Legendary Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey, whom many consider the best at his position to ever play in the NFL, passed away Wednesday night at the age of 69 after a 10-year battle with frontal temporal dementia.
Mackey changed the game both on and off the field, revolutionizing his position and, while serving as the president of the NFL Players Association, helped usher his fellow players into the modern era of free agency.
"He was a stud. He was the first big tight end. [Mike] Ditka was the first, but John Mackey was the one who had the speed to go along with the agility and balance," former Colts Pro Bowl running back Tom Matte told BaltimoreRavens.com. "He was such a tremendous leader, as you saw in the locker room and with the NFLPA. He was a great tight end, but a great friend too.
John Mackey Remembered
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- Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 1, 1992
- Only the second player who performed strictly as a tight end to become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame
- Drafted No. 19 overall by the Colts in 1963 and played nine seasons in Baltimore (1963-1971) and one in San Diego (1972)
- Caught 331 career passes for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns
- Five-time Pro Bowler, including as a rookie in 1963 when he caught 35 passes for 726 yards and a career high 20.7-yard average
- Scored touchdowns of 51, 57, 64, 79, 83 and 89 yards in 1966, showing his breakaway speed
- NFL's all-league tight end for three straight years (1966, 1967 and 1968)
- Grabbed a deflected 75-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl V, a record at the time
- Missed only one game in 10 years
- Former NFL Players Association President
But perhaps his most-memorable play was a catch in the 1971 Super Bowl, when he snared a ball that was tipped twice and rumbled 75 yards for a touchdown, helping the Colts defeat the Dallas Cowboys 16-13.
"John picked that off and took off down the field," Matte recalled with a chuckle. "That put us in good shape to go ahead in that game. It really put our names in Super Bowl history during that season. John was a big part of that."
Upon his retirement, Mackey continued to make waves with the NFLPA. After the merger between the NFL and American Football League in 1970, Mackey organized a three-day strike to seek player pensions and benefits.
Then, in 1972, Mackey fought for and won the first iteration of free agency for players.
Today, during the NFL's current work-stoppage, his efforts were recognized by NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, who broke a longtime silence on Twitter.
"John Mackey is still a leader. As President of the NFLPA he led the fight for fairness with brilliance and ferocious drive," Smith tweeted. "John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players and define our institution. He will be missed but never forgotten."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also released a statement regarding Mackey's legacy.
"John Mackey was one of the great leaders in NFL history, on and off the field," the statement read. "He was a Hall of Fame player who redefined the tight end position. He was a courageous advocate for his fellow NFL players as head of the NFL Players Association. He worked closely with our office on many issues through the years, including serving as the first president of the NFL Youth Football Fund. He never stopped fighting the good fight. Our thoughts are with Sylvia and the Mackey family on the loss of our good friend."
Mackey's 10-year bout with dementia was well-documented, but he still continued to attend charity functions with his wife, Sylvia, up until a few years ago.
NFL's Top 100 Players: #42 - John Mackey
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As recognition of Mackey's plight, the NFL established the "88 Plan" to offer funds to retired players who also suffered from dementia or Alzheimer's disease for nursing care. In addition, the Baltimore Colts alumni started the Fourth & Goal foundation in Mackey's honor to gain representation for retired players and advocate for improved pension and benefits.
"When we negotiated back then, we were very concerned with the guys with the '40s, '50s and '60s, and I don't think that's one of the primary concerns of the players association today," Matte said. "I think they're more concerned with the active players than going back and help out some of the old guys we're trying to help.
"Sylvia Mackey should be a spokesperson for the National Football League on behalf of the husbands and what they go through when you have to go through something like she has for these years. She is such a wonderful person and has a great outlook on life."
In addition to his wife, Mackey, a member of the Ravens Ring of Honor, is survived by his son John Kevin Mackey, daughters Lisa Mackey Hazel and Laura Mackey Nattans and six grandchildren.
He also will leave a gaping void in Baltimore football lore.
"We are tremendously saddened to hear about the passing of John Mackey, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Sylvia and the entire Mackey family," said Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti, a Maryland native and longtime Baltimore Colts fan. "I was fortunate to get to know John and Sylvia personally, and I was struck by her love and loyalty throughout the difficult times of his illness.
"John set the standard by which tight ends are measured on the field, and he will be sorely missed not only by his family, but also by the entire Baltimore community."