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John Mackey's final years and his clouded memories

John Mackey's final years and his clouded memories

Many years ago, I was standing in the frozen food aisle of my local grocery store, contemplating which frozen pizza I wanted to buy, when a large man wearing a black cowboy hat walked up to me and put one of his huge hands on my shoulder.

He had large, sad eyes, but he was smiling. "Hey," he said, in a voice that was not much more than a whisper. "It's you."

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I stared at the enormous rings on his fingers for several seconds, still somewhat stunned by this stranger's friendly greeting. A few feet away, a pretty woman I presumed was this man's wife was slowly pushing her shopping cart forward while she contemplated the mystery of frozen cuisine. She paid very little attention to our encounter. I realized, years later, she'd probably seen her husband do this dance many times.

"So good to see you," the man said, and only then did it finally dawn on me I was looking into the eyes of Baltimore Colts great John Mackey, maybe the best tight end to ever play the game.

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The severity of Mackey's dementia had not been widely publicized at that point. Mackey's wife, Sylvia, had only recently moved the two of them from California back to Baltimore because she hoped her husband would be more comfortable in an area he was familiar with, especially as his memory worsened. She was the unsung hero of his life, especially in his final years.

I have no idea who Mackey thought I was -- an old teammate, a long-lost friend, a friendly writer who had once covered his Hall of Fame career -- but I understood the look of false recognition. My grandfather, a doctor who for much of his life could recite passages of Shakespeare from memory, had his memories ravaged by Alzheimer's in his final years. It's a cruel and heartbreaking way to watch someone you love live out their final days. In 2007, former Sun columnist David Steele detailed just how hard it was for Mackey to watch Colts games with his family because he couldn't understand why Marvin Harrison was wearing No. 88. He thought he was watching footage of his own games, but watching an impostor play the role of him.  

To many modern football fans, Mackey barely exists outside the grainy, black-and-white footage that NFL Films has of him breaking countless tackles. But the truth is, every modern player owes Mackey a tremendous debt. Without his courage and his diligence, who knows what the NFL Players Association might look like today?

Mackey was the NFLPA's first president after the 1970 merger between the NFL and AFL, and he was the strongest advocate in fighting for the owners to give the players pensions and medical benefits. He even filed the lawsuit that briefly won the union the right to free agency. Men like Mackey laid the groundwork that has helped the modern game flourish, even though they were demonized for it at the time. Many people believe Mackey's bold positions nearly kept him out of the Hall of Fame. He was forced to wait until the 15th and final year of his eligibility to earn induction, something that seems embarrassing in retrospect.

As sad as his passing today was, may it serve as a small reminder to both sides working on a new collective bargaining agreement that in a $9 billion pie, there has to be a small slice that can be put aside to provide better medical benefits to the retired players who built the modern game. The NFL, and the NFLPA, owe them that much.

There has also been a lot of talk today about concussions, and the steep price a man, his brain, and ultimately his family, pay in pursuit of rings like the ones Mackey wore on his fingers. Is this the price of glory? If people remember you for the things you did long ago, is it worth it if you can't remember them yourself? Or recognize a person you love in your final days? I doubt there will ever be an easy answer to that question.

In the grocery store that day, I didn't really know what to say to John Mackey. I was just a kid, barely two years removed from college. I was still soaking up the town's rich sports history. All I could do in that moment was smile and nod and say "Hey man!" in return. As Mackey slowly walked away, he held up his hand and directed my gaze at one of his NFL Championship rings. "Right here," he said.

When I think about that moment, I wish, however briefly, I could have been the person that he believed I was.

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