Thursday, July 7, 2011
Remembering the legendary John Mackey and his remarkable wife, Sylvia
I was saddened to hear about the passing of John Mackey today at age 69. I had the opportunity to interview the former Syracuse University and Baltimore Colts legendary tight end on several occasions through the years, and always found him to be thoughtful and jovial. He had a great sense of humor and was especially helpful when I was writing features about Ernie Davis, his former SU teammate and friend who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961.
Sadly, I could not interview John for the last story I wrote about him for Central New York Sports Magazine this spring. By that time, the man who revolutionized the tight end position was deep in the throes of frontal temporal dimentia and could not speak. But his heroic wife, Sylvia, spoke for him and for other old-time football players who found themselves in dire straits as a result of the concussive effects of their football careers. She is a courageous woman, and my heart goes out to her and her children on this sad day.
The magazine piece about John and Sylvia is reprinted below. I hope it gives you some insight into John's impact on the game and Sylvia's remarkable devotion to him.
The passes he catches in the spacious room at Baltimore’s Keswick Memory Care Center might not be the precise spirals John Mackey was accustomed to receiving from the legendary Johnny Unitas back in the day. But that doesn’t matter. And it also doesn’t matter that the man who began redefining the tight end position while playing for Syracuse University in the early 1960s needs a walker to get around and plays catch while seated in a chair.
The footballs flung by his wife, Sylvia, still elicit the same coast-to-coast smile and the same reflexive response they did when Mackey was running routes for the Orangemen and the Baltimore Colts. His eyes grow as big as silver dollars and his bear-paw hands pluck the ball out of the air with ease. And after making each reception, he instinctively wraps the long fingers of his right hand around the laces and passes the ball back to his college sweetheart and bride of 47 years.
“He still enjoys grabbing those footballs,’’ Sylvia says. “It’s one of the few things he hasn’t forgotten how to do.”
A simple game of catch is able to jog what’s left of his memory and connect him to a past largely erased by Frontal Temporal Dementia, a hideous and progressive mind-robbing disease. The 69-year-old Mackey no longer talks, no longer can feed himself, no longer remembers the name of the guy wearing the No. 88 Colts jersey in the huge photograph hanging in his room.
Like many of his contemporaries who helped build the National Football League into a multi-billion dollar enterprise and America’s most popular pastime, Mackey paid a huge price for his glory. Though the league doesn’t acknowledge a correlation between football’s concussive collisions and early onset dementia, it finally recognized four years ago the moral obligation to take care of these brain-damaged men and their families, many of whom were on the verge of bankruptcy. Thanks to the tireless efforts of courageous women such as Sylvia Mackey, the 88 Plan – in honor of John’s jersey number – was instituted, providing players with post-career dementia up to $88,000 per year for institutional care.
“I told John he has become the poster child for a solution to this problem,’’ Sylvia says. “His greatness on the football field is always going to be his biggest legacy. But this is No. 2.”
Sylvia Cole met John Mackey the first day she arrived on the SU campus during the summer of 1959. She was immediately smitten, but Mackey played hard-to-get. He only had time for football and classes for the better part of a semester.
“He didn’t ask me out on a date until after the season ended, and even then, it was more like I had to ask him out,’’ she recalls, chuckling. “He actually was going to stand me up on our first date, but Ernie Davis intervened. He told Ernie that he was thinking of not going out with me because he didn’t have anything to wear, didn’t have any money and didn’t have a car. Ernie told him, ‘You can’t do that.’ So Ernie gave him something to wear, a five-dollar bill and the keys to his car, and pushed him out the door.”
The couple saw a movie – Where the Boys Are, starring Connie Stevens – and went to a club afterward.
“We had a wonderful time,’’ she says. “John was so much fun, very outgoing. And, man, how he loved to sing and dance.”
Despite being a mountainous man at 6-foot-2 and a rock-hard 250 pounds, John was so light on his feet that Sylvia and her friends dubbed him “Twinkle Toes Mackey.”
There were dance parties where overflow crowds would pack the Mount Olympus dormitory dining hall to listen to the band, Felix and the Escorts, who would go on to become national recording artists under a new name – The Young Rascals.
“At the end of their gig, they would ask John to come up on stage and perform a solo,” Sylvia says. “My girlfriends and I would swoon because John had such a soulful voice.”
Mackey’s strength, speed and nimbleness would enable him to hit high notes of a different kind on autumn afternoons. In the early 1960s, tight ends were used more like third offensive tackles, their primary assignment calling for them to open holes for running backs. But on those rare occasions when SU coach Ben Schwartzwalder did send Mackey out for a pass, the big guy delivered like no receiver ever had in the run-oriented history of the program. In a 51-8 thumping of Colgate during his junior season in 1961, Mackey hauled in a halfback option pass from Davis, that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, and sprinted 74 yards for a touchdown. The following season against George Washington University, Mackey touched the football 10 times, going deep for 161 yards. Thanks in part to Mackey’s punishing blocks and occasional long-distance catches, the Orangemen went 20-10 and won the Liberty Bowl in his three varsity seasons.
Though his career stats – 27 receptions, 481 yards, six touchdowns – seem modest by today’s standards, NFL scouts envisioned a gifted athlete used in ways a tight end hadn’t been before. The Colts already had a dangerous wide receiver tandem in Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr. But they believed Mackey would give Unitas a potent third target. So they chose the Orangeman in the second round of 1963 draft.
They would not regret their selection. Mackey averaged 20.7 yards per catch and scored seven touchdowns during his rookie season, earning an invitation to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. By his fourth season, he had revolutionized the position, catching 50 passes and scoring nine touchdowns – including six of 50 yards or longer. He would finish his 10-year NFL career with a 15.8-yards-per-catch average. That’s a full yard better than wide receiver Jerry Rice, widely regarded as the best receiver in football history.
Mackey also helped the Colts win Super Bowl V with a 75-yard touchdown reception. His achievements earned him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992 and paved the way for athletic tight ends to follow in his footsteps.
Off the field, Mackey also helped revolutionize the game by negotiating free agency during his four-year term as president of the NFL Players’ Association – a position for which he was groomed by former Buffalo Bills quarterback and western New York Congressman, Jack Kemp.
After retiring following the 1972 season with the San Diego Chargers, the personable Mackey ran a number of successful businesses. Sylvia, meanwhile, pursued a modeling and acting career that saw her walk fashion show runways in Paris and Rome and film numerous television commercials. The couple wound up having three children – John Jr., Laura and Lisa.
"We truly were living a dream life,’’ Sylvia says.
But in the years following his induction into the hall, Mackey’s behavior began to grow increasingly bizarre. He started forgetting the names of close relatives, including his sister. He grew easily agitated. His paranoia made him suspicious of others and highly protective of his possessions.
“He had this man purse that he wouldn’t let anyone touch,’’ Sylvia recalls. “I remember we were at Bobby Mitchell’s golf tournament and they wanted to take a picture of all the guys and they asked John to put the purse down for the photograph and he refused. One of the wives said, ‘Here, John, I’ll hold it for you.’ And he gave her this look like ‘Don’t you dare touch this, or I’ll kill you.’ We were never invited back to that tournament.”
As his mind became more muddled, people began taking advantage of him and he lost his businesses and his life savings, prompting Sylvia to seek employment as a flight attendant at age 57.
“We needed the money and the health insurance and I figured if I went back to work that would shame him into seeking employment, too,’’ she says. “But he just continued to sit around and hang out with his friends at this bar where they sang karaoke. One night, he badgered me into going to the tavern and watch him perform. When he finished singing, he came back to our table and told me that he was going to take the act on the road. Now, my husband had a good voice, but his voice wasn’t that good. I didn’t know what was wrong with John. I just knew this wasn’t the man I had fallen in love with.”
Mackey’s reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 proved to be the final straw. “He just sat there all day, looking at the TV,’’ Sylvia recalls. “When he asked me ‘Did the terrorists do that on purpose?’ I knew I had to get him to a doctor.”
The dementia diagnosis by a neurologist at the UCLA Medical Center was both painful and a relief.
“We finally had an explanation for the odd behavior and I realized it was something John had no control over,’’ she says. “I now had something I could begin reading up on and carry the ball from there.”
Sylvia decided it would be in John’s best interest to move from San Diego back to the more familiar surroundings of Baltimore, a place where he was still revered and where people would be able to help her look out for him. For several years, John was still sharp enough to attend football games and card shows. The Ravens honored him and several other former Baltimore Colts at halftime of one of their games a few years ago, and when Mackey received his commemorative football, he sprinted from midfield to the goal line, eliciting a lusty roar from the crowd. During the 2007 season, he returned to the Carrier Dome to have his SU football jersey retired. After his No. 88 was raised to the rafters, he headed to the sidelines, where he exchanged high-fives with hundreds of fans leaning over the railing.
“Those were great, great moments for him,’’ Sylvia says. “I’m glad he got a chance to enjoy them when he did.”
Slowly, his dementia worsened. One time the couple was going to fly to St. Louis for a card show, but John refused to remove his Super Bowl and Hall of Fame rings upon reaching the metal detectors at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Thinking the security guards were trying to steal his prized baubles, Mackey bolted through the checkpoint. It took four guards to bring him down. “I’m just so thankful they didn’t shoot him because they had no idea about his mental condition,’’ she says. “They easily could have mistaken him for being a bomb-toting terrorist.”
A few years ago, Sylvia made the difficult decision to place John into Keswick, a 24/7 facility.
She continues to be an advocate for her husband and the more than 100 former NFL players and their wives who are participating in the 88 Plan program. The dramatic upgrade in their benefits is a direct result of an impassioned, three-page letter she wrote to then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue five years ago. In it, she told him that he had been a very good commissioner, but there was one more great act he needed to perform before leaving office – and that was to take care of the pioneers like John. Tagliabue and his successor, Roger Goodell, have followed through on Sylvia’s request.
In the past year alone, she has testified before Congress and has spoken at nine seminars sponsored by the NFL and the Atlanta-based Morehouse School of Medicine.
“I don’t know where she finds the time or the energy to do everything she does,’’ says Morehouse program director Sharon Rachel. “She truly is a remarkable woman and has done an incredible job looking out not only for John but for so many other football players and their families who are dealing with these tragic circumstances.”
Sylvia’s work with United Airlines keeps her on call for 19 days a month. Every day she is home, she spends much of her time at Keswick, helping feed John, taking him for walks, poring over scrapbooks and photo albums, and, of course, playing catch.
She may not deliver a Johnny U. spiral. But that doesn’t matter. Sylvia Mackey enjoys playing quarterback because her passes elicit smiles and connect her husband to a storied past that’s largely been erased from his mind. A simple game of catch makes a painful present and an uncertain future a little easier to handle.