I wasn't lucky enough to see John Mackey play on the field with my own eyes. He retired the year before I was born. But even though I have only seen him on film, interspersed on highlight reels and "Best Of" clips, I can close my eyes and see him breaking tackles and outrunning linebackers and safeties like it is happening right in front of me because he is the reason that the tight end is more than a glorified offensive lineman that is occasionally allowed to catch a pass.
It is a rare feat to be considered someone who "changed the game", and John Mackey is one of the few men who can have that said about them without anyone really being able to argue the point. And the amazing thing about Mackey is that he did it twice.
Tight ends were an afterthought in NFL offensive game plans in 1963. The position was defined by players like Mike Ditka, hard nosed, hard hitting players who made some catches but were mainly there to block and to hit. John Mackey was different. He was fast. He could run as well as hit (during his rookie season, the Baltimore Colts used him as a kick returner), but when he hit you it was like being hit by a Mack truck. Former teammate Bob Vogel said it best when he said "Sometimes you had a sense that, given the option, John would rather run over you than outrun you". There was a play against the Detroit Lions in 1966 that is, even after 45 years, still awe inspiring (this is a nice little mini retrospective of Mackey's career including multiple clips showing his ability to break tackles, but the play in question starts at about 2:50 into the video). If you look, you'll see that he even ran over Lenny Moore (his teammate). Nothing was going to get in the way of John Mackey scoring a touchdown.
All of that, the respect that he earned on the field (like being named the best tight end to ever play the game on the NFL's 50th Anniversary Team in 1969) would have been enough to call him one of the game's all time greats. Not only was he a star in the NFL, he was a star in college, to the point that the best tight end in college is given the John Mackey Award every year. But he was more than a star on the field. He was arguably the first leader of the players.
It might be a little harder now, while NFL fans are stuck in the crosshairs of a stand off between the NFL players and owners over billions of our dollars, for people to understand how different it was for players in the late 60s and early 70s and how much John Mackey meant to the game and what it has become. But without Mackey, things would be VERY different.
John Mackey was not the first head of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), but it is hard to argue that he wasn't the most influential. He became the president of the union after the NFL / AFL merger in 1970, and almost immediately he engineered a strike (that lasted 3 days) in order secure pension and other benefits for the players. Two years later he filed an antitrust suit against the league and won free agency for the players, a right that the players bargained away in 1977, then had to fight for all over again 1987 before finally getting it again in 1993. One has to wonder just how different the NFL would be today if the players had not given up the golden goose before the NFL owners understood the ramifications of it. Professional football in America could look a lot more like professional baseball, both for good and for ill. But we will never know what could have been.
It has been argued by many that Mackey was held out of the Hall of Fame because of the acrimony he caused between the players and ownership. While no one will ever know for sure if that is true (when I asked my Magic 8 Ball the question the reply was "All Signs Point To Yes", however I do not believe that is admissible in court), in 1992 - his 15th and final year of eligibility - he was finally granted membership in that very exclusive club. And in a move that warmed the hearts of most all NFL fans in Baltimore (who were still four years away from the league returning to the city when he was finally inducted), he refused to receive his ring in Indianapolis (after the Colts had moved there in 1984) and instead waited to get his ring during halftime of an exhibition game being played in Memorial Stadium between the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins. That game was being held as a test from the NFL as Baltimore was a finalist for one of two expansion teams that were going to be awarded (the teams went to Carolina and Jacksonville). I had the privilege of attending that game and watching Mackey get his ring in front of many of the fans that had watched him on that very same field. I can remember getting chills as the crowd kept cheering and cheering for John Mackey. The only thing I can equate it to is when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak and the game had to be halted for over 20 minutes because the fans refused to let the moment go. The only difference is that I was in attendance for the Mackey moment, and I still have the ticket stub to prove it.
Even in tragedy, John Mackey continued to affect the game. In retirement he suffered from dementia (an unfortunately more and more common ailment among retired NFL players) and his treatment cost a lot more than the pension that he had fought so hard for all those years ago. It was because of his plight that the NFL and the NFLPA joined forces to arrange to provide for nursing home and adult day care for retired players suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease. This plan is still out there and still helping the players. The name of this agreement?
The 88 Plan.
John Mackey (September 24, 1941 - July 6, 2011)
Selected by the Baltimore Colts, 2nd Round, 19th overall, 1963 from Syracuse University
Career: 1963-1971 Baltimore Colts; 1972 San Diego Chargers
5 Time Pro Bowl Selection (1963, 1965-1968)
3 Time All Pro Selection (1966-1968)
Selected NFL's 50th Anniversary All-Time Greatest Tight End 1969
NFL Hall of Fame 1992