Ernie Accorsi can still recall the day the Colts welcomed Roy Jefferson to training camp in 1970. In those years, the coaching staff recorded each player's best sprint times on the first day of camp. Jefferson — a two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver acquired through a trade with Pittsburgh — refused to run.
That morning, Accorsi, in his first year with the team's public relations department, was sitting in a room with head coach Don McCafferty and several beat reporters when the Colts' receivers coach delivered the news. "Two minutes later John Mackey comes in and says, 'Coach, room him with me. I'll make sure he understands how we operate around here.' Roy Jefferson was our most valuable player that year," Accorsi says. "That's leadership."
So much has been written about John Mackey's greatness on the field — as someone who helped to revolutionize the tight end position — that it's easy to forget about his greatest quality, leadership. On a team full of larger-than-life football figures, Mackey was a soft-spoken giant who had everyone's respect. It's one of the many reasons the Colts of the 1960s were so successful, and it's why Mackey ascended to the top of the players' union toward the end of his career.
Prior to the start of the 1970 season, Mackey had led the players' fight against management. The labor dispute that summer posed the first real threat to how pro football had conducted business for decades, and Mackey was the guy out front — the president of the players' council who absorbed all the stones the owners were able to throw. That strike lasted only a few days, but it helped to create a foundation for future fights, like the one Mackey personally waged against management's stronghold over player rights, dubbed the "Rozelle Rule."
Mackey understood the importance of it all, and was willing to make greater sacrifices than most. "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," he told Sports Illustrated in 1971.
At the age of 31, Mackey was out of football. Some blamed it on bad knees; others claimed he had been blacklisted, like so many other player representatives of the day. Regardless of the reason, it was an unjust ending to a glorious career.
When Mackey arrived in Baltimore in 1963, fresh from a successful collegiate career at Syracuse, he drew the immediate attention of first-year head coach Don Shula. It changed the coach's philosophies about offense.
"All of a sudden we had a guy with sprinter's speed lined up at tight end," Shula says.
Mackey had 25 touchdown catches in his first four seasons combined — an incredible sum — and was named to the All-Pro team each year from 1966-68.
Mackey's greatest moment came at the end of the 1970 season when his Colts beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V. With Dallas leading 6-0, Mackey caught a tipped ball and raced 75 yards for a touchdown.
"They were dominating us," Accorsi says. "They had inverted the flex defense and we couldn't run the ball an inch. That play got us back in the game."
Still, despite all of his success, Hall of Fame voters widely ignored his candidacy for the first decade he was eligible. Curious about it, Accorsi questioned a friend who served on the selection committee. One reason Mackey had been passed over, the friend admitted, was because he had a reputation for having bad hands.
"He knew he didn't have great hands. That's why he body-caught," Accorsi says. "But the other two elements — blocking and run after catch — he had no equal."
Finally, in 1992, Mackey was allowed entrance into Canton. In the years that have followed he regularly has been recognized as the greatest tight end of his era — on some lists, as the greatest of all time.
Mackey battled frontotemporal dementia in the years before his passing. Accorsi says he began to notice the effects the mental disease was having on the Colts' great at Johnny Unitas' funeral in 2002. Mackey's condition prompted the creation of the "88 Plan," which provides former NFL players money for assisted-living facility costs.
In some form, Mackey is still fighting today. Said NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith of Mackey Thursday, "As the President of the NFL Players' Association, he led the fight for fairness with a brilliance and ferocious drive. His passion continues to define our organization and inspire our players."
This is John Mackey's legacy. He changed a position, changed labor-management relations, and has helped to change how the league treats players after their careers come to an end. Pro football knows no other legacy like it, and yet the game has not done nearly enough to honor it.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac