For the past several years, former-Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey had lived in assisted living, suffering from frontotemporal dementia (a mental affliction similar to Alzheimer's disease). This disorder diminished Mackey's communication and memory skills. It also rendered him, at times, 'like a child.' This was a sad, sobering development for a person many once described as 'the smartest guy in the room.' That's saying something considering the other guys likely in the room with Mackey were football legends John Unitas and Raymond Berry.
When you read articles like this one, from CBS News James Klatell, and this one, from CNN, it is hard not to draw a parallel between the problems Mackey developed late in his life and the head injuries many NFL players sustain during the course of their careers.
The NFL's neglect of Mackey is well-documented, and when you see retired players trying to muscle their way into the negotiations between the current players and owners, you should note that they likely have guys like Mackey in their thoughts as a motivation.
Today, the news broke that the great John Mackey has passed away at the age of 69.
Many will write of Mackey's stellar, Hall of Fame career. He is arguably the greatest tight end ever to suit up. He averaged more than 20 yards-per-catch his rookie year, and for the next ten years he carved out a career that many since (including Dallas Clark, Shannon Sharpe, and Brent Jones) have tried to duplicate.
Mackey was also very active, early advocate for players. He was the first president of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), which is the union that represents all active NFL players. A president, Mackey organized a players strike that earned $11 million in pensions and benefits.
"He was the right man at the right time," former Colt Ordell Braase said. "We were a fractured group until John began putting permanence in [the union's] day-to-day operations. He hired administrators and a general counsel.
Mackey was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
But, instead of focusing on his great playing legacy and the leadership he provided for the NFLPA, I think a better tribute to the man is to focus on the work he and his wife, Sylvia, did to to form 'Plan 88,' which the owners and the NFLPA created to provide home care and adult day care expenses for those retired players in need. No. 88 was Mackey's number in Baltimore.
Mackey was a risk taker. He was someone who didn't back down. He fought for what he thought was right. Of all the great Baltimore players of the 1960s and 1970s, Mackey might have been the toughest in body, spirit, and mind. And even when his mind was failing him as he suffered through frontotemporal dementia, he still didn't give in. Plan 88 is proof of that.
Our condolences to the Mackey family, in particular Sylvia. She's been fighting the good fight for some time now.
Rest in peace, Mr. Mackey. Somewhere up there, Johnny U. is tossing you another 75-yard touchdown pass to win the Super Bowl.