John Mackey goes to his grave as both a magnificent Hall of Fame receiver and a cautionary tale to all who play games of violent contact. He was a hurricane of a man when he had a football in his hands and would-be tacklers bouncing off of him left and right, but his body was only human, after all.
Often called the greatest tight end in National Football League history, Mackey died Thursday, at 69, after a ten-year struggle with frontal temporal dementia.
The disease ultimately took away all his memories: his 75-yard touchdown catch from John Unitas that helped the Colts win Super Bowl V, of his pioneering work that helped bring the NFL Players Association into the modern era of million-dollar contracts, and of his own family.
A generation of Baltimore Colts’ fans still recalls Mackey’s astonishing bulldozer runs, and the voice of announcer Chuck Thompson crying, “There’s Mackey with the catch, and he’s running over people…”
At six-feet-two inches and 225 pounds, with speed and power, nobody wanted a piece of him.
Both The Sporting News and the NFL Network named Mackey the No. 1 Tight End of All Time. On The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, Mackey was 48th.
A graduate of Syracuse University and the Colts’ top draft choice in 1963, Mackey revolutionized the tight end position. Before him, tight ends mostly caught short passes for less than ten yards.
In Mackey’s first year, of his nine touchdown receptions, six went for more than 50 yards. Twice, he averaged more than 20 yards a catch over the course of a full season, and his career average was about 16 yards a catch.
Much of that yardage came on Mackey’s sheer brute strength.
He was part of that golden era of Colts’ football that included a Super Bowl triumph and three conference championships during Mackey’s nine years in Baltimore, and emotional ties that stayed with Mackey.
When he was elected to pro football’s Hall of Fame in 1992, the NFL wanted him to receive the honors in Indianapolis, where the Colts had moved eight years earlier. Nothing doing, said Mackey. He’d receive it in Baltimore, or forget about it.
He was handed his Hall of Fame ring at Memorial Stadium, the scene of his greatest football moments, before a roaring crowd at halftime of an exhibition game, at a time when Baltimore was bidding for a new team and many of its former players, including Mackey, were trying to help that effort.
But the frontal temporal dementia robbed Mackey of his memories and helped alert today’s players and reluctant NFL officials about the dangers of their often-violent sport.
“Sometimes,” Mackey’s wife Sylvia said in an interview one night, “John and I will catch some of those old films and see those great runs he made. He’ll look at me and say, ‘Is that me?’ And I say, ‘Yes, John, that’s you.’”
His well-chronicled illness forced sometimes-reluctant NFL officials and the Players Association to concede the long-term dangers of their sport. The players association initially refused to pay any disability income, denying there was any link between colliding helmets and brain injury.
But, as Mackey’s illness became more apparent, and the list of other players with similar problems lengthened, pro football established the so-called "88 Plan," named after Mackey’s number, that provided $88,000 a year for nursing home care.
Mackey spent his last four years in such a facility, the Keswick Nursing Home.
He was an astonishing figure with a football in his hands, but a poignant reminder, in his final years, of a sport’s violent nature.