In an era when NFL players have more power than ever before, and the tight end position provides more pure offensive weapons than at any other time in the league's history, the legacy of John Mackey is well worth celebrating. Mackey passed away Wednesday night. He was 69 years old.
Mackey played with the Baltimore Colts from 1963 through 1971 and for the San Diego Chargers in 1972. He is considered by many to be the first truly modern tight end, and by some to be the greatest ever at his position. As one-time Colts head coach Don Shula said of him, "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. 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."
Mackey finished his Hall of Fame career with 331 catches for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns. Statistical comparisons align his career with those of Kellen Winslow, Heath Miller and Shannon Sharpe, and there were no players like him before. Mackey appeared in two Super Bowls with the Colts — Super Bowl III, which Baltimore lost to the New York Jets, and Super Bowl V, which the Colts won, 16-13 on a last-second field goal. In that win, Mackey had the biggest play — a 75-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas. That was the nature of his game; to be a man you could count on in the clutch.
Mackey was like that after he retired from the game, as well. He was the first head of the NFL Players Association (a position he held from 1969 through 1973), and he had a great deal to do with what the NFLPA is today. Known for a fierce intelligence and an even stronger will to defend the players he represented, Mackey organized the first NFL players' strike, which got the players an additional $11 million in benefits. He also helped to defeat the "Rozelle Rule," which dictated that any club who signed another team's free-agent player would have to receive equal compensation. In that regard, he did as much to close a reserve system and open up free agency in football as Curt Flood did in baseball.
"He was the right man at the right time," former Colt Ordell Braase said. "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."
Mackey fought to increase benefits for ailing former players even as he started to show signs of wear from the game he loved. He spent his last years suffering from dementia in an assisted living facility as his wife, Sylvia, worked to support his need for care.
Former Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame tight end and current Baltimore Ravens general Manager Ozzie Newsome may have best summed up Mackey's legacy: "All of the benefits of today's players come from the foundation laid by John Mackey. He took risks. He stepped out. He was willing to be different."