I will be officiating the Memorial Service of NFL Hall of Fame player John Mackey this Saturday, along with his brother, Rev. Elijah Mackey. Having been in pastoral ministry over twenty-five years, I have learned that when someone has led a relationally successful and meaningful life, it is an easy and celebratory service to lead and participate in. None should be easier than John Mackey’s – but it is not.
As a player, John is arguably the greatest to ever play his position. As a man, he is one of the most respected teammates, opponents, and men to ever play the game. He was the first President of the NFL Players Association and organized the NFL’s first player strike that led to increased player health and pension benefits. He helped lead and win a court challenge to end the "Rozelle Rule" which set the precedent for true free agency and the salaries enjoyed by current players. And for all he accomplished, his greatest legacy will be as a husband, father, family member and friend – and as a role model of authentic masculinity.
Yet, John Mackey will also be remembered as the most visible face of sports' growing epidemic of traumatic brain injuries. In 2000 John was diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia that eventually led to his spending the last five years of his life in a full -time assisted living facility, unable to communicate, to recognize loved ones or to care for himself. With a push from John’s heroic wife Sylvia, his Baltimore Colt teammates and their advocacy group Fourth & Goal, the NFL and the NFLPA started the "88 Plan" named after John’s jersey number. The 88 Plan provides $88,000-a-year for nursing home care and $50,000 annually for adult day care for players suffering from various forms of degenerative brain damage.
I find it providential that after more than a decade of suffering, John Mackey’s life would end during the NFL’s longest work stoppage as the players and owners reworked their Collective Bargaining Agreement with new guidelines for health, safety and post-career benefits. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, upon learning of John’s passing said, "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." NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, expressed similar sincere and heartfelt thoughts, "John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players and define our institution. He will be missed but never forgotten." I hope so.
John Mackey’s last sacrificial gift to the NFL and its players is the opportunity to lead the world of sports in educating athletes, parents and coaches of all ages and all sports on how to prevent, diagnose and treat concussions. While football is the most visible of concussive related sports, every game must address and work through the avalanche of evidence pointing to long term mental health issues related to head traumas. Yet, when Commissioner Goodell began changing the rules on hits to the head and imposing fines and suspensions, it was the players who pushed back. All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher represented the opinion of many players and fans when he said the NFL should rename itself "the NFFL – The National Flag Football League." Kevin Mawae, the President of the NFLPA who represented current players at the recent negotiations, ridiculed Goodell’s crackdown stating, "The skirts need to be taken off in the NFL offices." They represent the decades of players coached to make and celebrate the head-rattling hits that too many fans cheer and applaud.
While I do not know what conversations took place at the negotiating table upon hearing of John Mackey’s death, I’d like to think participants took a long pause and reflected on the life, legacy and tragedy of John’s death. I hope current players rethought the rule changes needed to protect players and the responsibility to model how the game can and should be played. John Mackey will be celebrated at the Memorial, I am sure. But more than words of gratitude and plaudits should be spoken to carry on the legacy of a man who "never stopped fighting the good fight." To truly honor our fallen teammate and leader, I hope the NFL players will demand -- and the league and union will agree to -- at least one game this season where every player wears a "88" patch on their jersey and each team airs appropriate public service announcements aimed at educating coaches, parents and young athletes on the prevention of head traumas. Then John Mackey’s life will continue to inspire NFL players, address the moral responsibility of the NFL and NFLPA to current, past and future players and honor the game. That would make for a truly celebrative Memorial Service for a man who will be missed -- but should never be forgotten.
Baltimore Colts 1973 -1980
Author of InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives