Remembering Hempstead's John Mackey

Former Baltimore Colts star John Mackey on stage Former Baltimore Colts star John Mackey on stage at the Civic Center in Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame celebration (July 28, 2000) Photo Credit: AP

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Good memories don't fade easily, which is a sad coda to the death of John Mackey, 69, on Wednesday. For the last few years, trapped in a dementia possibly related to his glory days as a Hempstead High School, Syracuse University and Baltimore Colts football star, Mackey couldn't remember much of anything.

A former Colts teammate, Willie Richardson, had been close to Mackey and his family since they met at the College All-Star Game before their first pro season. The two shared an apartment as Colts rookies and were roommates on Colts road trips for five years. Yet at a recent reunion of the Colts' 1971 Super Bowl team, when Richardson asked Mackey for an autograph, Mackey asked, "What's your name?"

"So I told him it was Willie Richardson," Richardson said, "and he wrote a nice piece to me and signed it, 'John Mackey, 88, Hall of Famer.' He made a comment that I would be successful in whatever I did. He didn't know me. I was real heartbroken because of that."

Recollections of Mackey, on the other hand, are plentiful and warm.

"I played right end and he played left end" on Hempstead High's teams of the late 1950s, said Major Bottoms, now retired. "We were tackling partners, and we'd always fake it. He wouldn't hit me too hard and I wouldn't hit him too hard. And we sat next to each other in science class. We had desks that would slide, and John used to slide his desk over. He wouldn't say I could look at his paper, but if I wanted to . . . "

Nick Moffitt, a Hempstead sports historian, was a freshman when Mackey was a Hempstead senior, star of the football, basketball and track teams. "You figure," Moffitt said, "a big-time athlete like John would have his nose in the air, but not John Mackey. He was one of the nicest guys, and for a senior to treat a freshman like me the way he did, he was a great guy. And I've got what he wrote to me in the yearbook to prove it."

Big (6-2 and growing past 190) and fast, Mackey was winner of the 1958 Thorp Award as Nassau County's most outstanding high school football player. The team, Moffitt said, lost only two games in two years, both to Freeport. In basketball, while Hempstead won 63 of 65 games, Mackey "had a set shot from the corner, lefthanded, that was lights out," Bottoms said. Mackey also was the state pole vault champion.

Hempstead Village trustee Don Ryder, who graduated two years after Mackey, said that "whenever there was a good student-athlete at Hempstead High, we'd say, 'He's great, but he's no John Mackey.' John was the bar by which we measured everyone."

Mackey was one of seven children -- six sons -- of Baptist minister Walter Mackey, who literally built (with the help of his sons' manual labor) the Mount Sinai Church in Roosevelt that opened in 1949, when John was 8.

His father was uninterested in sports, Mackey told Newsday shortly after his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

"He asked, 'Did you pass your courses?' " Mackey said. "I'd say I scored two touchdowns and he'd ask, 'Where are your feet?' He meant, 'Keep your feet on the ground and pointed straight ahead.' "

Mackey won an appointment to the Naval Academy and said his father liked the idea of his being the first black football player at Annapolis, but Mackey said: "I didn't know how to swim. I was afraid they were going to drown me."

He chose Syracuse, where he roomed for two years with Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner, who died of leukemia before he ever played a pro game. It was Davis who loaned Mackey $5 and the keys to his Edsel for Mackey's first date with his future wife, Sylvia.

With the Colts, Mackey became the prototype of the modern tight end -- a downfield pass-catching threat as well as a rugged short-yardage receiver and blocker. And, ultimately though unwillingly, "put a human face on the issue" of dementia and its possible relation to concussions, in the words of Dr. Gary Wadler, professor of medicine at Hofstra-North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine and president of the Nassau County Sports Commission.

It was Wadler's organization that established the John Mackey Award, presented to college football's top tight end annually. A promise that Mackey will be remembered.

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