Focused from the start
Mr. Mackey would model himself after Mr. Davis, who died of leukemia at 23.
"Ernie was big and fast, like a hurricane," Mr. Mackey told The Sun in 1994. "He could run past you or knock you down. But he was never arrogant. He motivated me."
The 19th player chosen in the 1963 NFL draft, Mr. Mackey impressed his Colts teammates even before he signed a contract.
"The first time I saw John was when he walked through the locker room, after practice, to meet Shula," said defensive end Ordell Braase. "John was wearing a suit, and right behind him were his lawyer, physician and a couple of others in suits, too.
"I thought, 'What's going on here?' Back then, most players negotiated their own deals, but Mackey had a task force with him. I said, 'By God, this guy is not going to get taken.' He was focused on what he wanted, and I admired him for that."
As a first-year starter, Mr. Mackey caught 35 passes for more yardage (726) and touchdowns (seven) than either of the Colts' veteran wide receivers, Raymond Berry or Jimmy Orr.
"I'm not surprised," Mr. Orr said. "John was faster than both Raymond and I."
Nearly 50 years later, Mr. Berry, a Hall of Famer, marvels at Mr. Mackey's feats.
"Getting blocked by John was like being hit by [boxing great] Sugar Ray Robinson. He exploded into you, like lightning," Mr. Berry said. "He was fireplug-solid, not so much tall as broad. It was difficult to find a piece of him to get your arms around."
Among Berry's keepsakes is an NFL highlights film that features the 6-foot-2 Mackey at his best. In a 1966 game against Detroit, No. 88 caught a 6-yard pass and proceeded to ricochet off opponents.
"Gathering a short pass from [quarterback Gary] Cuozzo, Mackey broke one tackle, somehow escaped from the clutches of three more defenders who appeared to have him at bay, bulled his way past two more tacklers and outran the rest of the Lions for a 64-yard touchdown gallop," The Evening Sun wrote the next day.
Said Detroit coach Harry Gilmer: "He [Mackey] was knocking everybody down as he went, and I thought he was going to come over and knock me down, too."
The play was vintage Mackey, teammates said.
"Defensive backs fell off of him like gnats," said Jerry Hill, a fullback. "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."
Mackey thrived on contact, said Vogel: "Some times you had a sense that, given the option, John would rather run over you than outrun you."
No team respected Mackey more than Green Bay, the Colts' archrival in the 1960s.
"He was the criteria by which you measured tight ends," said Dave Robinson, the Packers' All-Pro linebacker who regularly squared off against him. "If you played well against John Mackey, you could play against anyone."