Legendary Colts tight end John Mackey dies at 69

John Mackey changed the game of football on and off the field. The former Baltimore Colt brought grace to a position that had been known for its brutality, and he made the first real headway in the NFL players' fight to earn a more equal share of the pie.

That battle continues as the NFL lockout drags on this summer.

Mr. Mackey, one of the game's great tight ends, a Hall of Famer and one-time president of the NFL Players Association, died Wednesday of frontotemporal dementia, a disease he had battled for 10 years, at Keswick Multi-Care Center in Baltimore. He was 69.

Mr. Mackey's condition awakened the NFL to the dangers of head trauma and forced a change to the retired players' pension plan. He donated his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston for research into the study of brain trauma in athletes.

"John never ever thought anything was wrong. If he thought he had memory problems, he kept it to himself," said Sylvia Mackey, his wife of 47 years. "It started around 1996, when he began making notes to himself, reminders to do certain things."

Three years ago, his family moved him to Keswick for full-time care. At the end, Sylvia Mackey said, her husband acted more like their 10-month-old grandson than the strapping All-American he'd once been.

"John couldn't feed himself, he was incontinent and he couldn't talk at all," she said. "He had deteriorated to the point where he was totally a baby."

Current NFL labor talks include discussions about the health concerns of retired players, improved equipment to protect athletes and the continued study of head injuries.

"John was a tough physical specimen, an unbelievable ballplayer and a good, good man," said Lenny Moore, the Colts' Hall of Fame running back and one of Mr. Mackey's closest friends. "People will never fully understand the impact he had on talks between players and owners and the stuff we were after. John unlocked those gates -- no, he knocked the doors down."

Bull-necked and indomitable, Mr. Mackey forged a reputation as an explosive receiver able to turn a short pass into an 80-yard touchdown. The Colts' No.2 draft pick in 1963, he redefined the role of the lumbering blocking end.

He revolutionized that position, said Don Shula, the Colts' coach from 1963 to 1969.

"Previous to John, tight ends were big, strong guys like [Mike] Ditka and [Ron] Kramer, who would block and catch short passes over the middle," Mr. Shula told The Baltimore Sun. "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."

During his nine years with the Colts, the club won a Super Bowl and three conference championships. Of Mr. Mackey's 38 touchdown receptions, 13 were for 50 yards or more, including an 89-yarder against the Los Angeles Rams in 1966. That score, on the game's first offensive play, was the longest of the 290 scoring passes in NFL legend John Unitas' Hall of Fame career.

"John didn't have the best of hands," Mr. Unitas once said, "but his running ability was second to none."

His most famous catch came in the 1971 Super Bowl, when he grabbed a twice-tipped pass from Mr. Unitas and raced 75 yards for a touchdown in Baltimore's 16-13 victory over Dallas.

"That play turned the game around for us," said Glenn Ressler, then the Colts' starting guard. "If you needed a clutch catch or a block, you'd get it from John. He embodied what the Colts were all about."

Elected in 1992 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Mr. Mackey refused to accept his ceremonial 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."

Mr. Mackey won out. He received the ring in Memorial Stadium at halftime of an exhibition game between the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints.

"John was a fighter, a man with great integrity, one who wouldn't roll over for anybody," said Bob Vogel, an All-Pro Colts tackle who played beside Mackey. "Nothing he did was from the perimeter. Whatever he took on, he was totally involved."

Focused from the start

The son of a Baptist minister, John Mackey grew up in Roosevelt, N.Y. He turned down an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy to attend Syracuse University, where he studied political science, was an All-American and roomed with running back Ernie Davis -- the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy.

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."

The Packers' strategy against Mackey was direct, said Robinson:

"[Coach] Vince Lombardi said, 'If Mackey catches a short pass, I want everyone to rally around him. Don't let the safety try to take him down.'"

At the same time, Mackey's crushing blocks roiled Green Bay's linemen.

"Willie Davis [the Hall of Fame defensive end] would holler, 'Just keep that Mackey off of me,'" Robinson said. "I tried. But I never left Baltimore without dragging the next morning."

A three-time All-NFL selection, Mr. Mackey also played in five Pro Bowls. In a 10-year career (the last with the San Diego Chargers), he caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards.

In 1969, while still playing, he made the NFL's 50th anniversary team as pro football's all-time tight end.

"To be on the field with John was eerie," said center Bill Curry, his roommate with the Colts. "It was like being in the presence of Superman."

Mackey's kryptonite? Bugs.

"He hated them," Curry said. "Once, before practice in Westminster, running back Tom Matte dropped a live cicada down John's pants. He didn't know it until we were in the huddle and everyone heard this whirring noise.

"John looked up, all serious, and said, 'What's that? Is one of them in here with us?' Then he felt the thing in his pants.

"He ripped those pants off, in the middle of the field, with 300 people watching."

At the same time, said Curry, "John had the presence of mind to yell, 'Surround me! Surround me!' to the rest of us. "Of course, we all scattered."

Once, at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium, groundskeepers removed the pre-game tarp, revealing thousands of writhing red earthworms.

"John took one look at those things and said, 'They're not going to get on me,'" Curry said.

He caught a half-dozen passes that day but never hit the ground. The 49ers couldn't bring him down. At game's end, his was the only white jersey on the field.

Players' advocate

Despite the accolades, Mr. Mackey was no shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Most believe his involvement with the NFLPA kept him out of Canton until his 15th and final year of eligibility.

As the union's first president after the merger of the National Football League and the American Football League in 1970, Mr. Mackey quickly aroused the owners' ire. That July, he organized a three-day strike that won the players $11million in pensions and benefits. In 1972, he filed and eventually won a landmark antitrust suit that brought them free agency. (The union bargained it away in 1977.)

"He was the right man at the right time," said Mr. Braase, who preceded Mr. Mackey as head of the players association. "We were a fractured group until John began putting permanence in [the union's] day-to-day operations. He hired administrators and a general counsel.

"He had a vision for that job, which was more than just putting in time and keeping the natives calm. You don't get anything unless you really rattle the cage."

Mr. Mackey's legacy can be found in the multimillion-dollar contracts NFL players enjoy, said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens general manager.

"All of the benefits of today's players come from the foundation laid by John Mackey," said Mr. Newsome, himself a Hall of Fame tight end. "He took risks. He stepped out. He was willing to be different."

"John Mackey was one of the great leaders in NFL history, on and off the field," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "He was a Hall of Fame player who redefined the tight end position. He was a courageous advocate for his fellow NFL players as head of the NFL Players Association. He worked closely with our office on many issues through the years, including serving as the first president of the NFL Youth Football Fund. He never stopped fighting the good fight."

Off the field, Mr. Mackey drove a Bentley. He emceed a concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He did a weekly sports report on WJZ-TV and served as sports director of WEBB radio. He starred in a CBS quiz show, "Alumni Fun," as a member of the Syracuse University team. He published an autobiography, "Blazing Trails."

"John was an elegant guy, from his vocabulary to the way he conducted himself in public," Mr. Vogel said. "He enhanced the image of athletes. He raised the bar."

Mr. Mackey is survived by his wife, Sylvia, of Baltimore; a son, John Kevin Mackey, of Atlanta; two daughters, Lisa Mackey Hazel of Bowie and Laura Mackey Nattans of Baltimore; and six grandchildren.

The family will be receiving friends from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. July 15 at the Burgee-Henss-Seitz Funeral Home, 3631 Falls Road. Plans for an August memorial service are pending.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Association For Frontotemporal Degeneration, Radnor Station Building 2, Suite 320, 290 King Of Prussia Road, Radnor, Pa. 19087, or to the Sports Legacy Institute, P.O. Box 181225, Boston, Mass. 02118.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.