Mackey’s wife fuels crusade against head injuries

The wife of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey refers to herself

as Mrs. (hash)88, a tribute to her late husband and the legacy he

left behind.

John Mackey preferred to run through tacklers rather than avoid

them as a member of the Baltimore Colts from 1963-71. Back then,

there was very little understanding about the danger of repeated

hits to the head.

Mackey died in July after a 10-year battle with dementia. Sylvia

Mackey remained by his side throughout, and she continues to show

her support by educating parents, mental health providers and

athletes about sports-related head injuries.

Sylvia Mackey will appear Monday in Baltimore as a part of a

forum to discuss mental health and disabilities caused by head

trauma. She will be joined by former U.S. Surgeon General David

Satcher, M.D., and former NFL players Eric Hipple and Mark

Kelso.

Football-related head injuries have been a topic of concern for

Sylvia Mackey ever since her husband was diagnosed with

frontotemporal dementia. John and Sylvia helped bring about the

creation of the ”88 plan,” named after Mackey’s number. Funded by

the league and the NFL Players Association, it provides $88,000 per

year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day

care for former players with dementia.

After John Mackey died at the age of 69, Sylvia dutifully

continued their crusade.

”I think it’s important from the standpoint that my husband

wanted to help people, and I feel that I can provide firsthand

experience about the ramifications of head injuries in sports,”

she said. ”Many of the people in the audience have young kids

starting football, others are care-giver professionals and others

are care-givers of people who are at home.”

When John Mackey played for the Colts, there were no such forums

and very little sympathy for players victimized by helmet-to-helmet

hits.

”They just didn’t know. The game was different then,” Sylvia

Mackey said. ”It wasn’t macho to come out of the game because you

were a little dizzy. If you could smell some salts and get yourself

back together and go back in the game, that was the manly thing to

do.”

Much has changed since then. Hits to the head and concussions

are taken far more seriously, and helmet-to-helmet hits draw

penalty flags and/or fines. Ravens center Matt Birk has pledged his

brain to science to allow doctors to study the long-term effect of

playing football.

”I think society in general is more aware what we’re doing to

our bodies, and there are ways to stop the injuries and the harm

that might come later, 10 to 20 years down the road,” Sylvia

Mackey said.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was fined $20,000 this week for

delivering such a blow to Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward. Lewis

didn’t like it, but Mackey says the league is sending the right

message.

”Serious head injuries aren’t going to totally go away, but we

want to reduce the incidents of the long-term harm that hard

head-hits will do,” she said. ”I know Ray Lewis is playing honest

football. He’s a good guy, and I know he wasn’t trying to use his

head to hurt someone. But sometimes we just have to put fines out

there to make people more aware of being cautious. Sometimes you

just have to play a little more carefully to prevent permanent

injuries.”

This will be the 15th in a series of mental health forums run by

the NFL in conjunction with Dr. Satcher and the Morehouse School of

Medicine. The panelists usually change from city to city, but

Sylvia Mackey has remained a constant.

”I’m sure John would be proud of this,” she said. ”I call him

the poster boy for this because he would have wanted it this

way.”