Legendary Colts tight end John Mackey dies at 69

July 07, 2011|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

John Mackey changed the game of football on and off the field. The former Baltimore Colt brought grace to a position that had been known for its brutality, and he made the first real headway in the NFL players' fight to earn a more equal share of the pie.

That battle continues as the NFL lockout drags on this summer.

Mr. Mackey, one of the game's great tight ends, a Hall of Famer and one-time president of the NFL Players Association, died Wednesday of frontotemporal dementia, a disease he had battled for 10 years, at Keswick Multi-Care Center in Baltimore. He was 69.

Mr. Mackey's condition awakened the NFL to the dangers of head trauma and forced a change to the retired players' pension plan. He donated his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston for research into the study of brain trauma in athletes.

"John never ever thought anything was wrong. If he thought he had memory problems, he kept it to himself," said Sylvia Mackey, his wife of 47 years. "It started around 1996, when he began making notes to himself, reminders to do certain things."

Three years ago, his family moved him to Keswick for full-time care. At the end, Sylvia Mackey said, her husband acted more like their 10-month-old grandson than the strapping All-American he'd once been.

"John couldn't feed himself, he was incontinent and he couldn't talk at all," she said. "He had deteriorated to the point where he was totally a baby."

Current NFL labor talks include discussions about the health concerns of retired players, improved equipment to protect athletes and the continued study of head injuries.

"John was a tough physical specimen, an unbelievable ballplayer and a good, good man," said Lenny Moore, the Colts' Hall of Fame running back and one of Mr. Mackey's closest friends. "People will never fully understand the impact he had on talks between players and owners and the stuff we were after. John unlocked those gates -- no, he knocked the doors down."

Bull-necked and indomitable, Mr. Mackey forged a reputation as an explosive receiver able to turn a short pass into an 80-yard touchdown. The Colts' No.2 draft pick in 1963, he redefined the role of the lumbering blocking end.

He revolutionized that position, said Don Shula, the Colts' coach from 1963 to 1969.

"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," Mr. Shula told The Baltimore Sun. "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."

During his nine years with the Colts, the club won a Super Bowl and three conference championships. Of Mr. Mackey's 38 touchdown receptions, 13 were for 50 yards or more, including an 89-yarder against the Los Angeles Rams in 1966. That score, on the game's first offensive play, was the longest of the 290 scoring passes in NFL legend John Unitas' Hall of Fame career.

"John didn't have the best of hands," Mr. Unitas once said, "but his running ability was second to none."

His most famous catch came in the 1971 Super Bowl, when he grabbed a twice-tipped pass from Mr. Unitas and raced 75 yards for a touchdown in Baltimore's 16-13 victory over Dallas.

"That play turned the game around for us," said Glenn Ressler, then the Colts' starting guard. "If you needed a clutch catch or a block, you'd get it from John. He embodied what the Colts were all about."

Elected in 1992 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Mr. Mackey refused to accept his ceremonial ring in Indianapolis, where the Colts had moved in 1984.

"I will do it in Baltimore," he told Hall officials. "That is where I played."

Mr. Mackey won out. He received the ring in Memorial Stadium at halftime of an exhibition game between the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints.

"John was a fighter, a man with great integrity, one who wouldn't roll over for anybody," said Bob Vogel, an All-Pro Colts tackle who played beside Mackey. "Nothing he did was from the perimeter. Whatever he took on, he was totally involved."

Focused from the start

The son of a Baptist minister, John Mackey grew up in Roosevelt, N.Y. He turned down an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy to attend Syracuse University, where he studied political science, was an All-American and roomed with running back Ernie Davis -- the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy.

Mr. Mackey would model himself after Mr. Davis, who died of leukemia at 23.

"Ernie was big and fast, like a hurricane," Mr. Mackey told The Sun in 1994. "He could run past you or knock you down. But he was never arrogant. He motivated me."

The 19th player chosen in the 1963 NFL draft, Mr. Mackey impressed his Colts teammates even before he signed a contract.

"The first time I saw John was when he walked through the locker room, after practice, to meet Shula," said defensive end Ordell Braase. "John was wearing a suit, and right behind him were his lawyer, physician and a couple of others in suits, too.

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