I don't get past this day, am I good with how I spent it? It sounds like every country song you've ever heard … but (cancer) took it out of my head and put it into something I could do."

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