There have been many football players that have passed away over the years, and while all of them are significant in their own right, none meant as much to the game as John Mackey.
When a lot of older players pass it doesn't have a lot of impact on today's fan base, most of whom don't recognize the faces or even the names of the deceased. Today, Mackey is relevant, not only as a player, but as a golden example of why this lockout is so important. His impact was two-fold: he changed the shape of the game as we know it, both on the field, and off of it.
The term "game changer" is thrown around pretty liberally nowadays, especially when examining some of the prolific players on the field now. John Mackey was a special breed in his day. He was a dominant receiving tight end, who was big for his position (by the 60's standards) at 6'2" and 225 pounds. His style was physical and aggressive. He did not try to juke you out of your shoes; he tried to knock you clean out of them.
He didn't have great hands, he caught a lot of balls with his body, but he almost never failed to catch them. He was a magnificent leader who was said to have an infectious charisma in the locker room and at the podium.
Statistically, he was a freak of nature, not only for his time, but for ours as well. Mackey averaged a stunning 15.8 yards per reception, a figure that should make the likes of Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez blush. In comparison, Gates (who is touted as today's best big-play tight end), has a career average of 13.2 yards per reception, Gonzalez, 11.7.
In 1966 he caught 10 touchdowns, six of which were for over 50 yards. In two of his first three years in the NFL he averaged over 20 yards per reception, a number that is baffling for his era. Mackey defined the play-making tight end. In 1992 he was inducted into Canton, the second tight end ever to be enshrined.
Over the last nine years, the number of receptions per year for the tight end position has increased 40 percent. Mackey was truly ahead of his time. In an era where the tight end was seen purely as an extra blocker he offered a peek into the future, it would take the NFL 40 years to realize what the mismatches a tight end and his abilities could create.
What is truly important is the impact Mackey had outside of the game. Mackey died at the age of 69, having suffered for years from frontotemporal dementia that became so bad that when watching football games his family said he grew "angry and confused" by Marvin Harrison wearing his number 88 in a Colts uniform.
He had to be moved to a home for assisted living at the age of 65. When he was admitted the cost for assisted living far exceeded his pension of $2,500 a month, and the league at first refused to pay for medical care saying there was "no proven or direct link between brain damage and football." However, this eventually led to the "88 plan," aptly named for his jersey number, that gave $88,000 a year to retired players for a living assisted home, or $50,000 for at-home care. It was a large stride for the league and taking care of it's crippled ex-players.
This only scratches the surface of Mackey's impact. He was the first NFLPA after the merger of the AFL and NFL, and fought for years for player-pension benefits and free agency. The NFL has long been behind other sports in simple player benefits and pay. Mackey was one of the first to create the basic stepping stones on which all player benefits could be derived.
In a game that is far more injurious and has a far shorter average career than almost any other sport, he helped create a system far more fair, by today's standards.
Football becomes more and more popular every year, and as the devastating injuries from football are further revealed, we must look back to heroes like Mackey, and remember how important everything he stood for is.
The average fan looks at the lockout as a fight between billionaires and millionaires and the division of their enormous profits. The average fan should know that the reason the lockout continues over this last weekend, even though a revenue sharing model is agreed upon, is because players are still fighting for their pension, for the health care of former players, and for the protection of future ones. They are fighting for the basic rights players in every other major American sport have had, some which have had them for many years now.
In this grave time for football, let it be known that this is truly the passing of one of the all-time greats, and we must remember what he did for this league today. John Mackey's face should be in the mind of every owner, player and fan. His greatness as a Hall-of-Fame tight end should be praised, and his passion for the protection of his peers revered.