John Mackey, one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history who went on to be the first president of the National Football League Players Association, "died Wednesday of frontal temporal dementia, a disease he had battled for 10 years," the Baltimore Sun reports. He was 69.
As the Sun writes, "his most famous catch came in the 1971 Super Bowl, when he grabbed a twice-tipped pass from [quarterback John] Unitas and raced 75 yards for a touchdown in Baltimore's 16-7 victory over Dallas."
And, says the Sun, "Mackey's legacy can be found in those million-dollar contracts the NFL's players enjoy, said Ozzie Newsome, the [Baltimore] Ravens general manager. 'All of the benefits of today's players come from the foundation laid by John Mackey,' said Newsome, himself a Hall of Fame tight end. 'He took risks. He stepped out. He was willing to be different.' "
The disease that eventually killed Mackey, though, is also part of his legacy.
In 2008, Frank Deford spoke on Morning Edition about "the cautionary tale of John Mackey."
"Singular as he was," Deford said, "now he's just like so many other old pro football players: John Mackey has dementia."
And, said Deford, "both the NFL and the players union have always maintained that players suffer no more brain damage than those in other occupations, but it's getting more difficult to hold to that position."