On paper, John Mackey was the size of a modern-day receiver.
However, on the field, he resembled a large bull that hit like a wrecking ball.
As a tight end for the Baltimore Colts, Mackey helped redefine the position into what it is today.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) November 7, 2019
Before Mackey became an NFL player, tight ends mostly blocked and caught a pass only if they were lucky.
That changed when John Mackey became a Colt in 1963.
Twice in his career, he caught 50 or more passes, a stat almost unheard of for the position.
During his time in Baltimore, Mackey was a five-time Pro Bowler, won Super Bowl V, and was president of the NFL Players Association.
This is the story of John Mackey.
Talented New York Kid
John Mackey was born on September 24, 1941, in Roosevelt, New York.
Hall of Fame TE John Mackey was born OTD in 1941. Hall of Fame Enshrinement Class of 1992. Mackey played 10 seasons with the Baltimore Colts and the San Diego Chargers. pic.twitter.com/hWikhI7nUS
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) September 24, 2018
By the time he reached Hempstead (New York) High School, Mackey was already a burgeoning athlete who was growing quickly into his eventual 6’2” frame.
While in high school, Mackey starred on the Tigers’ football, track, and basketball teams.
His speed and athleticism were difficult for opponents to keep up with.
Mackey and his teammates were so good, in fact, that the Tigers only lost two football and two basketball contests while he played for the school.
As if that weren’t impressive enough, Mackey was also a magnificent pole vaulter in track and won a state championship in the event.
NY Made: "Did You Know"
— NY MADE FOOTBALL (@NYMadeFootball) August 3, 2021
Despite his local fame, Mackey kept a level head and never thought he was better than anyone else.
“I was a freshman and he was a junior. I saw him play every game in football and basketball in his junior and senior years,” said Don Ryan, a retired teacher at the school. “He was outstanding in everything, even track, and someone we all looked up to. He was so humble.”
In 1958, Mackey received the Thorp Award, which is given to the best high school football player in the county.
Although Mackey was humble in nature, he was feted by several college programs including Coach Ben Schwartzwalder at Syracuse University.
Schwartzwalder and the Orangemen made up a talented outfit, and the program was already recognized for alum Jim Brown.
Mackey accepted the Syracuse scholarship offer and found himself on the same roster as running back Ernie Davis.
“When I got to Syracuse, the coaches told me I could be a second-string running back or a first-string tight end,” Mackey often said. “I took one look at Ernie and became a tight end.”
While Mackey was unable to play as a freshman in 1959 due to NCAA rules, the Orangemen and Davis went undefeated and won the National Championship.
— Former NFL Players (@RetiredNFLers) July 31, 2014
Finally able to take the field in 1960, Schwartzwalder played Mackey at both tight end and running back.
The opportunity to play two positions thrilled Mackey because Syracuse was primarily a run-based team.
That meant that Mackey wouldn’t see a lot of passes thrown his way.
“He loved being able to do both,” Sylvia Mackey said. “He wasn’t really a big guy. He didn’t lumber. He had speed. He liked it that coach Schwartzwalder let him play halfback. He scored two touchdowns against Navy (in 1962) and I think that’s when pro scouts realized he could run and catch.”
As a sophomore, Mackey had 129 rushing yards and a touchdown and added 29 yards on four receptions for 7-2 Syracuse.
Little Utilized but Highly Effective
In 1961, Mackey only played tight end and caught 15 balls for 321 yards and four scores.
Remarkably, his receiving yards set a single-season record for the Orangemen.
His receiving and running skills were on display during a November game against Colgate.
During the contest, Davis (who would win the Heisman Trophy that year) dropped back on a halfback pass and spied Mackey several yards downfield.
Davis let fly and the pigskin found the tight end for a 74-yard touchdown.
Between rare receptions, Mackey was asked to block, and he helped clear wide running lanes for Davis.
“He took great pride in his blocking,” said teammate Willie Richardson.
After Syracuse ended the year 8-3, the team played in the Liberty Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes.
Mackey caught four passes during the game, and the Orangemen held on for a close 15-14 win.
— Syracuse Memes™ (@Cusememes) October 23, 2022
Davis left for the NFL after 1961, and Mackey was again used as a running back and tight end for the 1962 season.
Syracuse had a difficult time without Davis and fell to 5-5 during Mackey’s senior year.
However, when he wasn’t blocking, Mackey was able to rush for 130 yards and three touchdowns and add 131 yards and one score as a receiver.
Mackey’s three-year college playing career consisted of 259 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns, and only 27 catches for 481 yards and five scores.
He was honored years later by being named to Syracuse’s All-Century Team in 1999. The program has since retired his number 88.
Baltimore Selects Mackey
In 1958 and 1959, the Baltimore Colts won back-to-back NFL titles.
During the years after 1959, Baltimore’s record hovered around .500.
In 1962, the Colts had an offense ranked eighth overall, and the franchise wanted to improve in that area and get back to the postseason.
With the 19th overall selection in the second round of the 1963 NFL Draft, the Colts took Mackey.
Throwback NYS alum and considered one of the top NFL players of all time: John Mackey
NFL Draft: 1963 / Round: 2 / Pick: 19
High school: Hempstead High School (NY)
AFL draft: 1963 / Round: 5 / Pick: 35
Weight: 6’2 – 224 lb (102 kg) pic.twitter.com/PlpfHELEfd
— NextGen Prospect (@NextGen_Pr) November 30, 2018
New head coach Don Shula believed that Mackey’s ability would be a unique threat that most teams did not have.
At the time, he stood 6’2” tall and weighed between 225 and 235 pounds.
Mackey’s frame wasn’t much bigger than some receivers, but on the field, he looked much larger than he was.
Furthermore, he was quick. At the tight end position, Mackey’s combination of size and speed overwhelmed opponents.
“Defensive backs fell off of him like gnats,” said Colts teammate Jerry Hill. “John didn’t have a fluid gait—he looked like a plowhorse—but you didn’t want to touch him for fear of getting caught up in the wheels.”
During his rookie year, Mackey was a freakishly good downfield threat who averaged 20.7 yards per reception.
“Previous to John, tight ends were big strong guys like Ditka and (Ron) Kramer who would block and catch short passes over the middle,” said Shula. “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.”
Unitas found his tight end 35 times for 726 yards and seven touchdowns.
Colts great John Mackey on the move against the LA Rams. pic.twitter.com/reOGT5BPEr
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) October 19, 2015
His catch total was more than Mackey had in three years of college ball.
Mackey also returned kicks nine times for an average of 30 yards per return.
He helped the Colts win eight games, and the offense improved slightly to seventh overall. Voters then sent Mackey to his first of five Pro Bowls.
Colts Lose a Championship
Mackey’s second-year totals dipped to 22 receptions for 406 yards and two scores.
However, the Colts’ offense rose to first overall. The team won 12 games for the first time in franchise history.
That propelled Baltimore to the 1964 NFL title game against the Cleveland Browns.
On this day 55 years ago:
The Cleveland Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-0 to win the 1964 NFL championship. pic.twitter.com/oRWS6ok3Vc
— Everything Cleveland (@everythingcle_) December 27, 2019
One year later, the Colts returned to the postseason after a 10-3-1 record but lost to Green Bay in the Conference Playoff, 13-10.
Mackey’s numbers improved greatly to 40 receptions for 814 yards and seven touchdowns, which brought him another Pro Bowl nod.
A Bulldozer with Great Hands
In 1966, Mackey had a whale of a season and caught 50 passes, with career highs in yards (829) and touchdowns (9).
No fewer than six of his scores came on receptions of at least 50 yards or longer.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) October 1, 2022
That led to his first All-Pro nod and another Pro Bowl selection.
During a game against the Detroit Lions in Week 11, Baltimore was getting shut out by the Lions, 17-0.
In the fourth quarter, backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo found Mackey for a quick pass intended to pick up a few yards.
“Once he catches the ball, the great adventure begins,” said Colts assistant coach Dick Bielski.
Mackey turned on the jets and slammed into a quartet of Lions defenders.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) November 20, 2022
Using brute force and determination, Mackey broke several tackles and continued pounding on his way to a 64-yard score.
“Four or five guys bounced off him,” Richardson said. “He wouldn’t go down. I was trying to block for him, and he ran over me.”
The play immediately became a highlight throughout the country and remains one of the most memorable in team history.
“I decided that the only thing you can do is to just try to hurt someone,” Mackey told the NFL Network. “The play when I ran over the nine guys against Detroit … I caught that diagonal pass, and when I turned up, it was like the whole team came over there. And I just closed my eyes and ran into it and came right through it.”
Baltimore still lost the contest, but Mackey’s name became synonymous with greatness.
That was confirmed in 1967 when he collected 55 passes for 686 yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Colts didn’t lose a game until the final week but missed the playoffs with an 11-1-2 record.
New York Shocks the Colts
Baltimore was no doubt feeling jinxed.
Between 1963 and 1967, the team had a winning record each season but only made the postseason twice.
Finally, in 1968, the Colts lost only once and took their 13-1 record into the postseason.
Mackey had another productive year with 45 catches for 644 yards and five touchdowns.
In the Conference playoffs, Baltimore defeated Minnesota before getting revenge against the Browns in the NFL Championship, 34-0.
Then, it was on to Super Bowl III and the New York Jets.
Days before the contest, Jets quarterback Joe Namath predicted an upset against the heavily favored Colts.
50 years ago today, Joe Namath delivers on the most famous guarantee in sports history as the Jets upset the Colts in Super Bowl III. pic.twitter.com/NtTmonPM79
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 13, 2019
Most of the media just laughed at Broadway Joe until the game began, and New York shut out Baltimore through the first three quarters.
The final score was 16-7, Jets, and Mackey was held to three receptions for 35 yards.
“I remember feeling like I wanted to dig a hole and hide,” Mackey said.
Mackey’s Big Catch Helps Baltimore Win Super Bowl V
In 1969, Baltimore went 8-5-1. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom wasn’t happy.
Under Shula, the Colts had lost the NFL Championship in 1964, the Conference Playoff in 1965, and Super Bowl III even though the team was favored each time.
Baltimore also underperformed in 1969, so there had to be a fall guy.
Shula was offered an opportunity to coach for the Miami Dolphins. He took the leap before the 1970 season, and before Rosenbloom could fire him.
Colts offensive coordinator Don McCafferty took over and led the team to an 11-2-1 record in 1970.
Mackey started 11 times and collected 28 passes for 435 yards and three scores.
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) February 16, 2022
His modest scores ultimately wouldn’t matter, at least to Mackey and his teammates.
During the playoffs, Baltimore shut out Cincinnati in the Divisional round before beating the Raiders by ten in the AFC Championship game.
For the second time in three years, the organization was going to play in a Super Bowl.
Their opponent for Super Bowl V was the 10-4 Dallas Cowboys, and just like their previous title game experiences, the Colts were favored.
It was starting to look like déjà vu when Dallas took a 13-6 lead into the fourth quarter.
Baltimore’s lone score in the first half came courtesy of Mackey.
With the team facing third down, Unitas dropped back to pass and threw in the direction of receiver Eddie Hinton.
Unitas cringed when the ball bounced off Hinton’s hands and into the air.
It then deflected again off of Cowboys’ corner Mel Renfro and into the waiting arms of John Mackey.
"Once in a great while, the clouds of chance would overshadow the plans of men."
OTD at the Orange Bowl in 1971 pic.twitter.com/pP74O6aDbT
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 18, 2023
The big tight end then rumbled 75 yards for the Colts’ first score of the day.
“That play turned the game around for us,” said Glenn Ressler, a guard with the Colts.
The point after was blocked, but ultimately, Baltimore scored ten unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win, 16-13.
Mackey Leads the NFLPA
Before the Colts Super Bowl V season, Mackey was elected by his peers as the first president of the National Football League Players Association.
On this day of #BlackHistoryMonth, we celebrate John Mackey, the 1st #NFLPA president, and Alan Page, a former #NFLPA Executive Committee member & the first African-American to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
🔗: –https://t.co/ZnLEiDr7Tr –https://t.co/1cJqO083nX pic.twitter.com/wizWvSPwNv
— NFLPA (@NFLPA) February 14, 2019
The NFLPA was formed that year due to the AFL and NFL officially merging. Mackey was the guy that representatives from both sides could agree to lead them.
Almost immediately, Mackey led the players on a strike that began in July.
Mackey and the players wanted more money and benefits. They also wanted the ability to hire counsel to negotiate with their teams on their behalf.
“He had a vision for that job, which was more than just putting in time and keeping the natives calm,” said former union president Ordell Braase. “You don’t get anything unless you really rattle the cage.”
After a month of negotiations, the two sides settled. The players received most of their demands.
However, that didn’t prevent the owners from getting a little payback.
Mackey Leaves Baltimore
In 1971, Mackey only started five games due to injuries and had 11 catches for 143 yards.
During training camp in 1972, Mackey’s health had improved, but he was curiously penciled in at second string.
Since the strike in 1970, team owners had been cutting players who had been associated with the strike, especially the union leaders.
Mackey felt he was getting the raw end of the deal simply for doing his job as a leader.
“I went to see McCafferty (Colts head coach) and told him to trade me,” Mackey explained. “I didn’t want to be second‐string.”
A short time later, Mackey found out that Baltimore had placed him on their retired list.
That irked Mackey, who demanded that the team waive him, so he could sign with another club.
Both sides went back and forth before the League office intervened, and Mackey was placed on the waiver wire.
Initially, no teams would pick him up.
“That didn’t surprise me,” Mackey said, “because if I wasn’t a player, I couldn’t remain as president of the Players Association.”
Finally, former Packers player Willie Wood called Mackey about playing in San Diego, where Wood was a coach.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) May 18, 2017
Mackey contacted the Chargers’ general manager, and the two had a good conversation.
“Willie told me that if I want to play, to call Harland Svare,” said Mackey, “and here I am.”
During his one season in San Diego, Mackey caught 11 passes for 110 yards.
After the 1972 season, Mackey retired.
In his career, Mackey caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns.
🏈 Receive yds = 5,236
🏈 TD = 38
🏆 Super Bowl champion (V)
⭐ NFL champion (1968)
✨ 5× Pro Bowl
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) September 24, 2022
He also had 127 rushing yards.
Mackey was a Super Bowl and NFL champion, a five-time Pro Bowler, and a three-time All-Pro.
He has since been named to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade Team, NFL 50th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams, and the Baltimore Ravens Ring of Honor.
In 1992, he became just the second tight end to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Mackey’s Battle with Dementia
One of Mackey’s last acts as president of the NFLPA was to take the league to court in 1972.
As one of the top plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, Mackey and others sought to overturn the “Rozelle Rule.”
The rule was named after former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and heavily limited the ability of players to act as free agents.
It wasn’t until 1976 that the Rozelle Rule was found by the court to violate antitrust laws.
For the next several years, Mackey got into the business world and did well for himself.
Only a few years after his Hall of Fame induction, Mackey began forgetting names and people. He also grew increasingly agitated and paranoid.
At one point in the late 1990s, Mackey and his wife, Sylvia, were at an airport, and security asked him to take off his Super Bowl and HoF rings.
John Mackey revolutionized the tight end position and fought for social change during a storied football career. His battle with dementia highlighted the need for player safety advances and post-career benefits.
— Concussion Legacy Foundation (@ConcussionLF) July 6, 2021
Mackey believed the security guards were trying to steal his rings, and he ran.
Four security agents finally subdued him before Sylvia was able to intervene.
“I’m just so thankful they didn’t shoot him because they had no idea about his mental condition,’’ she said. “They easily could have mistaken him for being a bomb-toting terrorist.”
Not long after the incident, Sylvia took John to get tested by doctors. They were able to diagnose that Mackey was in the initial stages of dementia.
“88 Plan” and Death
While suffering from the effects of dementia, Mackey lost his businesses, and Sylvia went to work as an airline stewardess to try and make ends meet.
Eventually, she had to make the painful decision to have Mackey placed in an assisted living facility.
Unfortunately, the costs of the facility were more than what Mackey made from his NFL pension and Sylvia’s income.
It was at that point when Sylvia desperately reached out to then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue for help.
Tagliabue and the players union rose to the occasion and started the “88 Plan” (named after Mackey’s playing number).
— Requiem For A Running Back (@RequiemRB) November 6, 2017
The plan helped Mackey and other former players with dementia and Alzheimer’s costs.
On July 6, 2011, Mackey succumbed to the disease and passed away at the age of 69.
Upon his death, Sylvia had her husband’s brain donated to the Boston University School of Medicine for testing.
The results later revealed that Mackey had been suffering from the effect of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a common disease linked to those who suffer from repeated head trauma.
Mackey’s passing affected the NFL community greatly.
“I was fortunate to get to know John and Sylvia personally, and I was struck by her love and loyalty throughout the difficult times of his illness,” Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. “John set the standard by which tight ends are measured on the field, and he will be sorely missed not only by his family, but also by the entire Baltimore community. “