When I was growing up in Baltimore in the late 1970s, John Mackey was something of a god.
People spoke about him with a certain tone. The respect and admiration for him -- as a man, as a trailblazer and as a football player -- was universal across all walks of life. At a time when the city was divided, racially and economically, everybody looked up in some way to Mackey, whether white or black, rich or poor.
There was something regal about him, and his quest to make the NFL a more fair and equitable entity for its players. He transcended the game as one of the true pioneers of the NFL Players Association and as a natural leader of men, on and off the field.
Mackey's peers speak of him with a reverence reserved for the greatest of the great, not just for how he transformed the tight end position, but for his dedication to establishing better health benefits and free agency for all NFL players.
Mackey died Thursday, at age 69, after an extended battle with dementia, with that courageous fight helping and inspiring others as well (the league's "88 Plan," named after Mackey's jersey number with the Baltimore Colts, offers annual compensation to former players suffering from Alzheimer's disease or dementia).
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who grew up with the Colts and attended many games as a child at Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium, called Mackey "one of the great leaders in NFL history" and perhaps best captured his spirit with this line: "He never stopped fighting the good fight."
I dare to venture that Mackey's grace, poise and natural leadership style left an indelible imprint on Goodell. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, who inherited a mantle first established by Mackey, ended a months-long silence on his Twitter account to release the following statement: "John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players and define our institution. He will be missed but never forgotten."
Mackey entered the NFL out of Syracuse in 1963, a second-round draft pick at a time when tight ends were mostly glorified tackles, extra blockers. But Mackey's gifts abounded, and he along with fellow Hall of Famer Mike Ditka -- whose affinity for his fellow tight end runs deep along with their shared quest for better benefits for retired players -- soon changed the position.
Suddenly, the field opened up. Tight ends became downfield weapons.
As Ditka says, no one was better running with the ball after the catch than Mackey. He became a vertical threat, with six touchdowns of 50 yards or more in 1966, which was unheard of for a tight end. He had speed, size, great hands, exquisite body control, and he was named to the 1960s all-decade team.
Watch the NFL Films highlights for more than a moment, and Mackey leaps off the screen, somehow full of color despite the black-and-white footage. He runs through and around defenders. Where so often players of a bygone era appear smaller or slighter, unable to perhaps compete in the modern game, Mackey seems like a man among boys. There are glimpses of today's prototype tight ends such as Antonio Gates in that film.
Mackey (6-foot-2, 224 pounds) could play in any era, which is why many consider him the best ever at his position. That he was willing to risk all of that to clash with the NFL over player rights made him even more noble.
Mackey helped found the NFLPA, served as its first president from 1969 to 1973 in the aftermath of the AFL-NFL merger, knowing that the bold move would alienate owners and curtail his livelihood (Mackey's trade from Baltimore to San Diego in 1972 for what became his final season, his shortened career and delayed election to Canton are just some of the personal scars from his prominent position in the labor battle).
Mackey took the role at a time when teams quite literally owned players, with most needing second jobs and lacking the medical and post-career benefits that we now take for granted.
Mackey challenged and eventually defeated the "Rozelle Rule," an edict in which the commissioner awarded compensation to any team that lost a player out of contract, setting the stage for free agency. He embodied the union, keeping players unified and creating what would become a force with which to be reckoned.
Mackey's mind and body paid an even deeper cost from his playing days. Always beloved for his brilliance, his brain betrayed him, his memory failing. Dementia eventually rendered him unable to perform simple functions, stripping him of his autonomy.
Through it all, his wife, Sylvia, was a beacon, tending to her husband, working full time and continuing to champion his causes. Her charm, dignity and unwavering ability to smile despite all that swirled around her endears her to all. A year ago, at an event for the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation, a Baltimore charity with deep ties to the NFL, her arrival lit up the room, with Colts greats such as Lenny Moore and Joe Washington racing to her side, players always quick to thank her for all she and her family gave to their causes.
And once again, late in life, her husband's pain continued to open doors for others, with Mackey becoming an example of the causal links between brain trauma and dementia, and his suffering leading the movement for the kind of research that has become commonplace. It's only fitting that now, as part of the "88 Plan" in his name, other former players suffering from brain damage can receive up to $88,000 annually for nursing home care.
And it's sadly fitting that his death comes at a time when the league and its players are lodged once more in labor strife. I can't help but believe that Mackey's spirit is with Goodell and Smith in New York during their negotiations. I know that their reflections on Mackey's sacrifices will remind them of how far the game has come and the need to continue to reach back for those who played before the free-agency era, to those who, for so long, were left behind.
Because even in death, John Mackey is still giving.
Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.