NFL neglect of Mackey belongs in hall of shame

December 27, 2005|By RICK MAESE

Just the other day, John had to be picked up early from the day care center. He had found some candy, and then he went roaming through cabinets looking for some more. At some point, others saw what John had and then they wanted some candy, too. Only John didn't want to share.

The quarrel was becoming rough and workers had to make a phone call. John needed to be picked up early that day. He's just too physical at times for the others - on this day, an 80-something-year-old who just wanted John to share his candy.

You'd recognize John if you saw him, but maybe not if you talked to him. Not if someone described him to you. Forty years ago, John Mackey redefined the tight end position in the NFL. He helped the Colts reach two Super Bowls and eventually earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Off the field, he fought as hard as anyone for players' rights.

Now he's back in Baltimore, redefining every day what it means to be John Mackey. He suffers from frontotemporal dementia, a mental affliction not too different from Alzheimer's disease. It renders Mackey, now 64, like a child at times. His behavior and social skills are impaired. His memory is suspect and communication skills diminished.

A sport like football takes a toll, no doubt. Previous generations played the game without the equipment and medical technology we have today. They put their livelihoods on the line every weekend. Today, many of your Sunday heroes are struggling, looking for some type of support.

They didn't earn millions, didn't retire to posh gated communities. They left the game with busted knees, sore backs and head injuries that didn't surface until much later.

But it's not only their bodies that have betrayed them. The NFL, built on the shoulders of a dying generation, has also turned its back.

Sylvia Mackey is on the other end of the phone line. She's in Chicago. Or Atlanta. Or maybe it's Denver.

"Oh, let's see ... I think I'm in Denver. Yeah, Denver," she says. "That's Mountain time. My flight's at 5:15. It's 3:30 now. Is that right? Yeah, 3:30."

Sylvia was once a model, the beauty who married the sports star. That was another lifetime. Seven years ago, Sylvia had to begin a second career, as a flight attendant.

The couple once had plenty of money. John seemed to have his hands in a dozen different business ventures. But as time passed and John's mental faculties slipped, Sylvia says people took advantage of him. The money disappeared. "I don't know where it all went," Sylvia says.

So at the age of 56, Sylvia went back to work. The Mackeys needed the money. They needed the health insurance. John's NFL pension - $1,950 a month - isn't enough money to cover his needs.

He attends a day care facility that charges $1,500 for a full month. Officials there suggest a more intensive facility for John, which would cost $10,000 a month.

"Where am I going to get money like that?" Sylvia asks. "Things like dementia and Alzheimer's, they're excluded from insurance."

I know what it sounds like, but Sylvia actually isn't complaining. She's surprisingly upbeat and if she's buckling from frustration, it sure doesn't show. Her daughter Laura, 37, helps take care of John. The two joke that they could produce a reality show about John. They'd call it "Dementia Dad."

At grocery stores, John grabs candy bars and loads up his pockets. Sylvia was once trying on clothes at Lord & Taylor when John suggested she put her coat on over the clothes and walk out of the store. At restaurants, waiters will show off a dessert tray. John starts eating everything right off the tray. There's no stopping him. One day last week he was shopping with Laura and advised her to rip the tag off a necklace and head for the door.

As Sylvia explains these things, you don't know whether to chuckle or tear up. But she makes it clear. Even if you closed your eyes, you could still hear her smile.

"Some of this stuff, you have to laugh once in a while," she says. "You have to vent, and that's how we do it."

A couple of years ago, the Mackeys went to a Ravens game. Sure enough, after the game, they looked around and couldn't find John. Sylvia wasn't worried. One of the reasons the couple returned to Baltimore was that she knew how friendly this city would be to her husband.

"We got home and there he was," she says. "We have no idea how he got there. But he got there."

John Mackey knows he's John Mackey. He wears a Super Bowl ring on either hand. He talks incessantly about his 75-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl V.

As crystallized as some memories are, Mackey can't recognize many former teammates and longtime friends. He remembers 1971, but not last Thursday.

They all remember John, but they're caught up in their own health woes. There's an entire class of aging football players quietly battling the NFL for better benefits.

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