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Original Issue

A Most Suspicious Snub

What are the real reasons for the annual rejèction of former tight end John Mackey by Hall of Fame voters?

Anytime new inductees are voted into a sports hall of fame, sportswriters scurry to their word processors to fashion their complaints about other stars of the past who should have been honored. According to these angry essays, the voters are—pick one or more—senile, stupid, prejudiced, vindictive, blind, pompous, corrupt, lazy. The sportswriter then files his copy with head high, conscience clear, his column flickering like a candle in the dark night of ignorance.

Sometimes the athlete that the writer wants to see enshrined is one who left an early mark on the nascent scribe. That is, when the writer was a boy, the athlete spat in his direction before hitting a home run. Or he signed the lad's uncle's T-shirt. Or he won a game that the kid was listening to on his first crystal set underneath the covers while scanning bubble gum cards with a flashlight.

And sometimes there are athletes who should be in the hall of fame regardless of nostalgia or personal impact or sports-writers' prejudices, because, quite simply, they belong there. Roger Maris in baseball, for instance. And Pete Rose. And, in football, John Mackey, who, it was announced on Jan. 26, fell short of the 24 votes necessary for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.

Mackey, who played from 1963 to '72 for the Baltimore Colts and the San Diego Chargers, was the prototype of the modern tight end. Big (6'2", 230 pounds), with the speed of a sprinter, soft hands and the strength to block defensive tackles and flatten safeties, Mackey turned a bland position into a dangerous, game-breaking one. When Mackey caught a pass in the secondary, defensive backs cringed. Rival players bounced off his oaken thighs like marbles; if somebody didn't hang on, Mackey was gone. In the Colts' 16-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V in 1971, Mackey caught a tipped pass from quarterback Johnny Unitas and ran 45 yards with it for a 75-yard touchdown, a Super Bowl record that would stand until 1979.

In 10 NFL seasons, Mackey caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns. His 15.8-yards-per-reception average is a figure that most wide receivers would envy. Mackey showed the value of placing a superb athlete in close to the center of play to pave the way for running backs and then suddenly releasing him on unsuspecting linebackers and defensive backs to catch passes. Recent star tight ends such as Kellen Winslow of the Chargers and Mark Bavaro of the New York Giants owe a great deal to Mackey for the way he expanded the limits of the position.

While he was active, Mackey was much appreciated—he played in five Pro Bowls and in 1970 was named by the NFL as the best tight end in pro football history—and his recognition came at a time when a tight end named Mike Ditka was also in his prime. But with his rejection by Hall voters again this year, Mackey has now been turned down by the writers who make up the selection committee every year since he first became eligible in '77.

Ditka, now the coach of the Chicago Bears, was voted into the Hall of Fame three years ago. While in Canton for his induction, Ditka said, "I don't understand how I got in before John Mackey." Neither do I.

That is no slap at Ditka, who deserves to be in the Hall. But what's the deal with this annual ritual of rejection for Mackey? Could it be that the Colts' sneaking off to Indianapolis in the dead of night seven years ago effectively destroyed Mackey's base of support? Or is the air in the tight end wing at the Hall a little too rarefied? Here is the list of players enshrined in that nook: Mike Ditka. Hey, excuse me, selection committee, but the single wing was replaced by the T formation half a century ago.

Or could it have anything to do with the fact that in 1970 Mackey was chosen president of the fledgling NFL Players Association and promptly organized that year's unpopular (with the fans, owners and many writers) players' strike? Or could it have anything to do with his name being on the lawsuit against the NFL in 1972 that successfully, albeit only temporarily, overturned the so-called Rozelle Rule, the compensation clause that made it all but impossible for a free-agent player to bargain with a team other than the one for which he most recently played?

Who knows what reels through the minds of voters—in this case, one representative from each of the 28 NFL cities, two at-large reps and the president of the Pro Football Writers of America. It would seem that football fans could stand another tight end or two in Canton—what about Jackie Smith, the former Cardinals and Cowboys standout who has never even been on a Hall of Fame ballot?—and the voters would be wise to remember that controversy is no sin. In fact, it's the spice that makes turnstiles spin.

Mackey should get into the Hall if for no other reason than that he took on the league itself and won, breaking important ground for all of the players (and their contracts) who followed after him. Put him in the Enemies of the Establishment Wing, if you want, and throw in Al Davis—who also missed the cut last month—for good measure.

Whatever, John Mackey should be in the Hall of Fame. It's that simple. If you visit the place, you want to see his bust. I remember thinking that exact thing as a kid, studying my football cards, late at night.