Leland Stein III

Mackey changed how NFL looked at brain injuries

In sports column on August 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Mackey’s plight brought NFL brain injuries to forefront

By Leland Stein III

The NFL game has changed tremendously over the last 40 years, and, along with the size and speed of the players and the original position definitions. None has evolved more than the tight end position.

Originally use only as another offensive lineman, Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey showed all what that position could become with their unique blend of size, power blocking and ability to run out in space.

While Ditka could surely catch the football he was more a bruiser after the catch, while Mackey had the nimbleness and speed of a wide receiver.

I remember sitting with my Dad when Mackey in Super Bowl V, caught a 75-yard touchdown pass that fueled his Baltimore Colts’ 16-13 victory over Dallas. I was like wow, that big man can sure motor.

While covering a Super Bowl in 2002, I attended a NFL Hall of Fame event and I found myself sitting with Mackey and his wife, Sylvia, I was like a kid in a candy store.

Much to my chagrin as I started conversing with John, I quickly noticed that his discourse was distorted and all over the place. That is when Sylvia leaned over and told me to be patient, because her husband was suffering a form of dementia.

She had him garbed in his signature black cowboy hat, Super Bowl ring and a polo Hall of Fame shirt with his ring. She cajoled me to just be myself and continue to talk to John.

When Mackey died recently at age 69, all those fond memories came rushing back to me. The man who revolutionized the tight end position from 1963 to 1972, unknowingly has also vividly advertised the growing problem of early-onset dementia among veterans of his era.

Mackey was the vehicle, but his wife was the lightening rod that kept the focus on a problem that the NFL really did not want to deal with or acknowledge. Because of the greatness of the player and the tenacity of his wife, who refused to put her husband on a shelf, no matter his condition, as a result, there have been some small concessions implemented. 

Mackey was officially diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia in 2000, (his wife says it started in the ‘80’s) the same year that the owner of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, told ESPN he would push his oft-concussed quarterback Troy Aikman into crucial games because “there is no evidence of any long-term, lasting impact” from head trauma in the N.F.L. A few years later, a committee of doctors appointed by the league published several papers making the same claim, to the howls of more independent experts.

While the N.F.L. gained fame with NFL Films that highlighted the history of the league, especially videos featuring the hallowed Colts of John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Bubba Smith and Mackey, Sylvia, now 60-year’s-old, became a United Airlines flight attendant to pay mounting medical bills. She grew so distraught that she wrote a three-page letter to Paul Tagliabue, the departing N.F.L. commissioner, to alert him to what was happening to one of the game’s legends.

Sylvia’s haunting description of dementia — “a slow, deteriorating, ugly, caregiver-killing, degenerative, brain-destroying tragic horror,” she called it — almost brought Tagliabue to tears. He and the players union swiftly created a fund that would pay up to $88,000 in medical expenses to the families of retired players with dementia. Why $88,000? John Mackey wore No. 88. It continues today simply as the 88 Plan, forever identified with Sylvia as much as John.

A total of 166 players and counting have benefited from the 88 Plan over the years. Their age distribution also helped confirm that N.F.L. players were, indeed, receiving diagnoses of dementia or other memory-related diseases earlier and more often than other American men, prompting Congressional hearings and safety-related reform.

Still Hall of Famer Gale Sayers is still not happy with the pace of help coming for his brethren, saying: “(The NFL) could have helped him more, I felt. But they didn’t, and the players (NFLPA) could have helped more, and it didn’t happen.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or at Twitter @lelandsteinIII

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