It was not long after I hit “publish” on the Barry Bremen piece, when I came across the news that John Mackey had passed away at the age of 69. Mackey’s career symbolized the early success of the NFL in a television era, leading a list of incredible athletes that defined the way football was played in the heart of the 1960’s. His football persona hit many different levels from the college star with the award to his name, to the veteran player looking to get equal pay with a rigid ownership structure, to the former player that suffered through countless medical conditions and having to stay confined under constant watch. He was an incredible force that took too many hits to his statuesque frame.
I had two interactions with John Mackey that were forever burned in my mind. My first interaction with him took place in 2004 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York, as he was beginning a downturn in his health. Upon greeting him in the hallway, I was instructed not to startle him or catch him off guard. As his wife (an incredible, loving individual) introduced her husband to me, I was the recipient of both a million dollar smile and one of the firmest handshakes one human could possibly give another. When I asked if I could have the honor of taking a picture with the Syracuse/NFL legend, he immediately put his arm around me, quickly turning into a playful headlock. The photo, which used to draw laughter, is now a reminder on the toll players like Mackey have had to deal with for the past few decades.
The other interaction that sticks out in my mind took place just over a year later in Novi, where he was signing photos as part of an event with other former players. Looking visibly more frail and clearly more distant from reality, I stood in a line hoping to get a photo (not the headlock one) autographed by Mackey. Apparently at some point while I was standing in line, he caught an individual wearing a Colts ’88’ jersey with “Harrison” on the back and had to be removed from the table due to his emotions. While Marvin Harrison (another Syracuse alum) wore the number in honor of Mackey, he apparently was displeased to hear that so many people wore jerseys with Harrison, and not Mackey on the back.
As we near four months of the ownership lockout vs. the NFLPA (or the entity as it was formerly known), we can look back at players like John Mackey and Conrad Dobler as examples of why the current core of players should be more mindful of the original set of players that set the stage for the multi-billion dollar effort that equals today’s NFL. This is why a set of veterans recently got involved in the lawsuit, knowing very well that their pension covering healthcare costs. The ’88’ plan is one of the rare agreements between the NFL and the NFLPA over the past few years, and should be the benchmark of any negotiation moving forward.
The Lions have also not been far from seeing their legends suffer from head injuries. Think of the recent passing of Terry Barr – head injuries can be found across the board on pretty much any team, from high school to the NFL. While the athletes know going in that football is an inherently violent sport, it will continue to be played. Therefore, it is up to the current lockout participants to keep the focus on what the larger issue is for the players – their health for years to come.