My father is the man who inspired in me a passionate love of football. He was born in Baltimore and despite moving around the country throughout his childhood before finally settling in Miami, he was a Colts fan. In 1965 the Dolphins were founded and my father noted it with passing interest, he began to root for them (after all eventually they hired former Colts coach Don Shula) but he always kept his true passion for his hometown team up in Baltimore. It was not until the Colts snuck to Indianapolis, on the fateful day in 1984, that my father dropped them and fully embraced the Dolphins.
When I went to Canton with my dad in 2005 I thought it was a trip for me, a culmination of my childhood so to speak. We were going to watch my idol, the great Dan Marino, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Little did I know the trip would end up being as much for him as it was for me. We stood on a street corner in a blue-collar part of downtown Canton and watched the Hall of Fame parade roll through the city and I watched my father light up like a kid once again in the presence of his childhood heroes. Great players like Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and Art Donovan, but two of the players my father loved most from those great Colts teams were not there, the late Johnny Unitas and tight end John Mackey.
In many ways, more than watching Dan Marino connect one last fateful time with Mark Clayton during his induction speech, watching my father reconnect with a game that was so meaningful to his childhood was the best part of the trip, hell one of my favorite memories all-time. Inside the hallowed halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame I watched him linger in front of the busts of two players, Johnny Unitas, his all-time favorite (and the one man he’ll consistently argue was actually better than Marino) and John Mackey. You could see an almost tangible glimmer of nostalgia in his eyes and a contented smile would come across his face.
In his mind, and in actuality in many cases, these were the men who made the game what it is today. These were the pioneers that turned the NFL from novelty to mainstay. These were his heroes.
This morning word came that John Mackey, the legendary tight end from the Baltimore Colts had passed away at 69 years old. In the NFL Mackey changed how the tight end position was played, he was well before his time. He made the tight end position relevant for the first time in the downfield passing game. Defenders routinely bounced off of him after the catch, in 1966, 6 of his 9 touchdown receptions went for over 50 yards. He was so athletic when he broke into the league in 1963, that despite being a tight end the Colts used him to return kicks.
“John Mackey was one of the great leaders in NFL history, on and off the field,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“He was a Hall of Fame player who redefined the tight end position. He was a courageous advocate for his fellow NFL players as head of the NFL Players Association. He worked closely with our office on many issues through the years, including serving as the first president of the NFL Youth Football Fund. He never stopped fighting the good fight.”
However, for all the kind words about John Mackey, he is the quintessential example of why the NFL has to address taking care of its retired players. As much as John Mackey did for the NFL, when he needed them most they didn’t do a whole lot for him.
John Mackey was battling Alzheimer’s and by the end of his life had succumbed to serious dementia. Even in 2005, he was unable to make it to Canton because of his condition at that point. While the NFL was parading around his memory and accomplishments his family was going into debt, his wife un-retiring to pay his rising medical costs, his daughter finding work closer to home so she could help be his caregiver, all while the NFL declined to offer any additional support beyond his meager 1,950 dollar a month pension.
As of 2005, the last time statistics of this nature were available, the NFL had 7,500 players covered by the NFL disability plan with only 135 of them receiving the benefits (per the Wall Street Journal). Though media attention and the increasing influence of player advocates for retirees has helped things in the past six years, consensus still states the NFL isn’t doing enough. Instead retired players are forced to turn to groups like the NFL Players Association, Alumni Association, Mike Ditka’s foundation and other groups like the 88 Plan (the foundation started in honor of Mackey, to help players facing similar plights). All do a fantastic job, but none can hope to handle the problem without the NFL stepping up.
As the NFL reportedly inches towards finalizing a new CBA, let’s hope that the needs and concerns of the generation that made this great game are heeded. John Mackey and Johnny Unitas, beyond their amazing feats and accomplishments, once inspired in a little boy a love of the game of football, and that boy has grown up a lifelong fan of the game and imparted that love on to his own son. In many ways that’s just as big an impact as any catch, any touchdown.
John Mackey was a living legend that helped shape the direction of the sport, he was an inspiration to many. And as tragic as his decline and passing are, it would be worthy of his legacy if his passing causes the men on both sides of the NFL Labor issues to give pause and make sure they’re looking out for the men that made the game into the national pastime it is today.
RIP John Mackey.