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Original Issue


Coming off a knee operation, hassled by negotiations, the mighty John Mackey was a flop on the field. Now he is out for revenge

Early this month, in the second quarter of an exhibition game between the two most recent Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Colts put the ball in play from the Kansas City Chiefs' 35-yard line. John Mackey, the Colts' tight end, slipped past the defensive end and accelerated down the left side of the field while the Chiefs' safety, Jim Kearney, scrambled to stay close. At the 10 Mackey dipped his right shoulder and took a step inside, then cut back to the outside. Kearney's legs scissored furiously as he tried to maintain his balance. Suddenly Mackey swerved to the inside just in time to tuck away a perfect pass from Reserve Quarterback Sam Havrilak and cross into the end zone.

The touchdown was subsequently nullified by an offensive pass interference penalty in another section of the field, but of far more significance to the Colts than the loss of six points was the fact that Mackey, who has recently been voted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee as the greatest tight end in history, had shown he was fit and ready to go at full speed once again.

"I'm going to play as if it was my rookie year all over," Mackey said in the locker room following the game, elated despite the fact that the Colts had lost 10-7 and he had been kicked in the head so hard he had to sit out the second half. "Last year Kearney played me right up on the line of scrimmage and beat on me. He knocked me down five times in one game because he knew I couldn't do anything about it. I hold no grudges. That's the job those defensive men have to do, but as I told Kearney the first time we lined up tonight, I'm going to punish them all for what they did to me last year."

A lot happened last year to John Mackey. At his rampageous best he is a first-rate blocker, can catch passes short or long and then break games open with his wild, galloping runs. "Once he catches the ball the great adventure begins," says Colt End Coach Dick Bielski. "Those people on defense climb all over him. The lucky ones fall off." But last year Mackey's right knee, healing slowly from an operation for the removal of bone chips, severely limited his mobility and gave him intense pain up until the Super Bowl. As a result, defensive backs arrogantly played him nose to nose on the line of scrimmage. Says Mackey, "It was as if they were saying, 'Why you fat old guy with your bum knee, what can you do to hurt us?' "

Part of Mackey's inability to hurt people on the field stemmed from the fact that he was doing so much to help them off it. Since January 1970 Mackey has been president of the NFL Players Association and his performance in that role was the major reason why the association survived last year's frantic and bitter negotiations with the owners, eventually signing an improved pension and benefits contract. To be able to concentrate fully on the bargaining, Mackey curtailed his activities as chairman of the board of John Mackey Enterprises, a wholesale food distribution company of which he is the major stockholder, and almost completely abandoned the handball, tennis, running and horseback riding with which he usually warms up for training camp.

"It was really sad in a way," says John Wilbur, a Washington Redskin guard and the Players Association treasurer. "Here was a football player coming off a knee operation with the knowledge that his profession might not be working out. His wife was probably getting sore, the press was giving us a beating, the owners were giving him a lot of flak. Yet he kept his spirits up and he kept our spirits up and stuck with it. He didn't work out so he'd have more time for the negotiations."

"I was so wrapped up in the work," says Mackey, "that I never gave my playing career much thought. I just felt that if I took time out for my own business or for getting in shape that we'd lose. It was unbelievable mental anguish. By the time it was all over, my concentration was completely gone. I was having nightmares. My wife Sylvia says the negotiations changed me, that I'm meaner, that I'd been around the owners so long that I got like them."

Until Mackey came along and started to get mean, the Players Association was little more than a social club that depended almost entirely on hired lawyers to do the brainwork. "I certainly never sought the presidency," says Mackey of the job that is not exactly the childhood ambition of every red-blooded American boy. "I'd been outspoken, but I'd also told off some of the militant guys because I thought that too often they were using their positions as player reps to pursue personal vendettas, that this didn't accomplish anything. So I guess quite a few people were thinking that I wouldn't have the guts to stand up to the owners."

Colt Owner Carroll Rosenbloom was among those who were not deceived. After Mackey's election, Rosenbloom reportedly warned his fellow owners. "Look, this guy isn't going to be easy." Rosenbloom was right.

"The presidency and the negotiations probably have hardened John but they also opened him up a lot," says Sylvia Mackey, an astonishingly beautiful mother of three (Lisa, 7, John, 4, and Linda, 3) as well as a high-fashion model. "In college John always loved to party, but he was never loud or noisy. We used to call him Twinkletoes because he was such a great dancer. He still never says anything he doesn't mean, but he's much more willing to talk to people, to make speeches."

Center Bill Curry, now the Colts" player rep, vividly recalls the first time Mackey ever opened up at a team meeting. "John has always been a great inspiration on the field," says Curry. "Late in a tough game most of us will be dragging ourselves around, working hard to give 98%. Then we'll see Mackey grabbing the ball and knocking guys down even though he is beat, too, and so we all start giving 120% just the way he is. But he never used to say anything, just do it. Then once at a team meeting before an important game with the Rams in 1968 Johnny Unitas called on Mackey to say something and this time he did. 'Men,' he said, 'these guys really need their butts kicked and we're going to go out and do just that.' It was simple and yet somehow electrifying and we did just that. So no one on the Colts was surprised that Mackey proved to be such a fine leader."

"During the meetings that followed his election we started calling Mackey the Dictator," says Kermit Alexander of the Rams, who has worked with Mackey as a player rep and against him as one of the NFL's top defensive backs. "In prior years we would meet for a couple of hours in the morning and after that it was party time. This is true no longer. Last year, at New Orleans, John would have kept us up all night if he'd had to. As it was, we were usually so tired after our last meeting of the evening that it was straight off to bed. Then at our closing meeting he gave a speech that shook everyone up. It was very, very eloquent and reminded us of one of those speeches about achieving success that Vince Lombardi used to make, except this speech got you all goose-pimply. It was about the need to be prepared, to be vigilant, to work hard if we wanted to be successful."

Some of those present may have felt the speech smacked more of Rockne and his "Win one for the Gipper" school of oratory than of Lombardi. Mackey faced his audience brandishing an imaginary football and explained that it was the players who had the ball now, that they should catch it like Roy Jefferson and then run with it like Jimmy Brown or Gale Sayers all the way into the end zone. Whoever his model, it was undeniably effective stuff.

"I felt I had to fire them up, to get them really involved," Mackey said the other day. "The main problem is that football players have always been accustomed to having things done for them. They've been used to being told by coaches and others that this way or that way is the best way. They've traditionally thought owners must know best because that is why they're rich and are owners. But things are changing. The players coming into the league are coming off those same college campuses that have been in revolt against authority. They have many of the same feelings. The black players of today, like myself, are also much different. When I first came into the league most of the black players were great athletes and nothing more. When I objected to racist practices they'd say, 'Look, that's the way things are. We're lucky to be here.' Now they are proud of being black, they've had more exposure, they're smarter and more militant. Black players aren't going to put up with abuse from coaches and owners with a shrug and a smile anymore. Neither is any rookie. Last year the Colts had a rookie who came over and told me—told me!—how to run my pass patterns."

Mackey's oratorical gifts, however latent, may have been inherited from his father, formerly pastor of the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Roosevelt, N.Y., now retired in Florida. Mackey is so spellbinding that his associates on the players' executive committee taped his speeches during last year's negotiations and sent cassettes to the various teams. But his executive qualities go beyond speechifying. He is unflappable and he does his homework. "Be prepared and you won't panic" is a favorite Mackey maxim.

"He has the aura and the ego of a great leader," said Bill Curry during a recent reception given to mark the opening of the Players Association's new headquarters in Washington, D.C. "He never makes snap judgments or decisions. He studies someone carefully for hours before deciding what kind of person he is."

"John fooled everyone who didn't know him," says Wilbur, who was not one of Mackey's original backers. "He has a really good feel for people and is a master of good timing. At one point after the players' strike was under way last summer most of us thought that even the five or six weak clubs would be able to stay out on strike for at least another week. But John contacted some of them and, sensing a real weakness, went right to the owners and drove a pretty good bargain. I think if he hadn't done it just when he did the association might have gotten itself involved in an irreparable conflict."

A sense of timing has always been one of Mackey's strong suits. He met Sylvia and liked her early in his freshman year at Syracuse but chose to wait until the football season was over and off his mind before taking her out. After signing with the Colts he figured once again that it was best to cope with only one new experience at a time and so postponed their wedding until the season was over.

In his senior year at college, Mackey made the dean's list, was named to Phi Kappa Alpha, the scholar-athlete society, and graduated with a B.A. in American studies and political science. A second-round draft choice, he is remembered as the first Colt rookie to turn up for contract talks with a lawyer in tow. Although in college Mackey was a running back as well as an end, the Colts decided to play him exclusively at tight end. He studied game films for hours with Raymond Berry, the foremost student of the art of pass catching, and picked up tips on playing tight end from Jim Mutscheller, then a Colt coach. Mackey learned how to become more deceptive by constantly varying the number of steps he took before cutting, how to change the pattern of his fakes so they wouldn't become predictable, to determine whether a defender was left-or right-handed and thus know from which side he was most likely to be clobbered by a scything forearm. Mackey was such a good student that he was the only rookie to play in the Pro Bowl after the 1963 season.

Even today Mackey constantly drills on situations that are likely to come up in a game. In one drill he will catch sideline passes while endeavoring to keep his feet inbounds. In another he will have someone throw a ball to him while he has any number of neighborhood kids, or a couple of his own, clinging to his arms, legs or shoulders.

"If you practice these things until they become second nature," Mackey says, "then they won't bother you when they suddenly come up in a game. I don't have to worry about keeping my feet inbounds or about a defender hanging on my back. I can concentrate on catching the ball."

"About the only weakness Mackey has as a receiver is that he sometimes loses concentration when he has to wait too long for the ball after his cut," says Unitas. "That's when he's most likely to drop it. He likes it to be there right away so he can grab it and go."

Mackey's devotion to detail is well complemented by his natural gifts. He is reasonably big—6'2", 224 pounds—very strong and exceptionally fast for a tight end.

"When Mackey came into the league he was the first tight end who had it all," says Kermit Alexander. "Guys like Ron Kramer, Mike Ditka and Monty Stickles were big and strong but they weren't that fast. John had size, hands and speed. Now all tight ends in the NFL, college and high school tend to be patterned after Mackey. The problem with covering a big man is that you have to cheat a little in order to be able to see around him to the quarterback. If he's fast this can become very risky. Johnny Unitas and Mackey used to run an option on me. If I was running alongside Mackey he would cut one way or the other and Unitas would wait for the cut. If I played between him and the scrimmage line Unitas would lob the ball over both our heads and let Mackey run under it."

After years of playing together, Unitas and Mackey are able to communicate with each other in a number of ways while a play is in progress. "If I'm cutting for a pass and Unitas throws it hard and low and behind me," says Mackey, "I know this means I'm closely covered, that I should grab the ball and hang on tight because I'm about to be whomped hard. If my route is across the center but I see that the center is jammed up, I know that I can cut back to the outside and that the ball will be waiting for me on the cut. Unitas has seen the same thing. O.K.? Now, if he throws me one of those high, soft passes I know I'm completely in the clear, that I should just catch it and take off."

Given this rapport, it is not at all surprising that the ball is thrown to Mackey a great deal of the time. In 1967, despite the presence of Berry, Willie Richardson, Ray Perkins and Jimmy Orr, he caught 55 passes. In 1968 Perkins, Orr and Richardson were still around, but Mackey led the club in receptions with 45. In 1969 he caught 34 passes and in 1970, the half-speed, part-time year, Mackey made 28 catches as well as the controversial 75-yard tipped-pass touchdown play that tied the score at 6-6 in the Colts' not-so-Super Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

But the Colt offense depends a great deal upon Mackey even when he isn't catching the ball. He blocks the defensive end or the outside linebacker to make the sweep work. He releases inside to pulverize the middle linebacker on runs up the middle. He serves as a decoy to clear out pass-defense areas and thus open up the bomb to Wide Receivers Eddie Hinton and Perkins or the swing pass to Tom Matte coming out of the backfield.

Considering his enormous value to the team, the home-town reaction to his limping, sluggish 1970 early-season form was predictable. "The fans booed me to death," says Mackey. "I could hear them yelling from the stands 'Get that s.o.b. out of there!' or 'Go negotiate, Mackey!' I had a dream before the home game against Miami that someone was going to shoot me down as I ran out of the tunnel and out onto the field. I even sneaked a look into the stands as I ran out to make sure no one was up there with a gun."

If Mackey's experiences on the field had a nightmare quality, what he had to cope with off the field at the season's end was something out of Gilbert and Sullivan by Kafka. The oral agreement between the owners and the players that had been reached in August 1970 was apparently being regarded by the owners as little better than a rough first draft. Suddenly they wished to make numerous changes, some of them major, before affixing their signatures. Throughout the winter there were threats and counter-threats, all-night meetings and acrimonious quarrels, during which Mackey had to speak for the players and keep them informed and unified. On March 5 the owners withdrew their requested alterations, and a joint announcement was issued stating that the contract had finally been put into official language and signed.

"The National Football League owners are happy this bargaining agreement has been officially concluded," intoned Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys and the chief negotiator for the owners. "For the next three years we can concentrate on the competition on the playing field, which is what we believe the fans are really interested in."

But the agreement had not been officially concluded after all. Mackey had signed for the Players Association, but the owners' committee would not sign. More threats and counterthreats, all-night meetings and quarrels followed. The owners finally signed the agreement on June 17, but only after the Players Association had filed a charge of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board that would undoubtedly have been resolved in favor of the players.

"We are trying to establish good and friendly relations with the owners, but we are far from being on a honeymoon," said Mackey not long ago as he stretched out on his bunk at the Colt training camp at Western Maryland College. "What each owner is going to have to learn somehow is that the club whose players have been treated well has that important edge when it gets to fourth and one. Carroll Rosenbloom has almost always been a fair man to deal with, and that's one reason why I think we have done so well year after year. Everyone is really up this year, which doesn't always happen. We have a few little problems to solve, but the defense looks very solid, Earl Morrall is passing well, and Unitas looks to me to be completely recovered from his ruptured Achilles' tendon. If we can fill in the little holes there will be no holding us. I just feel this is going to be another Super Bowl year."