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Coming of Age in Football's Golden Era
By John Mackey, Thom Loverro
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2003 John Mackey and Thom Loverro
All rights reserved.
The Hall Finally Calls
Some people might have believed it would be a cold day in hell before I would become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That cold day arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, shortly before the 1992 Super Bowl between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills.
I had just returned to my hotel after having lunch with Jack Kemp, Joe Namath, and Roger Staubach. I walked into my room and saw the message light flashing on the telephone. I called the hotel operator and asked for my messages, and the woman on the other end of the phone said excitedly, "Mr. Mackey, you have so many messages, I'll have to send up a computer printout!"
"What's going on?" I asked her, surprised.
"You've just been indicted!" she said.
"Indicted?" I yelled into the phone, and then my wife started yelling in the background, "Indicted? What did you do?"
"Indicted for what?" I asked the operator, and she answered, "You've been indicted into the Hall of Fame."
That's how I found out, in my 15 and final year of eligibility, that I was finally a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had enemies that may have thought someone should have been indicted for electing me. But most thought it was criminal that it took so long for me to get in.
I was the second tight end in Canton. Mike Ditka was the first, and when Ditka was inducted, he said, "I don't understand how I got in before John Mackey."
Many people didn't. It wasn't because of my performance on the field, that's for sure. In 10 seasons I caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns. My 15.8 yard-per-reception average was unheard of for a tight end. Rick Telander, in Sports Illustrated, wrote that I "was the prototype of the modern tight end. Big (6'2", 230 pounds) with the speed of a sprinter, soft hands, and the strength to block defensive tackles and flatten safeties, Mackey turned a bland position into a dangerous, game-breaking one. When Mackey caught a pass in the secondary, defensive backs cringed. Rival players bounced off his oaken thighs like marbles. If somebody didn't hang on, Mackey was gone."
Kellen Winslow, the future Hall of Fame tight end from San Diego, said I was the standard by which tight ends should be measured. "John was really ahead of his time," Winslow said. "His size and speed were unheard of. If I ever came close to playing like John Mackey, it would have been the thrill of my life. I don't think I ever came close to that. To me, the people who belong in the Hall of Fame are people who have had a profound impact on the game. John Mackey should have gone in on the first day he was eligible."
But from 1977 through 1991, I had been passed over. It became embarrassing to the Hall, because each year that passed, more sportswriters wrote articles critical of the process and projected reasons why I was falling short. Most of the articles determined that it was because of my union activity, when I took on the NFL as president of the Players Association and then successfully sued the league for free agency.
But there was another school of thought — one far more personal than conspiratorial — as to why I had been blocked from entering the Hall of Fame for so long. Some people believed it was because of a one-man campaign to keep me out, engineered by a former Colts public relations official who later became a sports columnist at the Baltimore News American and, in his final days, the Baltimore Sun — John Steadman. Because he was the Baltimore representative in the voting for a long time, it was believed that he was the roadblock to me getting into Canton. There was bad blood between us that went back to the first year I was with the Colts. Buddy Young threw a party to show me what a warm welcome I would get in Baltimore. My agent at the time, Alan Brickman, and my girlfriend, Sylvia, flew in and went to the party. This was a time when players rarely used agents, and I think Steadman got into an argument with Brickman simply for representing me. Steadman shoved Brickman, and we left the party. I don't know if he was the real reason behind all those years I was passed over. It could have been a combination of things, but I never complained about it, because people knew I belonged there. I talked to Steadman about it, and he insisted he was not the reason for me not getting in. I told him that I believed him and that he didn't have that much power. He has passed on now, and whether he held me back or not, I never held it against him.
Here's the way the voting works. There are 38 selectors, primarily members of the media, and they cut down a list of nominees to about a dozen. From there, on Super Bowl Sunday, they meet again to cut the list down to six, in addition to one senior member, and those voted in must get 80 percent of the votes. A player must be retired at least five years to be eligible for induction. It doesn't seem right that players have no say about who gets in the Hall. Brig Owens, a former Redskins defensive back and one of my compatriots with the union, often expressed bewilderment about the process and why I had not gotten in. "If you have a sportswriter who doesn't like you, you're not going to become a member of the Hall of Fame," Owens said. "It took Bobby Mitchell a long time to get into the Hall of Fame because there were a couple of sportswriters who did not like him."
How did I get in finally? I don't know for sure, but the Washington Post reported that a Baltimore man, George Young, the former general manager of the New York Giants, worked to break down the wall keeping me out. The Post indicated that it was my union activism that kept me out. Ira Miller, a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the president of the Pro Football Writers Association at the time I was inducted, said he never heard any discussion about problems with my role in the players union in the three years he had been involved in voting deliberations, but he also admitted that I "should have been in sooner."
Whatever the reasons were, I wasn't worried about them or concerned with the past. If there was a problem, it wasn't my problem. When I played, I played to the best of my ability, and it was up to others to make the determination if that was good enough.
I only look ahead, and now I was looking ahead to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was special to me for a number of different reasons, including the fact that I would be joining some of my teammates from one of the greatest teams that ever played the game, the Baltimore Colts. Jim Parker and Raymond Berry were inducted in 1973. Lenny Moore made it in 1975. Johnny Unitas made the Hall in 1979. And in 1992, I would join them, finally.
The ceremony took place in Canton, Ohio, a blue-collar town about 50 miles south of Cleveland and 100 miles west of Pittsburgh. It is a town befitting the home of a place to honor blue-collar players in a blue-collar sport. This was the home of the American Professional Football Association, founded in 1920, the forerunner of the National Football League. One of the legendary teams in the early days of professional football was the Canton Bulldogs, who won the NFL championship in 1922 and 1923. One of the members of the Bulldogs was the legendary Jim Thorpe (a seven-foot statue of Thorpe greets visitors as they enter the Hall). There were a lot of places with equally significant histories that could have claimed ownership of the Hall of Fame, but it was Canton that started a campaign in 1959 to become the home of the Hall. Two years later it received that designation and got in on the ground floor of something good, probably even better than it could have expected. The city receives national attention every August at the Hall of Fame ceremonies, with thousands of tourists coming to town to watch their favorite players from days past be honored. In addition to that, tourists come to Canton year-round to tour the Hall and see the wonderful exhibits. In its first full year of operation, 1963, the Hall drew 63,000 fans. The number of visitors peaked at 330,000 fans in 1973 and then dropped down to a consistent level of about 200,000-plus. The year before I was inducted, about 209,000 fans passed through the Hall.
I was in good company: it was the year of the maverick at Canton. The 1992 Hall of Fame class included Raiders owner Al Davis and Washington Redskins running back John Riggins. It's well known that Al Davis has made numerous enemies in the league. He came from the American Football League, and, like me, he sued the National Football League. He got a lot more out of it than I did — $18 million. Then there was Riggins, who, while not considered as controversial a figure as Davis or myself, had his share of colorful episodes over his career, including once telling Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to, "Loosen up, Sandy Baby." He once sat out an entire year with the Redskins in a contract dispute, but Riggins also had a great sense of humor. He had NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, of all people, introduce him at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. When asked why, Riggins said, "Madonna had a headache." Detroit Lions great Lem Barney was also on the inductee list.
Davis had John Madden introduce him. Davis himself had introduced eight Raider Hall of Famers in the past and was clearly looking forward to the moment. At the mayor's breakfast on Friday, he said, "I don't know how I'm ever going to get my speech into the 10 minutes they have allotted me, so I bought some time from Lem Barney and John Mackey. And John Riggins says I can have all of his time."
Fat chance I was going to give up any of my time. It was as sweet a moment for me as for Al Davis or anyone else, though he wasn't kidding about the length of his speech. It ran about 20 minutes, twice as long as the time allotted.
The inductions are a weekend affair, with more than just the induction ceremony. The mayor's breakfast is on Friday morning, followed by a fashion show luncheon at noon and the Enshrines' Civic Banquet on Friday night. Early Saturday morning there is a parade that draws as many as 200,000 people, and then comes the big moment, the induction ceremony.
It was a glorious, sunny Saturday afternoon — there wasn't a cloud in sight — and no one was complaining about being there. Riggins went first, then Davis, and then it was my turn. What a moment! There on the hillside were hundreds of Colts fans, waving their "Colt Corral" banners. There were no fans, perhaps in all of sports, like Baltimore Colts fans, and the continued existence of the Colt Corrals was proof of that. The Colts left Baltimore in 1984, yet these fan clubs stayed in existence all of that time, getting together for special functions and sharing the friendships they had made through football. They wound up embracing the Ravens when that franchise came to Baltimore in 1996, changing their names to Ravens Roosts. But on this day, they were in Canton to share this moment with me, and I couldn't think of better people to share it with.
My presenter was my good friend Jack Kemp, the former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills who became a member of Congress, secretary of housing and urban development, and one of the foremost political leaders in the country. I got to know Jack during the days when I worked with the players union. In 1970, when the NFL and AFL merged, so did the players associations from both leagues. Jack was the head of the AFL players, and we worked together to form the new NFL Players Association. We spent a lot of time together figuring out what we should be doing for the future of the players, and I learned a lot from him. We became close friends; I supported Jack when he first ran for Congress, and I've backed him ever since. The things that he has said throughout his career have been strong and consistent — he doesn't change to suit whomever it pleases. I wanted Jack Kemp to be in Canton with me for this moment. (He might have been there anyway, even if I wasn't being inducted. His son Jeff was the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, who were playing that afternoon in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.) After being introduced, Jack stepped up to the podium to give my introduction:
I have the honor of introducing the greatest tight end in the history of the NFL, John Mackey, into the Hall of Fame. I was in Philadelphia recently giving a speech and the emcee got carried away and introduced me as the father of the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, and a very distinguished black gentleman stood up in the back of the room and said, "He doesn't look like Randall Cunningham to me." I am not Randall's daddy. I am Jeff's daddy — although we would like to have Randall's arm and money. But I want to say that my wife and I are thrilled to be among the fans, friends, and family of John Mackey. [It was a rough game for Jack's son, as the Eagles lost 41 — 14 to the New York Jets.]
Of all his accomplishments — All-American in high school in football, basketball, and track; an All-American in football at Syracuse; named All-Pro three times and to the Pro Bowl five times in 10 years in the NFL; finishing with the Chargers in San Diego after nine years with the Baltimore Colts, I want to introduce John Mackey's greatest accomplishment. Of all the things he has done on this earth, his greatest accomplishment is his dear family: his wife, Sylvia, and his children, Laura, Lisa, Kevin, Sandra, and Butch, and his precious grandchildren, Vanessa and Benjamin. You can't understand John Mackey until you understand his family. You can't understand John Mackey until you know his mother and father. Reverend Walter Mackey is a man of integrity, character, honesty, tenacity, and audacity, and has a great belief in human beings and the Creator. When John was picked by Ben Schwartzwalder to go to Syracuse, coach Schwartzwalder sent him three airline tickets for his mom and dad and for John, but Reverend Mackey said, "We can't accept the airline tickets. We will drive. I don't want you beholden to anybody." John ended up at Syracuse with the great Ernie Davis as a roommate. John was a great player at Syracuse, like Ernie Davis and Jim Brown in the tradition of that school, and he went on to become a great player in the NFL, and today is being enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
I first met John Mackey out on that football field. Unlike Johnny Unitas, I never had the honor of throwing to John Mackey, or playing with him or against him on the football field. I met him in a union meeting. John and I were merging the American and National Football League players unions. When I began that meeting, speaking to all of the player representatives from both leagues, John Mackey didn't say a word. He didn't talk for the longest time. Finally, he just said a very few words, and with those few words he motivated and inspired and moved men from one position to another position, which is the ultimate example of leadership in our society. After the meeting, I asked, "John, why didn't you speak longer?" He said, "Jack, my papa taught me to learn to listen. He said if you listen, you will be the smartest man in the room. You will know what you know, and you will know what other people know as well." Well, John Mackey was the smartest person in that room.
I believe it was a mistake to call John Mackey a rebel. He wasn't a rebel; he was a catalyst. He was not rebellious; he was a leader. He understood labor and understood capital. He understood the needs of the employees and recognized that you can't have employees without having employers. John was the bridge between black and white in leading the union. Dr. King gave that speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in which he said he dreamed of a day in which America would be free to look at our children not on the basis of the color of their skin, but on the basis of their character and the content of their character. John Mackey is a bridge to that goal. He is making better dreams come true in America, working between black and white, labor and management, between enterprise and working men and women. He cares about this country. He cares about family. He is a man who truly is blessed and recognizes the biblical injunction that those who have been blessed have an obligation to be a blessing to their families and to their communities and to their country and ultimately to the world. I want to give you not only a great football player, not only a great family man, but I want to give you a great American, the great John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts, the next enshrine of the 1992 class.
Excerpted from Blazing Trails by John Mackey, Thom Loverro. Copyright © 2003 John Mackey and Thom Loverro. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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