BALTIMORE (WJZ) — John Mackey, number 88, was a game changer both on and off the field.
Denise Koch spoke with his wife, Sylvia, about his hard knocks, dementia and her mission to help other players.
John Mackey took the hard knocks, took the Colts to the Super Bowl and took the tight end position to a whole new level. Now, his struggles after the game are taking care of other battered NFL players.
“He’s leaving another legacy,” his widow Sylvia Mackey said. “Another legacy he’ll never know about.”
Even though Mackey just died, Sylvia and the football world lost number 88 more than 10 years ago when his mind slowly slipped away.
“Frontal temporal dementia,” she said, blaming “too many hard hits and knocks in football. I am [convinced] more and more.”
One of her most cherished memories is watching John get inducted into the Hall of Fame. But it was during this trip the revelation struck her: the game John loved so much had caused the disease that would destroy him.
“Everybody knew that John had dementia so wives at the Hall of Fame — and you know that’s a small-knit group — were coming up to me and telling me about some of the strange behaviors that their husbands were exhibiting,” she said. “I’m saying this is just the Hall of Fame. How many others outside of this small-knit fraternity who are retired players have this horrible disease and that’s when it dawned on me: there’s got to be a common denominator.”
That realization prompted her to write an emotional three-page letter to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. People in power listened and the 88 Plan was born.
The NFL now provides up to $88,000 a year in medical expenses to retired players diagnosed with dementia. To date, the plan has given 166 players $12.7 million.
“The player himself doesn’t know it but the ripple effect from the family of how much better it makes life for them and deservedly so,” she said. “I want to be [the face and voice of this issue] because I know how much it helped me to come out right away. I’d like to help others be able to do that. I’m proud of his legacy and he’d be even prouder of the legacy that he left that he doesn’t even know about.”
The NFL is trying to decrease head injuries on the field with research into better helmets and better diagnosis and treatment of concussions.