By Tony Paige
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He was “the man” before the term was used in professional sports.

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He was John Mackey, the end all, be all Hall of Famer. He was the prototype tight end who died on July 7th at the age of 69 of dementia.

It is one of the nastiest of diseases.

My father had it and it is always scary when the person you look up to doesn’t recognize you.

Mackey will be recognized for a long time. That’s how deep an impact he left in the world of sports both on and off the field.

The sports world has been loaded with the death the past few months.

From New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo, to former CNN sportscaster Nick Charles, to former WBC 140-pound champ Billy Costello, to Hall of Fame baseball manager Dick Williams, to former Boston Herald columnist George Kimball, to the fan who fell out of the stands in Texas and now Mackey. There is a lot to grieve over.

But Mackey wouldn’t want you to feel sorry for him.

He was the greatest tight end that ever played that game. Period.

Now don’t start bringing up stats that so-and-so had more touchdown catches or what’s his name had more receiving yardage or who’s his face was faster, Mackey was the man.

Only 6-2 and 225 pounds, he was a deadly weapon for Baltimore Colts quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall during their Super Bowl runs. including winning Super Bowl V over the Dallas Cowboys in 1971.

What was Mackey’s style of play you ask?

Image trying to stop a refrigerator rolling down hill and that was what it was like to stop Mackey.

He perfected the tight end screen, where he would fake going downfield, stop, backup, wait for the offensive to pull in front of him, take the pass from Unitas or Morrall and start running over people.

My favorite Mackey moment was when he caught a pass at the one-yard line (I think it was against the Cleveland Browns) and it took half the defense to stop him. His legs were churning and guys kept hitting him and trying to slow him until help arrived. Hardly anybody tackled Mackey one-on-one.

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There were many other great tight ends in the NFL, but the Bears’ Mike Ditka and Mackey were the first two to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Shoot, the college award for the best tight end is called — what else? — the John Mackey Award.

In this era of lockouts in sports, don’t forget that Mackey was the first president of the NFL Players Association. He fought for free agency and increased benefits for NFL players.

When his own benefits ran out due to his illnesses, the NFL Labor agreement of 2006 upped the ante for retired players and the increased benefits were rightly named the “88 Plan” in honor of Mackey’s uniform number.

Which leads me to this question?

Why haven’t the now Indianapolis Colts done the right thing and retired Mackey’s number?

Of course, Marvin Harrison is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and Reggie Wayne is on the path to Canton, Ohio if he keeps up his production, but neither one of them should have been given Mackey’s number 88.

That is a disgrace to his memory. No one else on the Colts should wear number 88 after Wayne is no longer a Colt.

It’s only proper.

I’ve seen many TV pieces done on Mackey’s plight as the dementia took its cold grip on the once Herculean New York City resident and Syracuse grad. You have to give a tremendous shout-out to his wife Sylvia who stood by him during the good and bad times. She is a great woman for all she had to deal with.

But John Mackey was “the man” before the term was used in professional sports.

And don’t you ever forget it.

When I see the number 88 on the gridiron today, regardless of team or colors, I always see John Mackey, rumbling over some poor unsuspecting cornerback or linebacker and heading up field with a head of steam.

And then I smile.


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