Early this month, in the second quarter of an exhibition game between the two most recent Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Colts put the ball in play from the Kansas City Chiefs' 35-yard line. John Mackey, the Colts' tight end, slipped past the defensive end and accelerated down the left side of the field while the Chiefs' safety, Jim Kearney, scrambled to stay close. At the 10 Mackey dipped his right shoulder and took a step inside, then cut back to the outside. Kearney's legs scissored furiously as he tried to maintain his balance. Suddenly Mackey swerved to the inside just in time to tuck away a perfect pass from Reserve Quarterback Sam Havrilak and cross into the end zone.
The touchdown was subsequently nullified by an offensive pass interference penalty in another section of the field, but of far more significance to the Colts than the loss of six points was the fact that Mackey, who has recently been voted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee as the greatest tight end in history, had shown he was fit and ready to go at full speed once again.
"I'm going to play as if it was my rookie year all over," Mackey said in the locker room following the game, elated despite the fact that the Colts had lost 10-7 and he had been kicked in the head so hard he had to sit out the second half. "Last year Kearney played me right up on the line of scrimmage and beat on me. He knocked me down five times in one game because he knew I couldn't do anything about it. I hold no grudges. That's the job those defensive men have to do, but as I told Kearney the first time we lined up tonight, I'm going to punish them all for what they did to me last year."
A lot happened last year to John Mackey. At his rampageous best he is a first-rate blocker, can catch passes short or long and then break games open with his wild, galloping runs. "Once he catches the ball the great adventure begins," says Colt End Coach Dick Bielski. "Those people on defense climb all over him. The lucky ones fall off." But last year Mackey's right knee, healing slowly from an operation for the removal of bone chips, severely limited his mobility and gave him intense pain up until the Super Bowl. As a result, defensive backs arrogantly played him nose to nose on the line of scrimmage. Says Mackey, "It was as if they were saying, 'Why you fat old guy with your bum knee, what can you do to hurt us?' "
Part of Mackey's inability to hurt people on the field stemmed from the fact that he was doing so much to help them off it. Since January 1970 Mackey has been president of the NFL Players Association and his performance in that role was the major reason why the association survived last year's frantic and bitter negotiations with the owners, eventually signing an improved pension and benefits contract. To be able to concentrate fully on the bargaining, Mackey curtailed his activities as chairman of the board of John Mackey Enterprises, a wholesale food distribution company of which he is the major stockholder, and almost completely abandoned the handball, tennis, running and horseback riding with which he usually warms up for training camp.
"It was really sad in a way," says John Wilbur, a Washington Redskin guard and the Players Association treasurer. "Here was a football player coming off a knee operation with the knowledge that his profession might not be working out. His wife was probably getting sore, the press was giving us a beating, the owners were giving him a lot of flak. Yet he kept his spirits up and he kept our spirits up and stuck with it. He didn't work out so he'd have more time for the negotiations."
"I was so wrapped up in the work," says Mackey, "that I never gave my playing career much thought. I just felt that if I took time out for my own business or for getting in shape that we'd lose. It was unbelievable mental anguish. By the time it was all over, my concentration was completely gone. I was having nightmares. My wife Sylvia says the negotiations changed me, that I'm meaner, that I'd been around the owners so long that I got like them."
Until Mackey came along and started to get mean, the Players Association was little more than a social club that depended almost entirely on hired lawyers to do the brainwork. "I certainly never sought the presidency," says Mackey of the job that is not exactly the childhood ambition of every red-blooded American boy. "I'd been outspoken, but I'd also told off some of the militant guys because I thought that too often they were using their positions as player reps to pursue personal vendettas, that this didn't accomplish anything. So I guess quite a few people were thinking that I wouldn't have the guts to stand up to the owners."
Colt Owner Carroll Rosenbloom was among those who were not deceived. After Mackey's election, Rosenbloom reportedly warned his fellow owners. "Look, this guy isn't going to be easy." Rosenbloom was right.
"The presidency and the negotiations probably have hardened John but they also opened him up a lot," says Sylvia Mackey, an astonishingly beautiful mother of three (Lisa, 7, John, 4, and Linda, 3) as well as a high-fashion model. "In college John always loved to party, but he was never loud or noisy. We used to call him Twinkletoes because he was such a great dancer. He still never says anything he doesn't mean, but he's much more willing to talk to people, to make speeches."