Lasting image of John Mackey, version A. It is the mid-1960s, and the Colts' tight end has taken a pass over the middle from Johnny Unitas. Now he is in full rumble downfield. One Bear or Lion or Packer caroms off him, then another, and another. Another Ram or 49er or Viking tries to corral number 88 by the ankles, but Mackey, in full gallop, shucks him, too. He trots the remaining yards to the end zone, then tosses the ball nonchalantly to the referee.
Lasting image of John Mackey, version B. It is October 2009, and on a PBS NewsHour report, a stooped, blank-faced former NFL great is being wheeled down a rehabilitation-center hallway. Nine years earlier Mackey had been diagnosed with dementia, presumably brought on by all the shots he took in his playing days. His ever-patient wife, Sylvia, tells the interviewer, "He doesn't talk anymore. Very rarely." She pats him on the arm. "Who did you play for? Did you play for the Baltimore who? Baltimore... ?" "Colts," John Mackey mumbles. "Right," Sylvia says. "That's right."
ON JULY 6, John Mackey died in Baltimore at the age of 69. Especially for such a powerful, articulate man, this was far too young, but twilight had settled in years before. One of the cruel ironies is that Mackey's death came in the midst of negotiations, and possibly on the cusp of a deal, between NFL owners and players that would end the 4½-month lockout. What's more, Mackey's imprint was all over the current talks, and his condition practically framed the debate. Back in 1970, as the first president of the newly formed players' union, Mackey called a strike that resulted in enhanced benefits and pensions. Two years later, in what became known as the Mackey case, he challenged the Rozelle Rule, under which a team that signed a free agent would have to compensate the team he came from, the effect of which was to stifle player movement; the players won $15.8 million in the ensuing negotiated settlement. And in 2006 Sylvia Mackey wrote to commissioner Paul Tagliabue concerning the plight of her husband and many other retirees. Mackey's NFL pension—less than $2,500 a month—was woefully inadequate to cover the cost of his care. The result was the 88 Plan, named for Mackey's old number, which provides up to $88,000 a year to retirees with football-linked dementia.
On the field, too, Mackey was an agent of change. At Syracuse, then with the Colts from 1963 to '71 and finally for a season with the Chargers, he was the first big (6'2", 224 pounds) tight end who also brought the element of speed (4.6 in the 40). Mackey made five Pro Bowls, and in 1992 he became the second tight end elected to the Hall of Fame. Last year NFL Films named him the 42nd-greatest player in league history.
By DNA or by luck, some former warriors are blessed with long and healthy lives—in SI's recent Where Are They Now? issue, old Packers fullback Jim Taylor, a contemporary of Mackey's, is described as having "settled into the golf life in Baton Rouge." But whether retirees are healthy now or not, their concerns have complicated the current negotiations, especially given recent headlines linking football-induced brain damage to disability and death. While a "legacy fund" for retired players will likely be part of the next collective bargaining agreement, some former players have felt voiceless in the process, so much so that Hall of Famer Carl Eller is leading a group asking that no deal go through unless retirees are guaranteed a place at the table. Their anxieties are not baseless: The cost of health care is soaring while insurance becomes less affordable and less comprehensive. Depending on one's eligibility, the 88 Plan's provisions might not defray the full-time cost of Alzheimer's care, estimated by the Alzheimer's Association to average nearly $40,000 annually for home care and $90,000 a year for institutional care; surely those figures will not get lower.
The players and the NFL are grappling with the same issues that have split the American public as a whole. (Except that the nation is no longer fat and happy, while the league, a $9 billion annual business, at least is fat.) How much, if any, do we take from the current working generation to provide for the needs, often catastrophically expensive, of the elderly? All but a handful of today's players were born after Mackey's career had ended. You can just hear it: Why should we care about some old guys? Besides, the young never think they'll end up like that.
What might Mackey have said about all of this, had he been lucid? His most effective tactic simply might have been to point to himself and say, with no trace of shame, that the lasting image of John Mackey is version B. Look at me, he might have told today's players. Sure, you might be lucky enough to end up like Jim Taylor, swinging a driver in the Louisiana sunshine. Then again, you might not.