Thursday, July 7, 2011

John Mackey Dies

If you go to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, you will see more than 250 players, coaches and owners who are enshrined there.

But only eight of those individuals were tight ends.

In fact, it was a quarter of a century after the Hall of Fame opened its doors that the first tight end was inducted.

John Mackey, who died yesterday at the age of 69, was the second tight end to be inducted — in 1992, 30 years after the Hall of Fame's inaugural class.

His playing days were mostly in the 1960s — from 1963 to 1972 — and most of them were spent with the Colts, back when they were based in Baltimore.

Nearly half of the tight ends in the Hall of Fame never played in a Super Bowl, but Mackey did. He played in two of the first five Super Bowls, winning one and losing one.

The legendary Don Shula, who coached Mackey from 1963 to 1969, said he revolutionized the role of a tight end, and it is hard to argue with that. He played in five Pro Bowls, and he was named to the All–Decade team for the 1960s. Only two of his Baltimore teammates — quarterback Johnny Unitas and cornerback Bobby Boyd — were also named to the team.

There were many things that made John Mackey unique.

For one thing, in Super Bowl V, he set a record for the longest reception for anyone, not just tight ends, in a Super Bowl — his 75–yard TD reception.

(Unfortunately, that game is probably remembered more for other things — like the sloppy play [nearly a dozen turnovers by the two teams combined] and the, in hindsight, rather ordinary field goal that won the game in its closing seconds.)

For another, he missed only one game in a 10–year pro career. Few players at any position can say that.

Ironically, injuries probably forced him to retire earlier than he would have chosen — and injuries, perhaps unrecognized at the time, may have played a role in his death. Mackey suffered from dementia and was forced to move to an assisted–living facility four years ago.

An NFL Players Association president after his playing days were over, Mackey's most important contribution to pro football may well have been the one he made in his last years.

At first, the NFLPA wasn't going to pay disability income because a link between brain injury and pro football had not been proven, but, thanks to the efforts of Mackey and his wife, the policy was changed (emerging medical evidence probably played something of a role in that, too). The NFL and the NFLPA came up with the "88 plan," which provides up to $88,000 annually for nursing home care and $50,000 annually for adult day care.

The figure of 88 originated from the jersey number that Mackey wore. Hopefully, it will be a lasting tribute to a special man.

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