Results of a concussion study at Boston University released this week revealed 28 new cases of chronic brain damage in deceased football players -- including Hall of Famer John Mackey, who passed away last year.
The number of cases is becoming so big that the brain-damaged football players tend to lose their humanity. They become statistics in a study, evidence in one of hundreds of lawsuits.
This newest information, though -- released in a report by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and PBS' "Frontline" -- represents far more to me personally than further proof of the heartbreaking damage that continues to be discovered,
I didn't need a scientific study to know Mackey's brain was damaged -- clinically called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder linked to memory loss, depression and dementia. I watched it happen first-hand.
I met Mackey in Washington around 2000 when a book publisher looking to do his autobiography put the two of us together. I met him at his mother-in-law's house, and we had lunch and spent the afternoon talking about football and his remarkable life -- from his days as a Syracuse football star and roommate of a great but tragic figure, running back Ernie Davis, to catching a Super Bowl touchdown pass from "his quarterback," Johnny Unitas.
He was a warm, intelligent and strong human being -- someone worthy of the challenge of fighting for the rights of NFL players and taking on the powerful owners as president of the union in the early 1970s. I felt privileged for the chance to tell the story of one of the most important figures in sports in the latter part of the 20th century.
We had a number of conversations over time, but the book project fell through when the publishing company was sold.
About two years later, the editor on the Mackey book was with another publishing company and wanted to revive the project. He put me in touch with Sylvia Mackey, John's wife. Later, I spoke with John. He was not the same man. He repeated himself over and over. He didn't comprehend some of the questions. I had no warning from the publisher or from Sylvia.
After John and I spoke, I talked to Sylvia again, and she asked me, "You notice John is different?" She said she wasn't quite sure what was going on, that he was going to see a doctor. Her life changed after that. Sylvia Mackey went on to become one of the primary forces behind the "88 Plan," named after John, to help players with dementia.
The family wanted John's story to be told still, though, and through the interviews we had done and transcripts of interviews he had done over the years with a previous project, I put together "Blazing Trails: Coming of Age in Football's Golden Era."
John Mackey's story continues today -- and it still has impact.