John Mackey, who was the second player to exclusively play tight end and be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died Wednesday of frontal temporal dementia, a disease he had battled for 10 years, at Keswick Multi-Care Center in Baltimore. He was 69.
Mackey, the Baltimore Colts' No. 2 draft pick in 1963 out of Syracuse, caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns in a 10-year career that was cut short by knee injuries. His combination of size, speed and soft hands made him the NFL's prototypical tight end in the 1960s. The five-time Pro Bowler was a favorite target of fellow Hall of Famer John Unitas. One of the biggest plays of his career came in the Colts' Super Bowl V triumph, when he grabbed a deflected pass from Unitas and rumbled 75 yards for a touchdown, a Super Bowl record at the time.
He revolutionized that position, said Don Shula, the Colts' coach from 1963-69.
"Previous to John, tight ends were big strong guys like [Mike] Ditka and [Ron] Kramer who would block and catch short passes over the middle," Shula told the Baltimore Sun. "Mackey gave us a tight end who weighed 230, ran a 4.6 [40-time] and could catch the bomb. It was a weapon other teams didn't have. "
In Mackey's nine years with the Colts, the team won three conference championships and one Super Bowl. Impressively, 13 of Mackey's 38 TD receptions went for 50 yards or more, including an 89-yarder against the Los Angeles Rams in 1966. That score, on the game's first offensive play, was the longest of Unitas' 290 TD career passes.
"John revolutionized the tight end position during his Hall of Fame career, and he laid the foundation on and off the field for modern NFL players," said Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, who is also a fellow Hall of Fame tight end.
Mackey, who also was very active off the field fighting for players' rights as the president of the NFL Players' Association, suffered from dementia in recent years. It is believed the disease came as a result of Mackey's football career.
"John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players and define our institution," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith tweeted Thursday morning. "He will be missed but never forgotten."
The NFL's "88 plan" that provides up to $88,000 per year for nursing care or day care for ex-players with Alzheimer's disease or dementia was named for Mackey's jersey number, 88. He is also the namesake for the award given annually to the best tight end in college football.
"John Mackey was one of the great leaders in NFL history, on and off the field," commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "He was a Hall of Fame player who redefined the tight end position. He was a courageous advocate for his fellow NFL players as head of the NFL Players' Association. He worked closely with our office on many issues through the years, including serving as the first president of the NFL Youth Football Fund. He never stopped fighting the good fight. Our thoughts are with Sylvia and the Mackey family on the loss of our good friend."
"We are tremendously saddened to hear about the passing of John Mackey, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Sylvia and the entire Mackey family," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. "I was fortunate to get to know John and Sylvia personally, and I was struck by her love and loyalty throughout the difficult times of his illness. John set the standard by which tight ends are measured on the field, and he will be sorely missed not only by his family, but also by the entire Baltimore community."