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Mackey celebrated as union trailblazer and 'very brilliant guy'

It took months of negotiations to bring NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and players union chief DeMaurice Smith to a point where they could find enough common ground to end the offseason lockout and finalize a 10-year collective bargaining agreement.

It only took a couple of phone calls to bring them together in Baltimore on Saturday morning to eulogize Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey at a public memorial service at the Cathedral of Our Lady the Queen.

Sylvia Mackey invited both of them to speak at the two-hour ceremony that celebrated the on-field and off-field accomplishments of her beloved husband, who passed away after a long battle with frontotemporal dementia on July 6.

"No one made a bigger impact on the NFL than John Mackey," said Goodell. "John was a man for his time and the imprint he left on us will last forever. … His belief in justice and his belief in fairness made the NFL a better place."

Mackey, by all accounts, was one of the greatest tight ends in the history of professional football. He changed the way the position was played and then — after his playing career was over — he went to work changing the way football players were treated by an industry that was still decades from becoming the multi-billion-dollar behemoth that finally figured out how to split up $9 billion in annual revenue a few weeks ago.

"John Mackey changed the game on the field and off the field," Goodell said. "John was the first president of the National Football League Players Association, and he fought for free agent rights and pensions at a time when it was not so popular."

What better tribute could there have been to Mackey's early efforts to improve working conditions for the players than to have the commissioner of the NFL applaud him for the labor rebellion he wrought in the early days of football's collective bargaining relationship — especially in the wake of the just-ended labor war.

What better proof could there be that Mackey was "a unifier" — a man whose crusade to improve the lives of his teammates continued even through the terrible disease that raised awareness of the plight of so many other former players suffering with dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease.

Though Mackey's heroics for the old Baltimore Colts have been well-chronicled, Smith and the other speakers — including Mackey's wife and son Kevin, Bill Curry, Hall of Famer Floyd Little, former union director Ed Garvey and teammate-turned-minister Joe Ehrmann — focused much more on the roles he played as a husband, father and trailblazing union chief.

"It was his toughness and leadership off the field that will inspire us forever," Smith said. "John was a man who loved his teammates more than his career."

Dozens of those teammates and NFL alumni were in attendance on Saturday, including Art Donovan, Lenny Moore, Bruce Laird, Tom Matte, Toni Linhart, Sam Havrilak, Marty Domres, Maxie Baughan, Brig Owens and Don McCauley, among others. The Ravens were represented by owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass and another of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game – general manager Ozzie Newsome. Former NBA star and current Detroit mayor Dave Bing, who knew Mackey from when both were at Syracuse, also was among the special guests in attendance.

Sylvia Mackey, who got a long standing ovation when she was introduced, made it clear during her remarks that the service was to be a celebration or her husband's life rather than a ceremony marking his passing. She spoke little about the hardships that came with his illness and much about the way he lived and the way he loved Baltimore.

"I'm so proud to be part of the legacy of John Mackey," she said. "I have lost the love of my life, but I will never lose the life in my love for him and his memory."

Mackey's work will continue through the organizations that raise money and advocate on behalf of the retired and disabled players. Laird is president of Fourth and Goal, an independent national organization that works for the benefit of all retired NFL players and continues to push for former players to have more representation inside the NFL and the players union. Mike Ditka is one of the point men for the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which also provides direct assistance to former players in need.

Clearly, a lot of progress is being made. The NFL and players union have allocated nearly $1 billion in additional pension and medical benefits for pre-1993 players over the 10-year term of the new collective bargaining agreement. There's more to be done, but that's still a fitting tribute to one of the pioneers of the pro football labor movement.

The memorial service on Saturday morning just brought it all home.

"This tribute was much-deserved, and it couldn't have been to a finer individual," Moore said. "John Mackey was something else. You had to be with him to really know him. That was him. That was what he was all about. He was a very brilliant guy."

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