The Long Goodbye

Nancy Reagan referred to it as “the long goodbye,” the slow deterioration of President Reagan’s mind to Alzheimer’s disease.  Sylvia Mackey knows it, too.  For ten years she has shared her husband’s battle with frontotemporal dementia.  That battle came to an end on Wednesday.

John Mackey was one of the finest tight ends to ever play in the NFL, missing only one game in a career that spanned from 1963 to 1972.  In the nine years he played for the Baltimore Colts Mackey was one of quarterback Johnny Unitas’ primary targets.  His five Pro-Bowl selections and spectacular touchdown catch in Super Bowl V helped earn him a place in 1992 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  His work as head of the Players’ Union won him the respect and admiration of his teammates.

But Mackey will be remembered for more than just his accomplishments on the field.  His battle with frontotemporal dementia, the deterioration of the front lobes of the brain, caused changes in his memory and personality.  Wife Sylvia worked everyday to help her husband.  She showed him old game footage, relived old memories and took him to sporting events to see his former teammates and his fans.  She wanted him to remember as much as he could. 

But the road was a difficult one.  The NFL Retirement Board refused to pay disability to Mackey and Sylvia was forced to go back to work to pay for health care.  This hardship lead to Mackey’s former Baltimore Colts teammates to create Fourth and Goal, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to advocacy and support of retired NFL players.  Their efforts lead to the creation of the “88 Plan”, named after Mackey’s #88, by the NFL and the NFL Players Association to provide funds for nursing home care and adult day care.

Fans over the past few years saw a different John Mackey from the one that wore #88.  The signs of dementia were clearly visible.  My last recollection of him was at Babe’s Birthday Bash several years ago.  He seemed angry and confused.  We knew it would be his last visit to the museum.  We also knew that Sylvia’s life was about to get much harder.

John and Sylvia’s story is a reminder that there is a price for our love of sports.  Some players are only one play away from a career-ending injury.  Others are just one play away from something that will change their lives forever.  For Sylvia, the Mackey family and the Colts Alumni it has been “a very long goodbye.”

Shawn Herne is the Chief Curator for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.