NFL’s Brain Drain


John Mackey was one of pro football’s premier talents in the 1960s. NFL Films recently named Mackey the greatest tight end in NFL history. He teamed up with Johnny Unitas to form one of the most lethal pass and throw combinations of his era, a period defined by the running game of Jim Brown and the famous Lombardi Packer sweep.

The ‘60s were the halcyon days of Baltimore football. The Colts never had a losing team during Mackey’s tenure there (1963-1971). The team won an NFL title in 1968 before losing to the Miracle Jets in Super Bowl III. Baltimore finally won the big one two years later-defeating the Dallas Cowboys in one of the ugliest championship games in league history.

Mackey left Baltimore following the 1971 season, and spent his final season in San Diego. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 331 catches and was enshrined in Canton in 1992.

During (and after) his career, Mackey fought for his fellow players. He organized a strike against the league in 1970, was named a co-defendant in an anti-trust lawsuit in 1972, and spent considerable time beefing up the players’ association. He became the first president of that organization after his playing days ended.

This past July, Mackey died at age 69 after struggling with dementia for the last decade of his life. His widow Sylvia, writing in today’s Houston Chronicle, details the struggles her husband faced: “nearly 30 years after playing his last NFL game, John was diagnosed with Frontal Temporal Dementia which meant that he had sever shrinkage of the left frontal tube of his brain.”

This part of the brain controls one’s personality, emotions, memory and impulse control. The condition required Mackey to receive in-home care, and eventually forced him into a full-time clinic, where experts could look after him 24 hours a day.

Five years ago, Mrs. Mackey wrote to then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue about her husband’s condition and told him that dealing with his health-care costs could lead to the family’s destitution. Tagliabue acted quickly: he created the “88 Plan,” an initiative that pays some of the health care costs of former players suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.

Many Americans realized the significance of football head injuries two years ago, following Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece. The article shocked the nation and made the public aware of the number of head injuries former football players had accumulated. The NFL responded to the nationwide outburst promptly: new rules were put into place targeting head shots-helmet to helmet hits. The league began fining players tens of thousands of dollars for these illegal hits.

The recent NFL lockout negotiations were another step in aiding former players. The new CBA agreement stipulates that those playing during the terms of the deal (for the next ten years) will receive NFL health benefits for life. Heretofore, retired players only had these benefits for five years following their retirement.

Football is a violent, brutal game. Viewers witness it every weekend. Players hobble around during the season. Injuries and pain are a daily part of life. Once retired, they largely leave the scene. Fans do see some famous old players, though. Often they witness the struggles some of these greats have dealt with. Nothing is more painful than watching an old star- a middle aged man like Earl Campbell, for instance-look like an octogenarian who can barely get around.

Until recently, the NFL did not take care of its own and ignored the plights of those who made pro football America’s game. Congressional testimony by former players, scientific studies, and media pressure has changed the NFL’s insouciant attitude. This was a long-time coming.

I hope the NFL continues looking after its own and does what it can to aid ailing ex-players. And I hope the players’ association continues thinking of the big-picture like they did in the recent lockout negotiations-sacrificing a bit of short term financial gain for long term health security.



  1. What a touching and informative profile of truly one of the games’ more classier players.. Well done!

  2. I your writing style truly enjoying this internet site .

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