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For ailing NFL players, a new program

March 25, 2007|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK — As John Mackey's dementia got worse, the costs were piling up for Sylvia Mackey.

Yes, her husband was a tight end good enough to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He was a star of the 1971 Super Bowl, when he caught a tipped 75-yard touchdown pass in the Baltimore Colts' 13-10 win over Dallas.

But he made less than $500,000 in his 10-season career, less than a backup long snapper makes in one year these days. The cost of his care was escalating and his wife had to augment his pension of less than $2,500 a month and what's left from the sale of their California home by working as a flight attendant for United Airlines.

So Sylvia Mackey, who had met both Paul Tagliabue and his wife, Chan, wrote to the former commissioner, then in the final days of his tenure. Both Tagliabues adopted the cause immediately and new commissioner Roger Goodell supported it enthusiastically when he took over in September.

"I told Paul he could do one more great thing for the NFL and its players," Sylvia Mackey said.

The result is the "88 Plan," which has been written into the labor agreement ratified last year and provides up to $88,000 a year for nursing care or day care for ex-players with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, or $50,000 for home care.

The $88,000 and the name of the plan is for Mackey's number, 88. It originally was to be $85,000, but Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, suggested that 88 would be a fitting testament to the man whose wife initiated the program.

No one involved with the program claims Mackey or any other ex-NFL player with dementia or Alzheimer's is in such a condition because of hits sustained while playing. The NFL, Sylvia Mackey and Upshaw all say the players might be victims of ailments common to elderly people -- at 65, Mackey is the youngest suffering from dementia that the league knows about

"We would describe the goal of the plan ... to provide resources to former players and their families for care and treatment of a debilitating disease that affects many elderly people," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "The league and players association both believe this was an area that needed to be addressed because of the growing population of aging former players. It is a matter of addressing a need, without regard to cause or circumstances."

Upshaw, a Hall of Fame guard who played for the Raiders from 1967-81, notes that when he played, anyone knocked out was told simply that he had his "bell rung."

"You'd get hit in the head, they'd give you smelling salts and tell you to get back in there," he said.

But some research indicates a link between football and problems later in life. A 2003 University of North Carolina study found that 263 of 2,500 retired NFL players studied -- more than 10 percent -- said concussions may have had a permanent effect on their ability to think and remember as they got older.

A forensic pathologist who studied the brain tissue of Andre Waters after his suicide last November at age 44 concluded he had brain damage that resulted from multiple concussions during 12 years as an NFL safety. The Boston Globe and New York Times reported in February that 34-year-old Ted Johnson, who spent 10 years as a linebacker with the New England Patriots, shows early signs of Alzheimer's.

Johnson said he began to deteriorate in 2002 with a concussion during an exhibition game against the New York Giants. He said he had another concussion four days later after coach Bill Belichick prodded him to participate in a full-contact practice, even though he was supposed to be avoiding hits.

Belichick told the Globe he got no cue from Johnson in practice that he was hesitant about participating in the full-contact drill.

John Mackey was diagnosed with dementia in 2001, when he was 59. He still lives at home in Baltimore, but needs full-time care from his wife or a health care worker, and often spends his days at the Keswick Adult Day Care center with Ralph Wenzel, another former NFL player.

For Sylvia Mackey, it's like caring for a young child. She has even stopped taking her husband to the market, because he tends to stuff candy bars in his pocket and walk by the register. Sylvia catches him and makes him return them -- or simply pays for them.

"They understand," she said. "He's still well-known and respected in the neighborhood and people know what he's going through."

But it's hard.

Last January, Mackey was watching the Colts play the Patriots in the AFC championship game and saw Marvin Harrison, a fellow Syracuse alumnus, and the team's current No. 88.

"He thought it was him, that they were showing a rerun of one of the games he played," his wife said. "Then they showed a close-up. 'That's not me,' he said. 'That's not my name on the jersey.' When he saw No. 88 in a Colts uniform running, he was joyous about it. Then he got very upset. He simply couldn't differentiate between the reality of today and more than 30 years ago when he was playing."

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