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Mackey's wife maintains his legacy by continuing crusade against head injuries

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BALTIMORE - The wife of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey refers to herself as Mrs. (hash)88, a tribute to her late husband and the legacy he left behind.

John Mackey preferred to run through tacklers rather than avoid them as a member of the Baltimore Colts from 1963-71. Back then, there was very little understanding about the danger of repeated hits to the head.

Mackey died in July after a 10-year battle with dementia. Sylvia Mackey remained by his side throughout and continues to show her support by educating parents, mental health providers and athletes about sports-related head injuries.

Sylvia Mackey will appear Monday in Baltimore as a part of a forum to discuss mental health and disabilities caused by head trauma. She will be joined by former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, M.D., and former NFL players Eric Hipple and Mark Kelso.

Football-related head injuries have been a topic of concern for Sylvia Mackey ever since her husband was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. John and Sylvia helped bring about the creation of the "88 plan," named after Mackey's number. Funded by the league and the NFL Players Association, it provides US$88,000 per year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care for former players with dementia.

After John Mackey died at the age of 69, Sylvia dutifully continued their crusade.

"I think it's important from the standpoint that my husband wanted to help people, and I feel that I can provide firsthand experience about the ramifications of head injuries in sports," she said. "Many of the people in the audience have young kids starting football, others are care-giver professionals and others are care-givers of people who are at home."

When John Mackey played for the Colts, there were no such forums and very little sympathy for players victimized by helmet-to-helmet hits.

"They just didn't know. The game was different then," Sylvia Mackey said. "It wasn't macho to come out of the game because you were a little dizzy.

"If you could smell some salts and get yourself back together and go back in the game, that was the manly thing to do."

Much has changed since then. Hits to the head and concussions are taken far more seriously, and helmet-to-helmet hits draw penalty flags and/or fines. Baltimore Ravens centre Matt Birk has pledged his brain to science to allow doctors to study the long-term effect of playing football.

"I think society in general is more aware what we're doing to our bodies, and there are ways to stop the injuries and the harm that might come later, 10 to 20 years down the road," Sylvia Mackey said.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was fined US$20,000 this week for delivering such a blow to Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward. Lewis didn't like it, but Mackey says the league is sending the right message.

"Serious head injuries aren't going to totally go away, but we want to reduce the incidents of the long-term harm that hard head-hits will do," she said. "I know Ray Lewis is playing honest football.

"He's a good guy, and I know he wasn't trying to use his head to hurt someone. But sometimes we just have to put fines out there to make people more aware of being cautious. Sometimes you just have to play a little more carefully to prevent permanent injuries."

This will be the 15th in a series of mental health forums run by the NFL in conjunction with Dr. Satcher and the Morehouse School of Medicine. The panelists usually change from city to city, but Sylvia Mackey has remained a constant.

"I'm sure John would be proud of this," she said. "I call him the poster boy for this because he would have wanted it this way."

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