John Mackey made a difference – in football, in business, and in life.
As a star tight end at Syracuse University, he quietly and peacefully made inroads into the discrimination that permeated society, building lifelong friendships that transcended ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds.
With the Baltimore Colts, John revolutionized the tight end position and was selected to the Pro Bowl five times, accomplishments that earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and praise from Mike Ditka as “the greatest tight end to ever play the game”.
As the first president of the National Football League Players Association following the merger of the NFL and AFL, he fought for better pension and disability benefits for players, and gained the right to free agency that today’s NFL players still enjoy.
John’s advocacy efforts – his determination to give back – didn’t stop with the NFLPA or end with his NFL career.
He partnered with Jack Kemp to launch a non-profit that gave educational assistance to disadvantaged children. He actively supported the civil rights movement that changed the course of history. He reached out to others, whether it was to offer guidance on career choices or to advocate for recognition of an under-appreciated teammate.
That’s the kind of person John Mackey was.
Although dementia robbed John of his powerful voice, his private battle with the disease became the public face of the link between head trauma and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). He was the catalyst for the 88 Plan that provides financial assistance for those affected, for the advocacy and fundraising efforts of his Baltimore Colt teammates that helped so many former NFL players, and for my own involvement in the Concussion Legacy Foundation. When John died on July 6, 2011, the widespread media coverage focused as much on these later-in-life accomplishments as on any of his achievements earlier in life. Even in illness and in death, he changed the world.
That, I believe, is John Mackey’s greatest legacy.