A mind is a terrible thing to waste

by admin on July 8, 2011

Going off-topic again today…

I have been a sports fan for my whole life, but I have only ever had one conversation with a professional athlete. It happened when I was at a meeting in Baltimore in 2003. I didn’t have anyone to eat dinner with, so I went to a restaurant near my hotel and sat down at the bar.

Not long after I arrived, another man sat down a couple of seats away. “Hi, Johnny,” said the server behind the counter. He asked me where I was from, and I told him I lived in California. He seemed interested in that, and told me that he used to live in Altadena and had recently moved back to Baltimore. He used to be a football player, he said.

He also bantered a little bit with the server. He said that if anyone asked him for his autograph, he would give it to them for free — if they gave the server a tip. If they gave her a big tip, then he would let them take a picture of his Super Bowl ring and his Hall of Fame ring. He thought this was a great idea, and said that one waiter at Mark McGwire’s restaurant in Los Angeles had made $7500 that way.

It was very exciting at first for me to be sitting next to sporting royalty … a Hall of Fame football player! (By the way, we’re talking about American football, the kind where the players wear helmets and bash into each other. Just so you know.) He didn’t tell me his name and I didn’t ask, but I was working on it the whole time, trying to figure out who he was. Hmm. Baltimore. Hall of Fame. Super Bowl winner. And at one point he mentioned, or maybe the server mentioned, that he was a tight end.

Finally, a light bulb went off in my head. John Mackey! The guy who scored one of the strangest touchdowns in Super Bowl history, when he caught a ball that another receiver had tipped and went 75 yards! It was controversial at the time, because an offensive player can’t catch a ball that has been tipped by another offensive player unless a defender touches it in between. But it appeared that the ball had just grazed the fingertips of a Dallas Cowboys defender, so it was ruled a valid catch.

I was pretty pleased with myself for figuring it out. I asked him whom he rooted for now, the Indianapolis Colts (the team he used to play for, which moved to a different city) or the Baltimore Ravens (the team that plays in Baltimore now). He said that he just rooted for football.

Then, after I had been talking with him for five minutes, he asked me, “Where are you from?”

Not “Where did you say you were from?” But “Where are you from?” as if he had never met me before. When I told him I was from California, he seemed genuinely surprised, and told me that he used to live in Altadena. Five minutes later, again: “Where are you from?” And it wasn’t just that. He would repeat the same story about the waiter at Mark McGwire’s, and offer to sign his autograph for free if the recipient would leave the waiter a tip … and every time, he thought it was just as fantastic an idea as the first time.

It was just like the movie “50 First Dates,” only it was real and it wasn’t funny at all. I put up with hearing the same stories over and over for the rest of my meal. When I got ready to pay my bill, the server whispered to me that my drink was on the house, for putting up with the “entertainment.” I shook John Mackey’s hand on my way out, and told him that I was honored to meet a professional football player.

Today I read in the newspaper that John Mackey had died at age 69, after battling frontotemporal dementia. I didn’t want to leap to any conclusions at the time I met him, but this ESPN article says that it was probably caused by playing football. Because of his problems, the 2006 labor agreement between the players and the owners provides up to $88,000 in expenses for nursing home care for former players with dementia. It’s called the “88 Plan,” after Mackey’s former uniform number.

The owners and players are currently negotiating another labor agreement. A big issue in the beginning was the desire of the owners to lengthen the season from 16 to 18 games. Many commentators and players deplored that proposal, which one owner called a “fait accompli,” because it would just put players at even more risk of head injuries and repeated trauma. Now there are reports that the negotiations are nearly over and that the owners have given in — there will be no 18-game season.

If so, the timing is amazing. Perhaps we can chalk up one last victory for John Mackey.

It still doesn’t make up, though, for losing the last years of his life.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Rihel July 8, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Given all the news reports about former NFL players with a new kind of ALS-like dementia, I wonder how long before pro football, as we know it, goes the way of boxing — a side show event that people don’t play in high school or college any longer.


Ashish July 8, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Football helmets are to heads what running shoes are to legs – they deaden us to sensation and encourage us to abuse our bodies far beyond their design.


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