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Original Issue

First Strike Tales about running the NFL union save the former tight end's lazy work

by John Mackey with Thom Loverro
Triumph Books, $24.95

When John Mackey's grandfather was a poor laborer in South
Carolina, his white boss would give him tattered hand-me-downs to
take home to his family. The grandfather would pile the old
clothes in front of his children and burn them. The lesson: Never
let yourself believe you're a second-class person.

The message was passed down for generations and adhered to by
Mackey, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who redefined the role of
the NFL tight end with the Baltimore Colts (1963 through '71) and
then refused to play the patsy for "boss" owners as head of the
NFL Players Association ('70 through '73). Mackey turned tight
end into a skill position with his pass-catching ability and his
tackle-busting runs after receptions.

Mackey, however, left just as big an imprint on the pro game as a
union chief, and his stories from this period are the most
compelling in his autobiography. As Mackey tells it, Colts
ownership encouraged him to run for the top union job and told
him they had nearly enough player votes lined up for him to win.
Then, before his first formal session with owners in talks for a
new collective bargaining agreement, in 1970, Mackey was told to
show up for what he thought would be a friendly negotiation. But
when he arrived he was seated across a table from a posse of
owners and lawyers who immediately asked him to sign a document
that would have prevented the union from ever negotiating extra
pay for preseason games. Mackey refused. In his short stint as
union chief Mackey also organized a preseason strike for a better
pension plan and won a modest increase in owners' contributions,
and then he challenged the league's free-agency policy in a
lawsuit and won. (But the court left it up to the league and the
union to implement a new system, and that didn't happen until

While Mackey's high standards served him well as a player and
union leader, they were lacking in his book. Instead of writing a
longer narrative about his career, including time spent with such
NFL greats as Johnny Unitas and Jim Parker, Mackey reprints his
1992 Hall of Fame induction speech and first-person game accounts
that he gave to the Baltimore News-Post while he was a player.
Coming from Mackey, this bland filler represents a second-rate

--Bill Syken