After his retirement, Mackey remained on the forefront of change in professional football. He pushed for better health care and championed the cause of former players, even as he battled the dementia that ultimately forced him into an assisted-living facility.
The Hall of Famer for the Baltimore Colts died at age 69. Mackey’s wife notified the team about her husband’s death, Ravens spokesman Chad Steele said Thursday. No cause was given.
“John Mackey was one of the great leaders in NFL history, on and off the field,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “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.”
Mackey played for the Colts from 1963-71, during a time when tight ends were viewed as additional offensive tackles. His breakaway speed, soft hands and bruising running made him difficult to cover, giving Johnny Unitas another top target in the passing game.
Together, they helped the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys in the 1971 Super Bowl by connecting on a pass after it deflected off two other players for a 75-yard touchdown. Mackey also played for the San Diego Chargers in 1972, and finished his 10-year career with 331 catches for 5,236 yards and 38 TDs.
His efforts after his playing days were just as important as his performance on the field.
An NFL labor agreement ratified in 2006 includes the “88 Plan,” named for Mackey’s number. The plan provides up to $88,000 a year for nursing care or day care for former players with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or $50,000 for home care.
“John Mackey is still our leader. As the president of the NFLPA, he led the fight for fairness with a brilliance and with ferocious drive,” union executive director DeMaurice Smith said. “His passion continues to define our organization and inspire our players. His unwavering loyalty to our mission and his exemplary courage will never be forgotten.”
Mackey has become closely associated with the plight of many former players who took to the field in an era before million-dollar contracts, safer equipment and better health care coverage.
He suffered from frontotemporal dementia that is believed to have been caused by the contact associated with playing football. The costs associated with his care, which far outpaced Mackey’s pension, led the push toward better health care for former players.
The issue has gained prominence in recent months during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. An NFL lockout has been going on since March.
“John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players,” Smith posted on his Twitter feed Thursday. “He will be missed but never forgotten.”
Mackey was drafted in 1963 out of Syracuse — twice, actually. He was selected by the NFL’s Colts in the second round and the rival AFL’s New York Jets in the fifth round.
He wound up playing for the Colts just as the passing game was taking on a major role in pro football. His size, speed and ability to catch the ball while also blocking in the running game made him the prototype for future generations of tight ends.
“John revolutionized the tight end position during his Hall of Fame career, and he laid the foundation on and off the field for modern NFL players,” Ravens general manager and fellow Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome said.
Mackey caught 35 passes for 726 yards as a rookie in 1963, when he was selected to the first of five Pro Bowls. He also was voted first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press in 1966, ’67 and ’68.
“John set the standard by which tight ends are measured on the field, and he will be sorely missed not only by his family, but also by the entire Baltimore community,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said in a statement.
After he retired, Mackey joined Mike Ditka as the first tight ends selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The John Mackey Award was established to honor the nation’s top college tight end.
Mackey made several trips to the Carrier Dome for Orange home games over the years, but those appearances became less frequent as his condition worsened. One of his last visits was on Sept. 15, 2007, when Syracuse retired his No. 88 jersey in a halftime ceremony against Illinois.
“John was the perfect role model for Syracuse football student-athletes,” Syracuse coach and former NFL player Doug Marrone said. “He was a larger-than-life man and he influenced so many people. Many consider him the greatest tight end in NFL history and he was a pioneer in the development in the NFL Players Association.”