What John Mackey meant to the game

The passing of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey hit me a little harder than other recent deaths of athletes.

The Mackey story is heartbreaking. He was one of the most dominating players at a position as you could find in the NFL. Once the ball got into his hands, Mackey was an unstoppable force. His big body would plow through defenses. Mackey was the essence of the physical style of football.

But the physical pain he inflicted had its costs. He suffered from frontotemporal dementia and had to move to an assisted living facility. His death comes as retired players filed a lawsuit in Minnesota seeking a seat at the bargaining table in labor talks between owners and players.

Mackey’s death should remind both sides of the importance of taking care of the players who made this game so great. Because of the concern about Mackey's health troubles after football, both sides came up with the "88 plan," which provided retired players money for nursing homes and adult daycare.

Mackey touched me most as a voting member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mackey was part of my favorite class. I liked the class of 1992 because it included some of the most controversial figures in the NFL at the time -- Mackey, Al Davis and John Riggins.

Mackey had his detractors because he was part of a 1977 antitrust suit against the NFL seeking free agency for players. Owners controlled everything back in those days, and they didn’t take well to challenges. Mackey was fearless on the field and didn’t fear the consequences of putting his name on a lawsuit to help himself and his peers.

I was one of the youngest Hall of Fame voters at that time. Will McDonough, the former Boston Globe icon whom I modeled my career after, pulled me aside and asked me if I would help on support for Mackey, Davis and Riggins. Davis was unpopular in some NFL circles because of his many lawsuits and battles with the league. Riggins was controversial, but he was a great player.

Spurred by McDonough, I started quietly talking to voters to gauge their thoughts on these three NFL icons. The conversations, as they usually are in on- and off-the-record Hall of Fame discussions, were positive, but it was fascinating hearing some of the reasons some voters had questions about Mackey, Davis and Riggins.

I don’t know if I convinced a single voter to support Mackey, Davis or Riggins, but the results said something. It was one of my proudest moments as a voter.

Unfortunately, Mackey wasn’t able to fully enjoy the post-football life befitting of a Hall of Famer. Mackey’s death may not open a seat at the bargaining table for retired players, but his portrait should be positioned in a spot for owners and players to see -- and to remember what he and others have meant to this game.