In death, legendary Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey will undoubtedly be remembered for how he played the game. The 6’ 2” 230-pounder who played from 1963–72 set the standard for his position, combining speed and power like no tight end who had ever taken the field. As his former coach Don Shula told the Baltimore Sun, “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. 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.” He was the second player at his position ever elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and college football’s award for best tight end bears his name.
But in this 2011 season forever defined by the longest work stoppage in NFL history, the timing of Mackey’s death is in some ways his last selfless act toward the players he so dearly loved. John Mackey’s legacy lies less on the field, than in both his historic tenure as the head of the NFL Players Association from 1969–73 and in the way he suffered from front temporal dementia over the last years of his life.
Mackey was the first president of the NFL Players Association following the NFL-AFL merger. Called “the smartest man in the room” by former Buffalo Bills quarterback and future vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, he rapidly gained a reputation as someone who would stand up to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and fight for improved wages, benefits and safety. He rallied disparate players from two different leagues to “one team” and the NFLPA became the first sports union recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. In 1970, Mackey organized the league’s first players’ strike, a victory that earned an additional $11 million in pensions and benefits.
Teammate and former union president Ordell Braase said, “We were a fractured group until John began putting permanence in [the union’s] day-to-day operations, He had a vision for that job, which was more than just putting in time and keeping the natives calm. You don’t get anything unless you really rattle the cage.”
Mackey also went to court and won an antitrust lawsuit that ended what was known as the “Rozelle Rule.” The “Rozelle Rule” dictated that any team that lost a free agent was entitled to receive “equal compensation” from the player’s new organization. Mackey flattened the Rozelle rule in court like it was an undersized defensive back, which set the legal precedent to win true free agency in the sport. In other words, if every one of today’s players sent 10 percent of their paycheck to the John Mackey family, it still wouldn’t equal the cash flow he opened up.
Mackey paid a price for his activism, traded from the Baltimore Colts to the San Diego Chargers the following season and then forced into retirement. His sacrifice, however, is revered at the NFLPA. This morning, current Players Association President DeMaurice Smith wrote, “John Mackey is still a leader. As President of the NFLPA he led the fight for fairness with brilliance and ferocious drive. John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players and define our institution. He will be missed but never forgotten.”