Center Bill Curry, now the Colts" player rep, vividly recalls the first time Mackey ever opened up at a team meeting. "John has always been a great inspiration on the field," says Curry. "Late in a tough game most of us will be dragging ourselves around, working hard to give 98%. Then we'll see Mackey grabbing the ball and knocking guys down even though he is beat, too, and so we all start giving 120% just the way he is. But he never used to say anything, just do it. Then once at a team meeting before an important game with the Rams in 1968 Johnny Unitas called on Mackey to say something and this time he did. 'Men,' he said, 'these guys really need their butts kicked and we're going to go out and do just that.' It was simple and yet somehow electrifying and we did just that. So no one on the Colts was surprised that Mackey proved to be such a fine leader."
"During the meetings that followed his election we started calling Mackey the Dictator," says Kermit Alexander of the Rams, who has worked with Mackey as a player rep and against him as one of the NFL's top defensive backs. "In prior years we would meet for a couple of hours in the morning and after that it was party time. This is true no longer. Last year, at New Orleans, John would have kept us up all night if he'd had to. As it was, we were usually so tired after our last meeting of the evening that it was straight off to bed. Then at our closing meeting he gave a speech that shook everyone up. It was very, very eloquent and reminded us of one of those speeches about achieving success that Vince Lombardi used to make, except this speech got you all goose-pimply. It was about the need to be prepared, to be vigilant, to work hard if we wanted to be successful."
Some of those present may have felt the speech smacked more of Rockne and his "Win one for the Gipper" school of oratory than of Lombardi. Mackey faced his audience brandishing an imaginary football and explained that it was the players who had the ball now, that they should catch it like Roy Jefferson and then run with it like Jimmy Brown or Gale Sayers all the way into the end zone. Whoever his model, it was undeniably effective stuff.
"I felt I had to fire them up, to get them really involved," Mackey said the other day. "The main problem is that football players have always been accustomed to having things done for them. They've been used to being told by coaches and others that this way or that way is the best way. They've traditionally thought owners must know best because that is why they're rich and are owners. But things are changing. The players coming into the league are coming off those same college campuses that have been in revolt against authority. They have many of the same feelings. The black players of today, like myself, are also much different. When I first came into the league most of the black players were great athletes and nothing more. When I objected to racist practices they'd say, 'Look, that's the way things are. We're lucky to be here.' Now they are proud of being black, they've had more exposure, they're smarter and more militant. Black players aren't going to put up with abuse from coaches and owners with a shrug and a smile anymore. Neither is any rookie. Last year the Colts had a rookie who came over and told me—told me!—how to run my pass patterns."
Mackey's oratorical gifts, however latent, may have been inherited from his father, formerly pastor of the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Roosevelt, N.Y., now retired in Florida. Mackey is so spellbinding that his associates on the players' executive committee taped his speeches during last year's negotiations and sent cassettes to the various teams. But his executive qualities go beyond speechifying. He is unflappable and he does his homework. "Be prepared and you won't panic" is a favorite Mackey maxim.
"He has the aura and the ego of a great leader," said Bill Curry during a recent reception given to mark the opening of the Players Association's new headquarters in Washington, D.C. "He never makes snap judgments or decisions. He studies someone carefully for hours before deciding what kind of person he is."
"John fooled everyone who didn't know him," says Wilbur, who was not one of Mackey's original backers. "He has a really good feel for people and is a master of good timing. At one point after the players' strike was under way last summer most of us thought that even the five or six weak clubs would be able to stay out on strike for at least another week. But John contacted some of them and, sensing a real weakness, went right to the owners and drove a pretty good bargain. I think if he hadn't done it just when he did the association might have gotten itself involved in an irreparable conflict."
A sense of timing has always been one of Mackey's strong suits. He met Sylvia and liked her early in his freshman year at Syracuse but chose to wait until the football season was over and off his mind before taking her out. After signing with the Colts he figured once again that it was best to cope with only one new experience at a time and so postponed their wedding until the season was over.
In his senior year at college, Mackey made the dean's list, was named to Phi Kappa Alpha, the scholar-athlete society, and graduated with a B.A. in American studies and political science. A second-round draft choice, he is remembered as the first Colt rookie to turn up for contract talks with a lawyer in tow. Although in college Mackey was a running back as well as an end, the Colts decided to play him exclusively at tight end. He studied game films for hours with Raymond Berry, the foremost student of the art of pass catching, and picked up tips on playing tight end from Jim Mutscheller, then a Colt coach. Mackey learned how to become more deceptive by constantly varying the number of steps he took before cutting, how to change the pattern of his fakes so they wouldn't become predictable, to determine whether a defender was left-or right-handed and thus know from which side he was most likely to be clobbered by a scything forearm. Mackey was such a good student that he was the only rookie to play in the Pro Bowl after the 1963 season.
Even today Mackey constantly drills on situations that are likely to come up in a game. In one drill he will catch sideline passes while endeavoring to keep his feet inbounds. In another he will have someone throw a ball to him while he has any number of neighborhood kids, or a couple of his own, clinging to his arms, legs or shoulders.