As millions tune in to the Super Bowl this Sunday, I am cheering for one football wife who tackled her husband’s dementia with a game plan to keep their lives as normal as possible and in the process found her calling as a caregiving advocate. Her passionate plea to the NFL, one of the most powerful organizations in sports, resulted in the “88 Plan,” a break-through long-term care plan that gives security and support to former players and their families when it comes to brain-related illness.
While this story is about caregiving, football and dementia, at its heart, this is a love story.
For Love of the Game and the Man
When it comes to the gladiators of the gridiron, he was the Charlton Heston or Russell Crowe of his day. But, in the end would be his wife – on the sidelines of his entire career – who would become the warrior at the center of the action.
When John Mackey, No. 88, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, he was only the second tight end to receive the honor. He was and still is considered one of the best tight ends to ever take the field. In fact, Mike Ditka, himself a Hall of Fame player and the first “pure” tight-end to be inducted into that rare club of exceptional players, stated that Mackey should have been first.
As a Baltimore Colt, where he played all but the last year of his career, John scored one of the most famous plays in NFL championship history. It was Super Bowl V played in 1971, that John caught the nail-biting pass from quarterback Johnny Unitas that first careened off the hands of the opposite team’s player, grazed the fingertips of his teammate and finally wound up safely in the arms of John who then ran it for a then- record 75-yard touchdown. It was this decisive play that helped the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys and won John his coveted Super Bowl ring.
Twenty-one years later, as John took his place in football’s pantheon of great players for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, right by his side was the woman who had been in that same spot since his college playing days, his wife, Sylvia. Theirs would prove to be a true love story, challenged only by a devastating medical diagnosis.
Little did either John or Sylvia know that day in 1992 that 14 years later, John’s toughest battles would be fought off the football field with his lovely wife serving as both tackler and blocker. At age 65 John Mackey was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a degenerative disease caused by the rapid deterioration of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.
What makes Sylvia’s story one of inspiration is that this diagnosis could have sacked her (in football parlance) but instead she did not let this devastating news knock her down. One incident that highlights the special challenges that dementia caregivers face was played out at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
“John and I were on our way to the Super Bowl – we never missed one and I was determined this was something we were going to continue to do – it always made John happier as we got ready for these annual trips,” said Sylvia.
But, this year was different. There was an incident with the TSA airport security that almost took them both down – literally. Her husband, proudly wearing his Super Bowl ring and trademark cowboy hat, refused to remove these items and place them on the conveyor belt to be scanned. In his mind, he did not understand that there had been a 9/11, he did not understand why they did not recognize him, and ultimately he thought they were trying to rob him of his precious possessions.
As John grew more frustrated with the TSA agents who, unaware of his diagnosis, thought he was just being a belligerent traveler, the agents grew increasingly irritated and finally tackled him but not after chasing the six-foot two-inch 220-pound former football player who dragged the agents several feet through the airport until several more agents joined in, handcuffed him and took him off to jail.
All the while, a tearful and frightened Sylvia was trying her best to explain to the agents and the curious onlookers that her husband was the NFL great and one of Baltimore’s favorite sons, John Mackey, that his illness meant he had no ability to understand what was happening, and ultimately she begged the officers to let her proud husband go. She collapsed while they dragged her confused husband away, and thought to herself, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
Hemingway wrote that “Courage is grace under fire.”
When Sylvia caught up with her husband at the police station, John was back to his typical, jovial, social self – signing autographs for many of the police officers who finally recognized the NFL great. It was at this moment as her husband basked in the bright light of his fame, that she realized she could not give up on her husband or herself. That is when her courage took flight.
Instead of deciding that attending future Super Bowls or other travel would be out of the question, Sylvia got to work contacting the head of TSA at Baltimore/Washington International. She explained her situation and asked for his help to allow her husband to travel – especially to the sporting events and autograph signings that he truly lived for and were important to maintaining some type of normalcy in their lives.
The TSA executive designed a plan with Sylvia to have John brought through a private area where they could scan him without incident and without his having to remove items precious to him. In addition, the TSA executive also would contact the TSA executive at the arrival airport to explain how similar treatment of John upon his return flight out of their airport would be helpful to avoid any similar, dramatic incidents that neither party wanted.
And, these special plans are not just for those with famous last names. One lesson all caregivers can take from Sylvia’s travel strategy is to plan ahead and ask a lot of questions. Most airports will work with caregivers on the special travel needs of their loved ones.
The Final Play
Sadly, John Mackey lost his battle with dementia and passed away in 2011. A few years before losing her husband, Sylvia had written a passionate letter to then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue asking for more support for retired players when it comes to their long-term-care (LTC). In his decade-long career, Mackey made about $500,000 – a salary that many back-up players make in one season today. The LTC plan was championed by current Commissioner Roger Goodell and was adopted by the NFL in 2007. The “88 Plan,” was named to honor Mackey’s jersey number and provides retired players suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, ALS or Parkinson’s disease with $88,000 annually for long-term care or adult day care or $50,000 to secure care at home.
Today, Sylvia is a board member of the Association of Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD) and speaks to caregivers across the country about the impact of dementia on families.
As the Giants and Patriots prepare to square off in Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLVI, Sylvia’s message to all caregivers on this game day – and every day – is to “Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.”
This is an excerpt on Sylvia Mackey’s story from Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care