John Mackey was home, back where he made his name, back where he frolicked on Sunday afternoons, back where he helped make the Colts great. Back home in Baltimore.
"That was Orrsville," Mackey said, waving his hand at a grassy patch of playing field as he settled into an end zone seat at an eerily quiet Memorial Stadium yesterday. "Orr would run that pattern of his, and we'd get six. We'd score 50 and hope the horse didn't die."
Those were the days: the Colts of John Mackey, the prototypical tight end, and John Unitas, the steely quarterback, and Jimmy Orr, the elusive receiver, and all the rest. They would pass and run their way into the NFL record book, into the hearts and minds of Baltimoreans. "The best fans in the country," Mackey called them.
Mackey, a native of Long Island, N.Y., and a resident of Long Beach, Calif., is back in Baltimore this week on a road trip that will culminate with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 1.
He waited 15 years to get into the Hall. On his last year of eligibility, hefinally made it. This week, he wants to remember how it used to be.
"This is where it really happened," he said of a pro career that spanned 10 seasons, nine with the Colts. "I have so many fond memories here. This is where we [he and his wife, Sylvia] bought our first home. This is where our children first went to school.
"It was a great experience. You always try to go back to where it was good for you."
It was good enough for Mackey that when the Hall of Fame folks present him with his ring, it will be at Memorial Stadium on Aug. 27, at halftime of a preseason game between the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints. Among those on hand for that occasion will be Miami coach Don Shula. In Mackey's rookie year of 1963, Shula was a rookie head coach with the Colts.
"I said I wanted to go to Baltimore [to get the ring]," Mackey said. "When I found out they had an exhibition game here, and that Shula's team was in it, it was a natural.
"I'm hoping Baltimore gets a team back. The people supported it when it was here. I hated the way the team left. When I was here, they were the best fans in the NFL."
In 10 NFL seasons -- the last with the San Diego Chargers in 1972-- Mackey caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns. He came out of Syracuse as a second-round draft pick. He had a reputation as a devastating blocker, but did not have much expertise in the passing game. Yet, in 1966 alone, he scored on touchdown plays of 51, 57, 64, 79, 83 and 89 yards.
"My school didn't throw the ball deep," he said. "I didn't know the tight end wasn't supposed to go deep. When I got here, I saw Raymond Berry go deep, I saw Jimmy Orr go deep, I saw Lenny Moore go deep. I was as fast as those guys. I figured I would go deep, too.
"And there was only one pass play I knew. The tight end option, or tight end bow out. One time, I caught a touchdown pass against a zone on the tight end option. That's a play you used against man-to-man [coverage]. Shula asked Unitas why he threw the ball to me, and Unitas said, 'Because he didn't know you couldn't do that.' "
In 1969, he was voted the NFL's greatest tight end in its first 50 years. He made the Pro Bowl five times, and was All-Pro three.
Today, Mackey, 50, is a consultant in marketing and sales. He has three grown children: Kevin, who is an engineer; Lisa, who is married; and Laura, who is a fashion model. The NFL Players Association, which he once headed, has named its award banquet after him, and he is involved in a number of programs to help the young and the disadvantaged.
In Canton, he will realize his crowning success after a lifetime of overcoming adversity, starting with the suggestion of a high school teacher that he forget academics and worry instead about getting a job.
"I've always had to overcome obstacles, in high school and college, and even in getting into the Hall of Fame," Mackey said. "If you never give up and keep trying, you'll find the end zone. That's the key. You've got to keep trying."
Hall of Fame facts and figures
When: Aug. 1
Where: Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton, Ohio
Inductees: Lem Barney (cornerback, Detroit Lions, 1967-77); Al Davis (owner, Los Angeles Raiders); John Mackey (tight end, Baltimore Colts, 1963-71; San Diego Chargers, 1972); John Riggins (running back, New York Jets, 1971-75; Washington Redskins, 1976-79; 1981-85)
Exhibition game: New York Jets vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 3 p.m. (channels 13, 7).
Induction ceremonies: To be shown at halftime of Jets-Eagles game.