Baltimore Colts: John Mackey Was a Pioneer on and off the Football Field

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Baltimore Colts: John Mackey Was a Pioneer on and off the Football Field
Baltimore Colts great John Mackey dies at 69

On Wednesday, former Baltimore Colts great John Mackey, passed away too soon at the age of 69.

Mackey’s passing occurred right in the middle, or hopefully, the end of the current NFL lockout. Whatever deal the NFL players agree to when their new agreement is reached, all of them need to take a moment, point to the sky, and thank the legendary Baltimore Colts tight end.

After retiring from the NFL, Mackey became the first president of the NFL Players Association and led a brief (three days) players’ strike during training camp in 1970.

The walkout led to a contract providing increased benefits and pensions for players. He also led the NFLPA in a federal suit filed against the N.F.L. in 1972 challenging restrictions on free agency.

The suit sought to overturn what was called the "Rozelle Rule," in which the N.F.L. commissioner, Pete Rozelle, could award compensation to teams losing a free agent. A federal judge found that the "Rozelle Rule" was an illegal deterrent to free movement. In a negotiated settlement, the league agreed to pay $15.8 million in damages to players under contract in the early 1970s.

The victory for the players became known as the "Mackey case."

Once considered just another offensive lineman, tight ends were often just extra slow-footed blockers. Mackey was big, but he was not slow footed.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
John and Sylvia Mackey

In fact, the 6' 2" 225-pound native of New York City was once used as a kick returner by the Baltimore Colts and averaged 30.1 yards per return on nine attempts.

Mackey played at Syracuse University and was selected by the Colts during the second round of the 1963 draft. By 1966, No. 88 had revolutionized the position of tight end.

Said former Dolphins and Baltimore Colts head coach Don Shula speaking to the Baltimore Sun: "Previous to John, tight ends were big strong guys like Ditka and Kramer who would block and catch short passes over the middle. Mackey gave us a tight end who weighed 230, ran a 4.6, and could catch the bomb. It was a weapon other teams didn't have."

Mackey played nine seasons for the Baltimore Colts and one for the San Diego Chargers. During his career, he caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns.

He was instrumental to legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas in the latter stages of his career, as he was one of No. 19's favorite targets. During his rookie season in 1963, in which he made the Pro-Bowl, Mackey caught 35 passes averaging almost 21 yards per catch.

It was unheard of during that era for tight end to average more than five yards per catch. He duplicated the feat again in 1965 averaging 20.4 YPC on 40 catches. For his career, Mackey averaged 15.8 YPC, which in any era, is considered remarkable for a tight end.

Mackey played a key part in the Baltimore Colts Super Bowl V victory of the Dallas Cowboys in 1971.

In what is considered one of the most memorable plays in early Super Bowl history, Mackey scored on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Unitas. The pass from Unitas was not a routine pitch and catch play. The ball deflected off the fingertips of Baltimore receiver Eddie Hinton and Dallas Cowboy defender Mel Renfro, before landing into Mackey hands.

With nothing but daylight remaining, Mackey scampered the remaining 50 yards for the TD. The Colts defeated the Cowboys 16-13 on a field goal by rookie Jim O'Brien in the final seconds.

Mackey was a three time All-Pro selection, played in five Pro Bowls and was chosen to be a part of the 1960's NFL all decade team. He was also No. 42 on NFL Network's list of the Top 100 Football Players in 2010.

Ironically, a player who missed just one game in ten years due to injuries was forced to retire because of them following the 1972 season.

However, it was not until his final year of eligibility, 15-years later in 1992, that the Pro Football Hall of Fame called Mackey's name. It was widely speculated that Mackey's involvement with NFLPA irked many old school reporters who were sympathetic to the owners during Mackey's playing days.

Mackey refused to accept his ceremonial Hall Of Fame ring in Indianapolis, where the Colts had moved in 1984. "I will do it in Baltimore," he told Hall officials. "That is where I played." He received the ring in Memorial Stadium at halftime of an exhibition game between the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints.

While Mike Ditka of the Bears was the first pure tight end inducted into the Hall four years earlier, Mackey became the second on August 1, 1992 and gave a very heartfelt induction speech, which you can read by clicking here.

Later in retirement, Mackey was diagnosed with front temporal dementia. The condition led to Mackey becoming protective of personal possessions and suspicious of anyone who tried to control his actions. He became confused and very disoriented at times.

His conditioned worsened daily. In a January 2007 Baltimore Sun article written by David Steele, Mackey became very agitated and upset over the fact that Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison was wearing his number.

As Mackey’s condition continued to decline, so did the money for his care. Finally, John's wife, Sylvia Mackey, wrote to N.F.L. commissioner Paul Tagliabue in May of 2006. She told him of her husband’s decline and the financial ruin that her family faced. She also told the commissioner that there were other families of former players who also suffered as her husband did and that those families also lacked the money for proper care.

The night in Baltimore when Mackey received his H.O.F ring

To the NFL's credit, the players union, along with their President, Gene Upshaw and the league office, with commissioner Tagliabue responded to Mrs. Mackey and created the 88 Plan.

The 88 Plan provides up to $88,000 a year for care and treatment of former players with dementia.

Maybe it was the fact that Mackey was one of seven children and the son of a preacher, but No. 88 always looked out for his fellow players and continues to do so even in death. Mackey agreed to donate his brain to medical researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine.

They will study his brain to see if there is a link between repeated concussions in football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). They will try to determine what leaves ex-players and possibly current one's suffering from severe headaches, depression, dementia, suicidal thoughts and anything else weekly car accident like hits to the head can cause.

John Mackey meant so much to the NFL players of the past, but he means so much more to the ones sitting around the negotiating table in New York City this weekend. Somewhere in time, someone had to be the first, and Mackey was that man.

Current NFLPA President DeMaurice Smith has not forgotten and broke a nearly two month silence on his twitter account by issuing the following statement: "John Mackey is still our leader, as the President of the NFL Players Association, he led the fight for fairness with a brilliance and ferocious drive. His passion continues to define our organization and inspire our players. His unwavering loyalty to our mission and his exemplary courage will never be forgotten."

Growing up in Baltimore, I was never able to see Mackey play, as he retired when I was just two. I was fortunate to meet him and get his autograph on several pieces of old Baltimore Colts memorabilia. He was always gracious.

Like many of the former Baltimore Colt players, I know what John Mackey meant to the city of Baltimore and to my hero.

I do not speak with my father as much as I should these days, as I now reside in Florida. However, today I heard from him for the first time in about a week, via a text message that simply said: "John Mackey died Wednesday.”

To be reminded several days later that he had passed and after a week of not talking tells me that No. 88 is still very much on the minds of everyone. Rest in peace John Mackey; you deserve it.

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