Sylvia Mackey noticed the first ominous signs seven years ago. Herhusband cashed a $10,000 check he inexplicably was carrying in his wallet,then gave half of the money to an acquaintance he hadn't seen in four decades.
"I thought that was strange," she says in what can only be regarded aspolite understatement. "Someone gave him a sob story and he volunteered tolend this person $5,000 -- cash."
Soon, the symptoms she saw transcended excessive generosity: Her husbandwas lying in bed for hours at a time, engrossed by the Weather Channel;leaving business proposals sent to him by associates unopened; sinking intohollow, cliche-filled conversation.
These were extraordinary changes in her husband, John Mackey, a man ofmammoth proportions, who while playing for the Baltimore Colts became the mostfeared tight end in professional football, stood up to arrogant owners andfought discrimination when few were.
The changes at first infuriated Sylvia Mackey.
"You're angry at him for beginning to act stupid, or not normal," she says."I'm thinking: 'He has nothing to do. Why is he so lazy? What has happened?' "
It wasn't until much later that Sylvia Mackey learned that her husband hasa relatively rare form of dementia, a degenerative mental disease.
Watching John Mackey scribble autographs recently during an appearance at aBorders bookstore in Towson, it seems inconceivable that anything about himhas deteriorated: At 62, his 6-foot-2 frame is still as straight as a Virginiapine, he has hands as steady and sure as when he was hauling down passes, andhis weight is 10 pounds below his high school playing days.
When he speaks, though, it becomes apparent something is not quite right.
"Don't forget," he admonishes a stranger, "I'm sending you out for atouchdown."
Asked if he is proud of the 75-yard touchdown pass he caught to help theColts win Super Bowl V in 1971, Mackey replies in a voice that is vigorous intone but empty in content: " 'I' means you can't see. 'Me' means you'remissing everything. But when you play together as a team -- T-E-A-M: togethereveryone achieves the mission, or more. And 'we' means win and enjoy."
He offers, without prompting, "Physical age is how you take care ofyourself, and spiritual age is how you think. So I say, chronological doesn'tcount, physically 32, and spiritually, a kid at heart."
Book just published
While there is never a good time for such things, the timing of Mackey'sillness seems especially cruel, because it has denied him the enjoyment fromthe publication of Blazing Trails: Coming of Age in Football's Golden Era, abook chronicling Mackey's childhood, the racism he endured and hisextraordinary college and professional football accomplishments.
The book, published in late August, is the culmination of a dream Mackeyhad for two decades.
"He's been trying to do a book for years," says Sylvia, his wife of almost40 years. "He wanted to get the story out because he thought it'sinspirational, and important for people to know all aspects of him andfootball, and how it has changed."
John Mackey still relishes the limelight, evident by the disarming grinthat sweeps across his face as he shows off to admiring fans his oversizedSuper Bowl ring, or gives autographs.
He inscribes his name, followed by "88," then, on a second line: "H.O.F. --92."
For Mackey aficionados -- and there are many, even though it's been 31years since he last walked onto a football field -- the code is easy todecipher. The "88" is the number that was emblazoned on his blue and whitejersey for nine years while playing for the Colts; the "H.O.F. -- 92"signifies the year he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
But he remembers so little else. He doesn't recall seeing his grandchildrenmoments after visiting with them, or the names of persons to whom he's beenintroduced five seconds earlier, or the destinations and purposes of tripsdespite frequent reminders, or even most of the contents of his book.
Sylvia Mackey regards Blazing Trails as a legacy for the public, so thatpeople "know how instrumental he was in making change," as well as for herfamily, which includes two daughters and a son, all grown, and fivegrandchildren.
"They have a lot to be proud of, no matter what condition he ends up in,"she says. "And they can hand that book down forever and a day."
For all it does cover, Blazing Trails does not refer to Mackey's disease,and only his closest friends and family have known of his illness.
"Here is a fellow who five years ago was a different person," says PeteWright, a corporal with the Howard County Police Department who frequentlychaperones Mackey to autograph sessions. "Now, he's more in the past."
A slow deterioration
The Mackeys believed life after football would be quite different.
Indeed, it was at the beginning.
Upon retiring at the end of the 1972 season with the San Diego Chargers,John Mackey was involved with several business deals, and Sylvia was asuccessful model, providing the couple with a comfortable if not lavishlifestyle in California.
Slowly, though, Mackey grew indifferent to his business relationships andthe family's finances, until he neglected them altogether. The familyincreasingly depended upon the money Sylvia earned as a model and incommercials.
Among those she modeled for were Vogue magazine and the catalogs for Searsand J.C. Penney. She also appeared in numerous commercials for McDonald's, Nestle Tea, 7UP and communications giant AT&T.
The money was good but not dependable, ranging from $90,000 one year to$11,000 in another. Nor did modeling and commercial work provide benefits,like medical insurance.
Sylvia Mackey at first tried nudging her husband. "I said, 'What are youdoing?' And he kept saying, 'Oh, I'm going to a get a job.' "
He never did, so five years ago, at the age of 57, Sylvia Mackey began asecond career as a flight attendant for United Airlines to help make endsmeet.
It was at this time that her husband's behavior began changing morenoticeably: John Mackey's memory was fading; he was often lethargic; and whenhe was busy, it usually was with the trivial.
One day Sylvia Mackey returned home to find her husband anxious to show offa tiny shelf he had constructed.
"I'm thinking a big businessman like you doesn't get a joy out of puttingthis little shelf together and showing it to me like he's so proud," sherecalls. "It really wasn't cute, or pretty or anything."
Another, more troubling, trait was also emerging: John Mackey's tone becamethreatening -- "violent" in the words of his wife. Those eruptions for a timesevered the relationship with his youngest daughter, Laura, now 35.
"He used profanity. He called me a bitch," she recalls. "I wouldn't standfor it from anyone. I was shocked that he would use that type of language withme, because I was always the baby to him."
She didn't speak with her father for two months.
Back to Baltimore
Sylvia Mackey was confused by her husband's erratic behavior andintemperate outbursts.
It wasn't until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when she waslaid off for three months from United Airlines and had time to observe herhusband around the clock, that she was gripped by alarm that he was seriouslyill.
Her fears were confirmed shortly after by neurological specialists at theUniversity of California at Los Angeles, who diagnosed John Mackey withfrontotemporal dementia.
The disease, the cause of which is not certain, is relatively rare,incurable and typically worsens with time. It affects one's ability to think,and serious changes in personality and behavior and significant memorydenigration are common.
"After that diagnosis, I realized that he wasn't going to be a majorcontributing factor in our financial affairs anymore," Sylvia Mackey recallsthinking. "I had to do everything."
Even with her husband's pension from playing in the NFL -- about $1,900 amonth -- and the money he earned from occasional personal appearances, sheknew that in time their savings would be wiped out.
"I realized, to make life easier, we had to get out of California," shesays. "I cut our living expenses by more than half. And I thought, what a morefitting place to live than Baltimore. It's like coming full circle."
She moved them to Baltimore last year, purchasing a condominium in CrossKeys.
Some stick by
Sylvia Mackey rarely expresses sorrow, but sometimes the regret can't beconcealed.
"It's so sad," she says, pausing for a long second. "There is nothing thatcan be done to treat it, only medications that can be tried to slow down ortemporarily arrest a certain behavior. I read about things that look hopeful... but the research is 10 years away."
A common symptom of the disease is becoming obsessive, and Mackey hasbecome fanatical about his physical health. After ballooning to more than 300pounds after retiring from football, he's down to 207 now, less than heweighed in high school.
"I don't want to become a sumo wrestler," he says.
And he's just as likely to spontaneously tell people about the merits ofred wine.
Never a drinker, Mackey now enjoys a daily glass after hearing it was goodfor you. "Whenever you're in your 60s, it's red wine," he says, "because theNFL doctors said it gets iron to your heart and keeps you above ground. ...Never liquor and never beer."
Because her job requires her to be out of town for days at a time, SylviaMackey has developed a routine for her husband, one his obsession with healthhas helped.
She often leaves for him a plate of cooked sea bass, soybeans, bananas,orange juice and soy milk. "He can eat the same thing every day; it doesn'tbother him at all," she says. She doesn't leave the car with him, but Mackeyis content to take walks in the neighborhood when the weather is nice. A fewfriends help out by checking in on him when Sylvia is out of town.
Mackey is oblivious to his illness. "You look back on what he was, but thething is, it's never going to hurt him," his wife says. "He's as happy as akid."
Reactions from others to the changes in him, however, vary widely, bothwithin and outside the family.
Some friends, like Corporal Wright and former teammate Lenny Moore, helpwatch after and entertain Mackey.
But others, once close friends, don't call anymore.
Sylvia Mackey insists she doesn't fault them.
"I don't think people are consciously saying, 'I don't want to be aroundhim,' " she says. "It's just that ... what are they going to do? Theconversation will be over in three minutes. They ask, 'Hey, how are youdoing?' and he says, 'I'm on offense. I'm blocking for you.' "
Daughter Laura doesn't quite buy her mother's claim of charitableunderstanding.
"The hardest part is not necessarily who he is . . . [but] the way otherpeople react," she says. "It's amazing who your friends are when you are doingwell, and who they are when you are sort of down and out.
"A lot of people have turned away. It doesn't hurt [my father], but I cansee how it has affected my mom."
Mackey's annual invitation to play in the Bobby Mitchell Golf Tournamentdoesn't arrive anymore. When his name was mentioned at the podium at atournament banquet in July 2001, Mackey ran onto the stage and would not leaveuntil the organizers found a way to lead him off. Later, he insisted onclutching a pear-shaped canvas bag during a group photo of Hall of Fameinductees attending the golf tournament.
"He just keeps junk in it, but he had to hold onto this bag that he ispossessed with," Sylvia Mackey says. "They told him, 'No, John, we'll holdit,' and somebody reached to take it from him. He said, 'Get the [expletive]away from me.' That was unnerving for them. ... So here he is in the picturewith all the Hall of Famers, and he's standing up holding this bag."
And while the Mount Washington Tavern enjoys the times Mackey dines thereand entertains customers by freely giving autographs, two other restaurants inBaltimore have asked him not to return.
"He might go up to the same table five times and ask them if they wanted anautograph," his wife explains.
Hard on family
While those moments at times are awkward and embarrassing, they are not theworst of Mackey's personality and behavioral changes. When irritated, he stillbecomes belligerent, sometimes cursing at his wife in public.
But Sylvia Mackey professes neither to be embarrassed nor hurt by herhusband's unpredictable and insensitive conduct.
"I don't care who hears it," she says. "It's the disease. I don't owe theman explanation or anything."
The illness has affected the three Mackey children differently as well.
Son John Kevin Mackey, who lives in Atlanta with his wife and threedaughters, is "very understanding" and supportive, his mother says.
Laura, who once displayed "horrible anger" toward her father, patched uptheir differences after the diagnosis, and has plans to relocate to Baltimorefrom California to help care for Mackey.
"It made me less angry at him and more understanding, knowing it wasn't hisfault," she says. "I'm more compassionate of him."
Another daughter, Lisa, has had trouble adjusting to the changes in herfather.
It has been especially hard, Lisa Mackey says, because she was always theclosest to her father. She fondly remembers the days when she would dash intothe room and jump onto her father's lap and they'd sit there talking.
She acknowledges that she doesn't visit with her parents as often as"perhaps I should," but attributes that as much to her family's schedule as touneasiness with her father's illness. She is employed as a reading specialistat Bladensburg Elementary School, and her two sons are involved with youthsports.
But she admits it has not been easy adjusting to the radical changes in herfather.
"He's like a totally different person," she says. "The hardest thing toaccept is his overall behavior around everybody. It bothers me more than itdoes the others. ... I just get nervous. I don't feel comfortable being aroundhim by myself. His behavior is like a time bomb."
'Whatever it takes'
By all accounts, John Mackey has never physically harmed anyone, but thereis the constant dread that someday that could change, and perhaps require himto be placed in a facility where he would receive around-the-clocksupervision.
"He's talked a good game, but John's never been violent," his wife says."But I do worry about it. I have a feeling that there's going to be anincident that's going to make me realize that I have to do something else."
As a football celebrity, Mackey always received preferential treatment, "sonow, if we have to stand in line, he becomes belligerent," Sylvia says. "Hebecomes very determined. It's me, me, me -- nobody's going to tell me what todo." She carries a letter from a psychiatrist so that airport security treatsher husband gently, "or he might go off."
Friends say Sylvia Mackey has been remarkable in caring for her husbandwhile also holding down a fulltime job with United and still acceptingoccasional modeling assignments.
"She has never complained," says Wright. "She makes the most out of a toughsituation. She does whatever it takes."
Her daughter, Laura, thinks her mom "needs some support right now," butadds that Sylvia has never asked for assistance.
"I ask, 'Mom, what can I do to help?' but I'm still waiting for theanswer," she says.
Sylvia's response is stoic. "It's my burden. Everybody's got their ownproblems," she says.
But clearly she sees herself as up to the task. "I read where 43 percent ofthe caregivers die before the patient dies," she says. "I'm not going to beone of those 43 percent. I love life, I have a good time, and I'm happy. Iknow what to expect."
Her only hope is for a cure, though she acknowledges: "That's not going tohappen. But that's want I'd want. I don't want to see him go downhill."
While others try to adjust to the changes in John, she somehow sees thesilver lining.
"I'll tell you one thing," Sylvia says, "I've heard, 'I love you' more inthe last two years than I heard in the first 38 years."
Book took a team
The book Blazing Trails: Coming of Age in Football's Golden Era (TriumphBooks, $24.95) is described by the publisher as John Mackey's autobiography.
That's something of a stretch, even for the as-told-to genre often used forbooks about athletes. Mackey's mental illness prevented him from writing ortelling much of his story, and the book covers only half his life.
Blazing Trails was written by Thom Loverro, a sportswriter with TheWashington Times, and is principally the result of a collaboration withMackey's wife, Sylvia. Much of the book is based on notes taken by the Mackeysover the years, old newspaper clippings and records, and interviews withSylvia Mackey.
"Thom talked to John at a point where he was sort of aware of what he wasdoing," she recalls, but then "John reached a point where he could no longerreally do the interviews.
"Thom and I did all of it through what I told him over the last two years.He would call me, we would talk. I'd send him articles. That's how we put mostof it together."
Still, the book provides a glimpse into Mackey's thoughts on a number ofissues:
On signing with the Colts: "I desperately wanted to be drafted by the NewYork Giants. ... I was crushed when they passed me over."
On Baltimore fans: "There were no fans, perhaps in all of sports, likeBaltimore Colts fans ... "
On Johnny Unitas: "The greatest quarterback to play the game ... "
On Colts coach Don Shula: "Shula was an excellent coach. He taught us to doeverything we could to take advantage of and find the weakness in the playerswe were going up against. He also told us that you must go back and studyyourself to find your own weaknesses."
On pro football's team owners, after he became president of the playersunion: "The owners clearly did not realize that this was a different time forthe union. They figured we would just buckle and sign what they wanted. But wedidn't, and that's why I led the players in a walkout ... "
On being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame: "It was my time inthe sun, and my feet were on the ground, but my head was in the clouds. ... Itwas that kind of day, to celebrate not just what I had accomplished, but how Idid it as well, with the life lessons of honesty and integrity - and colorblindness - that I have learned at home from my parents, the lessons I havetried to pass on to young men and women."
On winning the Super Bowl: "I had finally won the big one. No matter whatelse happened to me, I would always be a Super Bowl champion."
On the end of his career: "I'd like to think that I gave as good as I gotin the game, that I had contributed as much as I had received from football."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun