"If you practice these things until they become second nature," Mackey says, "then they won't bother you when they suddenly come up in a game. I don't have to worry about keeping my feet inbounds or about a defender hanging on my back. I can concentrate on catching the ball."
"About the only weakness Mackey has as a receiver is that he sometimes loses concentration when he has to wait too long for the ball after his cut," says Unitas. "That's when he's most likely to drop it. He likes it to be there right away so he can grab it and go."
Mackey's devotion to detail is well complemented by his natural gifts. He is reasonably big—6'2", 224 pounds—very strong and exceptionally fast for a tight end.
"When Mackey came into the league he was the first tight end who had it all," says Kermit Alexander. "Guys like Ron Kramer, Mike Ditka and Monty Stickles were big and strong but they weren't that fast. John had size, hands and speed. Now all tight ends in the NFL, college and high school tend to be patterned after Mackey. The problem with covering a big man is that you have to cheat a little in order to be able to see around him to the quarterback. If he's fast this can become very risky. Johnny Unitas and Mackey used to run an option on me. If I was running alongside Mackey he would cut one way or the other and Unitas would wait for the cut. If I played between him and the scrimmage line Unitas would lob the ball over both our heads and let Mackey run under it."
After years of playing together, Unitas and Mackey are able to communicate with each other in a number of ways while a play is in progress. "If I'm cutting for a pass and Unitas throws it hard and low and behind me," says Mackey, "I know this means I'm closely covered, that I should grab the ball and hang on tight because I'm about to be whomped hard. If my route is across the center but I see that the center is jammed up, I know that I can cut back to the outside and that the ball will be waiting for me on the cut. Unitas has seen the same thing. O.K.? Now, if he throws me one of those high, soft passes I know I'm completely in the clear, that I should just catch it and take off."
Given this rapport, it is not at all surprising that the ball is thrown to Mackey a great deal of the time. In 1967, despite the presence of Berry, Willie Richardson, Ray Perkins and Jimmy Orr, he caught 55 passes. In 1968 Perkins, Orr and Richardson were still around, but Mackey led the club in receptions with 45. In 1969 he caught 34 passes and in 1970, the half-speed, part-time year, Mackey made 28 catches as well as the controversial 75-yard tipped-pass touchdown play that tied the score at 6-6 in the Colts' not-so-Super Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
But the Colt offense depends a great deal upon Mackey even when he isn't catching the ball. He blocks the defensive end or the outside linebacker to make the sweep work. He releases inside to pulverize the middle linebacker on runs up the middle. He serves as a decoy to clear out pass-defense areas and thus open up the bomb to Wide Receivers Eddie Hinton and Perkins or the swing pass to Tom Matte coming out of the backfield.
Considering his enormous value to the team, the home-town reaction to his limping, sluggish 1970 early-season form was predictable. "The fans booed me to death," says Mackey. "I could hear them yelling from the stands 'Get that s.o.b. out of there!' or 'Go negotiate, Mackey!' I had a dream before the home game against Miami that someone was going to shoot me down as I ran out of the tunnel and out onto the field. I even sneaked a look into the stands as I ran out to make sure no one was up there with a gun."
If Mackey's experiences on the field had a nightmare quality, what he had to cope with off the field at the season's end was something out of Gilbert and Sullivan by Kafka. The oral agreement between the owners and the players that had been reached in August 1970 was apparently being regarded by the owners as little better than a rough first draft. Suddenly they wished to make numerous changes, some of them major, before affixing their signatures. Throughout the winter there were threats and counter-threats, all-night meetings and acrimonious quarrels, during which Mackey had to speak for the players and keep them informed and unified. On March 5 the owners withdrew their requested alterations, and a joint announcement was issued stating that the contract had finally been put into official language and signed.
"The National Football League owners are happy this bargaining agreement has been officially concluded," intoned Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys and the chief negotiator for the owners. "For the next three years we can concentrate on the competition on the playing field, which is what we believe the fans are really interested in."