Long Island lost one of its legendary athletes Wednesday night with the passing of NFL Hall of Famer John Mackey. He was 69 and lost a long battle with frontotemporal dementia, thought to have been caused by injuries sustained during his playing career.
“John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players,” NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) Union Executive Director DeMaurice Smith posted on Twitter. “He will be missed but never forgotten.”
Mackey grew up in Roosevelt and starred at Hempstead High School in the late 1950s. His childhood idol was another famous Long Island athlete: Jim Brown.
After a successful career at Syracuse University, the rugged tight end made his NFL debut in 1963 for the Baltimore Colts. For a 10-year stretch, Mackey revolutionized the tight end position with his athletic frame, speed and pass-catching ability.
He’ll always be remembered for turning a deflected pass from Johnny Unitas—another NFL Hall of Famer—into a 75-yard touchdown reception that helped the Colts defeat the Dallas Cowboys in the 1971 Super Bowl.
Mackey finished his career with 331 receptions for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns, and he also played in five Pro Bowls. He also served as the president of the NFLPA from 1969-1973.
“John Mackey is still our leader,” Smith told the Associated Press. “As the president of the NFLPA, he led the fight for fairness with a brilliance and with ferocious drive. His passion continues to define our organization and inspire our players.”
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, which made him just the second pure tight end to receive the honor—the first being Mike Ditka in 1988.
Mackey’s post-playing career arguably left as great an impact as the time he spent on the field. He pioneered the inclusion of healthcare initiatives into the NFL Labor Agreement. In 2006, the league ratified the “88 Plan”—named for Mackey’s number—which provides up to $88,000 a year for ex-players suffering with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease as a result of injuries from their playing days.
“John Mackey was one of the great leaders in NFL history, on and off the field,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the AP. “He never stopped fighting the good fight.”
In 2000, the John Mackey Award was established to honor the nation’s top college football tight end. That same year, Mackey was enshrined in the Nassau County Sports Hall of Fame.
With ongoing negotiations to end the current NFL lockout, Mackey’s ideas of healthcare for former players will continue to be a prominent issue in the formulation of new collecting bargaining agreement. The lockout has been in place since March 11.