NFL neglect of Mackey belongs in hall of shame

Rick Maese

John and Sylvia Mackey

Former Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey poses with his wife, Sylvia, in their home in Cross Keys. He has died at 69. (Sun photo by Jerry Jackson / November 23, 2003)

Just the other day, John had to be picked up early from the day care center. He had found some candy, and then he went roaming through cabinets looking for some more. At some point, others saw what John had and then they wanted some candy, too. Only John didn't want to share.

The quarrel was becoming rough and workers had to make a phone call. John needed to be picked up early that day. He's just too physical at times for the others - on this day, an 80-something-year-old who just wanted John to share his candy.

You'd recognize John if you saw him, but maybe not if you talked to him. Not if someone described him to you. Forty years ago, John Mackey redefined the tight end position in the NFL. He helped the Colts reach two Super Bowls and eventually earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Off the field, he fought as hard as anyone for players' rights.

Now he's back in Baltimore, redefining every day what it means to be John Mackey. He suffers from frontotemporal dementia, a mental affliction not too different from Alzheimer's disease. It renders Mackey, now 64, like a child at times. His behavior and social skills are impaired. His memory is suspect and communication skills diminished.

A sport like football takes a toll, no doubt. Previous generations played the game without the equipment and medical technology we have today. They put their livelihoods on the line every weekend. Today, many of your Sunday heroes are struggling, looking for some type of support.

They didn't earn millions, didn't retire to posh gated communities. They left the game with busted knees, sore backs and head injuries that didn't surface until much later.

But it's not only their bodies that have betrayed them. The NFL, built on the shoulders of a dying generation, has also turned its back.

Sylvia Mackey is on the other end of the phone line. She's in Chicago. Or Atlanta. Or maybe it's Denver.

"Oh, let's see ... I think I'm in Denver. Yeah, Denver," she says. "That's Mountain time. My flight's at 5:15. It's 3:30 now. Is that right? Yeah, 3:30."

Sylvia was once a model, the beauty who married the sports star. That was another lifetime. Seven years ago, Sylvia had to begin a second career, as a flight attendant.

The couple once had plenty of money. John seemed to have his hands in a dozen different business ventures. But as time passed and John's mental faculties slipped, Sylvia says people took advantage of him. The money disappeared. "I don't know where it all went," Sylvia says.

So at the age of 56, Sylvia went back to work. The Mackeys needed the money. They needed the health insurance. John's NFL pension - $1,950 a month - isn't enough money to cover his needs.

He attends a day care facility that charges $1,500 for a full month. Officials there suggest a more intensive facility for John, which would cost $10,000 a month.

"Where am I going to get money like that?" Sylvia asks. "Things like dementia and Alzheimer's, they're excluded from insurance."

I know what it sounds like, but Sylvia actually isn't complaining. She's surprisingly upbeat and if she's buckling from frustration, it sure doesn't show. Her daughter Laura, 37, helps take care of John. The two joke that they could produce a reality show about John. They'd call it "Dementia Dad."

At grocery stores, John grabs candy bars and loads up his pockets. Sylvia was once trying on clothes at Lord & Taylor when John suggested she put her coat on over the clothes and walk out of the store. At restaurants, waiters will show off a dessert tray. John starts eating everything right off the tray. There's no stopping him. One day last week he was shopping with Laura and advised her to rip the tag off a necklace and head for the door.

As Sylvia explains these things, you don't know whether to chuckle or tear up. But she makes it clear. Even if you closed your eyes, you could still hear her smile.

"Some of this stuff, you have to laugh once in a while," she says. "You have to vent, and that's how we do it."

A couple of years ago, the Mackeys went to a Ravens game. Sure enough, after the game, they looked around and couldn't find John. Sylvia wasn't worried. One of the reasons the couple returned to Baltimore was that she knew how friendly this city would be to her husband.

"We got home and there he was," she says. "We have no idea how he got there. But he got there."

John Mackey knows he's John Mackey. He wears a Super Bowl ring on either hand. He talks incessantly about his 75-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl V.

As crystallized as some memories are, Mackey can't recognize many former teammates and longtime friends. He remembers 1971, but not last Thursday.

They all remember John, but they're caught up in their own health woes. There's an entire class of aging football players quietly battling the NFL for better benefits.

The Wall Street Journal published an article this month that detailed the struggles of one former player, Victor Johnson. According to the article, even after the NFL's own doctors ruled that Johnson's troubles were caused by football, the league still denied his claim.

Sylvia says she knows better than to apply for disability money with the NFL. Doctors can't link John's current condition to his football career with absolute certainty.

But it is clear to everyone that this is a different John. There are little indicators every now and then that remind Sylvia that she won't be able to take care of John forever. His disease is progressive, and the day is coming when he won't be able to function without full-time care.

Lately, he's been fidgeting a lot more. One day last week, neighbors came outside to find John sitting in their car. He was waiting for a ride. He'd never done that before.

He needs help. They all do.

The NFL is very particular, though, when it reviews applications for disability and dispenses these benefits.

According to the Wall Street Journal story, more than 7,500 former players are covered by the NFL's disability plan. Only 135 of them receive the benefits.

The league routinely dismisses talk that ex-athletes' aches and pains in old age date back to their playing days. It's a carefully designed loophole that allows the league to save money. Last year, according to the Wall Street Journal, the NFL paid just $14.5 million in disability benefits. This is a league that generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue.

More money is needed for the older generation. Mackey's is hardly an isolated case. All over the country, your heroes are hurting. Some can't bend over, some can't walk, some can't watch TV without getting a headache.

In Baltimore, life changes a bit every day for the Mackeys. Earlier this year Sylvia decided that her husband can no longer fly anywhere.

On April 3, Mackey was headed to St. Louis, where he was to appear at a sports card show. He never made it. John couldn't get past security at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. At the metal detectors, he refused to take off his Super Bowl rings (his dementia makes him highly protective of his possessions and suspicious of others).

John elbowed his way past security guards, which prompted an airport melee. It took four guards to tackle John - still 6 feet 2 and about 235 pounds - and handcuff him.

"I'm flying every day. I understand how it works," Sylvia says. "I know if he would've gotten away from those guards, they would have shot him. They would have killed him."

The NFL Alumni Association does a good job helping retired players. It offers need-based grants. It tries to make sure money is funneled to families like the Mackeys.

But the league could do more. The current players, who earn in a couple of plays what players like Mackey made in a full season, could do much more.

When you age, you often spend much of your time looking back, shuffling through memories. Looking forward can be tough. Sylvia's busy and so engrossed in her daily juggling act that she doesn't have much time to think ahead.

John will only get worse. And Sylvia won't be able to retire until she's 77.

In a typical month, she spends 16 days on the road. Laura stays at home and takes care of her father much of the time.

John is not a normal 64-year-old. He's a ball of energy who runs through hallways and digs through everything within an arm's reach. He has the curiosity of a child. He enjoys attention and car rides.

He spends many of his days at the adult day care center, where most of the others are old and frail. They use walkers and canes and wheelchairs. They don't understand that John doesn't want to share his candy. They don't get that by telling him not to do something, they're issuing a challenge. And John is going to win. He's always been a winner.

The Mackeys turn to the NFL Players Association and the Alumni Association for help. In addition, Mike Ditka runs an organization that also provides need-based money for former players.

The league, meanwhile, squirrels away its money and ignores many former players with legitimate claims.

It's not easy to figure out just how Sylvia does it - she's working full time and parenting her aging husband. It all seems so frustrating, but you don't get that from talking to Sylvia. It seems like she just doesn't have time to get sad.

"I take everything in stride," she says. "I stay upbeat. When I hear other women in the same position, it's so easy for it to beat them down. I don't get sad, though. I can't."

rick.maese@baltsun.com
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