John Mackey Did More For The NFL Than Just Play Football
Full disclosure: I’m 28-years-old. Which means I obviously never saw John Mackey play a single down of football for the Baltimore Colts back in the 1960s and 1970s. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate what Mackey—who passed away on Wednesday after suffering with dementia for the last few years—brought to the game both on and off the field over the course of the last 50 years.
For starters, Mackey was a hell of a competitor during his playing days. A 230-pound tight end who ran the 40 in approximately 4.6 seconds, Mackey helped revolutionize his position by forcing defenses to change the way they covered the tight end position. He could catch deep passes and score touchdowns, a trait that most tight ends didn’t possess at the time. It led to Mackey receiving a 1992 nomination in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio and solidified his role as one of the premiere tight ends of his era.
But Mackey did more—so much more—in his role as a football player off of the playing field. In 1970, he assumed the role of president of the NFL‘s newly-organized players’ union and worked tirelessly to advocate for free agency in the league. He was personally offended when, early on in his career, he was handed a contract and told to sign it in order to continue playing. He took that incident and ran with it, eventually helping other NFL players to utilize free agency to get the best deals possible for themselves and their families. He also initiated a players’ strike back in 1970 that led players to receive increased benefits and pensions once their playing days were over.
Mackey also led other more recent crusades against the NFL as well. In May 2006, his wife Sylvia wrote to Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner of the NFL, to reveal that her husband was suffering from dementia and putting his entire family in financial trouble as a result of it. The NFL and the NFL’s players’ union responded by creating what they called the 88 Plan—No. 88 was Mackey’s jersey number—which granted up to $88,000 a year to former NFL players suffering from dementia.
As I said earlier, I never got the opportunity to see John Mackey play a single down in the NFL. But his death brings to light the many things that he did during his playing days and right up through his death to help make the league what it is today. And as the NFL players and owners continue to bicker over the lockout and try to hammer out a new deal, it’s important that we remember all of the things Mackey did for the league. He’d be proud to see the NFL players standing up and fighting for their rights.
Now let’s just hope some other players out there pick up the torch and continue to fight for the causes Mackey believed in. Because you didn’t have to see him play to understand just how valuable he was to the NFL—or how much he will be missed by it.