For A Hockey Player, It's Pain Vs. Desire For pro players, this is the part of the season when teams are banged up and playing through pain. But for at least one Washington Capitals player, a good night's sleep can come only after he has put his body on the line in a game.

For A Hockey Player, It's Pain Vs. Desire

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: For some athletes, injuries sustained their careers aren't always fully apparent until years later. Commentator Frank Deford has the story of one professional football player.

FRANK DEFORD: When John Mackey starred for the Baltimore Colts, he pretty much created the modern position of tight end. He was also bright and a leader,the president of the NFL Players Association. But as singular as he was, he now is just like so many other old pro football players. John Mackey has dementia.

There's a reason why the NFL is the one major sport where contracts are not guaranteed. After all, there's a grim joke among NFL players you don't hear in other sports. Everybody is only one play away from the end of his career. Concussions, though, don't end careers. You take a standing knockout and go back onto the field and hit again. Both the NFL and the players union have always maintained that players suffer no more brain damage than those in other occupations, but it's getting more difficult to hold to that creed. And indeed, to its credit, the league has undertaken a comprehensive study of the matter with results to be revealed in 2010.

NFL players also joke that they're susceptible to their own "seven-year itch." There seems to be a profusion of divorces that occur just about seven years after a player's career ends. It figures. It's glamorous to marry a star football player. But when he's a has-been, and his injuries are starting to become a real problem, it's broken-down men, broken-up marriages.

When John and Sylvia Mackey wed, it was the classic All-American marriage. He, the handsome athlete, she, the beautiful model and it was good. Only, sometime after the cheering stopped, the strong and invulnerable football player simply began to lose his mind. But Sylvia did not leave him. She even went back to work as a flight attendant when she was 56 to make ends meet, to get health insurance. And when her husband still had enough of his faculties, she'd make sure to put on a lovely gown and dress him up and take him out to the banquets and the galas, just like back when he was big-time and they were beautiful together.

John Mackey played football, which may be the most intense team game of all. Sylvia Mackey is the best teammate I've ever seen. Largely because of her and a few other loyal wives and children, the NFL and the players union started the 88 Plan - named for Mackey's old number - to help players with dementia. Ninety-seven of them are already receiving assistance, although the league is quick to say now, this certainly doesn't imply any link between football and brain damage.

So, on this Christmas Eve, to Sylvia Mackey and all the other wives who've stood by their stars, even when they dimmed, even when the starlight went out altogether, I wish a Merry Christmas. I'd say Merry Christmas to John Mackey, too - but, of course, he wouldn't understand.

: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday from member station, WSHU, in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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