Baltimore lost one of its most beloved adopted sons last night, former Baltimore Colt tight end John Mackey. John revolutionized the position and was the second tight end to be enshrined in the National Football League’s (NFL) Hall of Fame. He became the first president of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) after the NFL merged with the old American Football League. He was a tenacious and effective advocate for the players, bargaining for higher salaries and better benefits. He organized a three-day strike early in his tenure that generated an additional $11 million in pensions and benefits. Mackey also filed and won an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL which eliminated the so-called “Rozelle Rule” and ultimately paved the way for players’ union to secure full free agency for its members. For the last 10 years, he suffered from dementia and had to move into an assisted living facility that cost much more than his pension. So he and his beloved wife Sylvia led the fight to convince the NFLPA and the NFL to establish the “88 Plan”, named for his uniform number, which provides adult day care and nursing home care for retired players suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Even in death, John continues to give: Sylvia has announced that his brain will be donated to a Boston University School of Medicine study of brain damage in athletes. Researchers at the University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy are examining potential links between repeated concussions and cchronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition which mirrors symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
John Mackey grew up in Roosevelt, New York. He was a man of strong convictions, a character trait he inherited from his father, who was a Baptist minister. John was offered an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy but turned it down to attend Syracuse University, where he studied economics, became an All-American football player, and roomed with Ernie Davis, who became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. The Colts drafted him in 1963 and he caught more touchdown passes and gained more yards as a rookie than the team’s two wide receivers, Hall of Famer Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr. John was big and strong, like other tight ends of his era, but he could run after catching a pass like no other tight end before him. As Hall of Fame coach Don Shula said, “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.”
John was a three-time All-NFL selection. He played in five Pro Bowls. In 1969, while still playing, he made the NFL’s 50th anniversary team as pro football’s all-time tight end. Over the course of his career, he caught 38 touchdown passes, 13 of which were for 50 yards or more, including an 89-yarder against the Los Angeles Rams in 1966. That particular touchdown pass was the longest of the 290 scoring passes in Hall of Fame legend Johnny Unitas’s career. In a 10-year career, John caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards. Perhaps the biggest and most memorable play in John’s career came in the 1971 Super Bowl, when he caught a pass from Unitas that that had been deflected by two other players – Colts receiver Eddie Hinton and Dallas Cowboys defender Mike Renfro – and scored a touchdown on the 75-yard play. The Colts went on to win that game in dramatic fashion on Jim O’Brien’s field goal with 5 seconds left in the game.
By the time John retired, he had already endeared himself to the people of Baltimore, but he wasn’t finished. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992, but he refused to accept his ceremonial ring in Indianapolis, where the Colts had moved in 1984. He said, “I will do it in Baltimore. That is where I played.” And so he received his Hall of Fame ring in Memorial Stadium, at half-time of an exhibition game between Miami and New Orleans.
I send my deepest condolences to John’s wife, Sylvia, to whom he was married for 47 years; his son, John Kevin Mackey, of Atlanta; two daughters, Lisa Mackey Hazel of Bowie, and Laura Mackey Nattans of Baltimore; and John and Sylvia’s six grandchildren. John Mackey has been taken from us much too soon, but what a life he lived. He was one of the greatest collegiate and professional football players of all time. The Mackey Award is given annually to the best tight end in college. He is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He led the NFLPA and then courageously led the fight for retired players which culminated in the “88 Plan”. His accomplishments and legacy will endure in the hearts and minds of his fellow players and Baltimore Colts fans and football fans forever.
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