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NFL Great John Mackey’s Death Renews Focus on Brain Trauma Worries

July 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Pro Football Hall of Famer and legendary Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey died Wednesday at age 69 after a struggle with dementia. Ray Suarez looks back at Mackey's work off the field fighting for his fellow players.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, Ray Suarez remembers John Mackey, the Hall of Fame football player who had an impact on and off the field.

RAY SUAREZ: He revolutionized the role of tight end in the National Football League, and later fought for stronger health benefits for retired players as a leader in the NFL Players Association.

John Mackey played for the Baltimore Colts from 1963 to 1971 and later for the San Diego Chargers. He led the Colts to two Super Bowls, including a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in 1971, alongside quarterback Johnny Unitas. In that game, he ran what was at the time the longest touchdown pass in a Super Bowl.

During his 10-year career, he caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns, leading to his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. But he was diagnosed with dementia when he was just 60 years old, and Mackey spent years in this assisted-living facility in Baltimore.

SYLVIA MACKEY, wife of John Mackey: Remember this jacket, honey? Honey, stand up. Look. Look at me. That’s your Hall of Fame — he’s smiling.

(LAUGHTER)

SYLVIA MACKEY: Got his Hall of Fame jacket on and smiling, huh?

RAY SUAREZ: We sat down with him and his wife for a report on NFL players and brain trauma in October 2009.

Sylvia Mackey said she believed a career in the NFL left her husband with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease.

Are there good days and bad days?

SYLVIA MACKEY: Yes, and great days and not-so-great days.

RAY SUAREZ: On the good days, how is it different from — from what we’re seeing now from Mr. Mackey?

SYLVIA MACKEY: He will get up and walk up and down. He can — he will throw and catch the ball. Actually, today would be a good day if it weren’t for the myoclonic twitching. They call it myoclonic jerks.

RAY SUAREZ: And speech?

SYLVIA MACKEY: He doesn’t talk anymore, very rarely.

RAY SUAREZ: Despite that, Mackey could still throw a football around and had some memories of his glory days.

SYLVIA MACKEY: Who did you play for? Did you play for the Baltimore who? Baltimore?

JOHN MACKEY, former NFL player: Colts.

SYLVIA MACKEY: Right. That’s right.

RAY SUAREZ: Health care for former players like Mackey has been an issue in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement for current players. An NFL lockout has been under way since March.

In honor of John Mackey’s jersey number, 88, an NFL labor agreement ratified in 2006 does include a plan that provides up to $88,000 a year for care for ex-players with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Today, in New York, as labor talks continued, Mackey was remembered as the heart and soul of the players union.

DEMAURICE SMITH, National Football League Players Association: There are few leaders, I think, in the history of football that could ever match a man like John. And while he suffered from a number of degenerative conditions over the last few years, I will always remember John as someone who was a tremendous, emotional, eloquent, brilliant leader.

RAY SUAREZ: John Mackey died last night in Baltimore, Md. He was 69 years old.