Sylvia Mackey recalled with glee when her husband, John Mackey, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
“We were in Minneapolis for the Super Bowl (XXVI) and he received the news that weekend. He was pretty ecstatic to have finally gotten the call,” she said of Mackey’s nearly 20-year wait on the ballot. “We get back to the hotel after the game and the clerk comes up to us and says, ‘We have so many messages for you that the phone system couldn’t handle them, so we printed them out.’ He brought out a box that was overflowing, then got a little flustered and blurted out, ‘You got indicted into the Hall of Fame!’ We couldn’t believe there were so many messages of congratulations.” Of course, he meant to say inducted, not indicted.
Mackey had been elected to the shrine in Canton, Ohio, as a pioneering tight end for the Baltimore Colts. In 1970 as an active playher, Mackey became the first president of the National Football League Players Association, formed after the merger of the National and American football leagues.
There were no misplaced vowels or mispronounced words on Wednesday night when Mackey, who died in 2011 at the age of 69, was inducted into the Nassau County High School Athletics Hall of Fame at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury.
The former Hempstead High School star was one of 31 inductees into the Nassau Hall’s third class, a group that included luminaries such as former NFL players Don McCauley, Stephen Boyd, Scottie Graham and Don McPherson and Olympics gold-medal hurdler Derrick Adkins. It is an honor Mackey would have cherished.
“It would have meant everything to him because he always bragged about being part of Hempstead High School and Nassau County sports and he looked up to Jim Brown (Manhasset), who he followed to Syracuse,” said Sylvia Mackey, who traveled from Baltimore to join several relatives and friends at the ceremony. “He told me he was torn between basketball and football in high school – his mother didn’t even want him to play football – and he was also a pole vaulter. Imagine a guy that big being a pole vaulter.”
Don Ryan, currently the mayor of the village of Hempstead, attended high school with Mackey. “I was a freshman and he was a junior. I saw him play every game in football and basketball in his junior and senior years,” said Ryan, a retired teacher at the school and still its sports historian. “He was outstanding in everything, even track, and someone we all looked up to. He was so humble.”
Mackey, who won the Thorp Award in 1958 as the most outstanding football player in Nassau County, was referred to by Newsday as an end/back during the season, Ryan remembered. “I called up the paper and told them he was a tight end, not a running back,” Ryan said. “I was told he was listed that way because he had several rushing touchdowns. I said that was because he scored on end-arounds and on fake punts. He was never a running back He was a blocker. We didn’t throw much but he caught some jump passes over the middle.”
Ryan said that Mackey brought his friend at Syracuse University, 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, back to Hempstead High one winter. “That was a thrill for all of us,” said Ryan, who noted that Mackey grew up in Roosevelt but back then, after junior high Roosevelt students had a choice to attend high school at either Hempstead of Freeport.
At Syracuse, Mackey was mostly a tight end who caught only 27 passes in three years playing in coach Ben Schwartzwalder’s old-school, run-oriented offense that featured Davis and future NFL fullback Jim Nance. But Mackey’s athleticism for his size (6-2, 225) enabled Schwartzwalder to use him occasionally as a running back where he averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
“He loved being able to do both,” Sylvia Mackey said. “He wasn’t really a big guy. He didn’t lumber. He had speed. He liked it that coach Schwartzwalder let him play halfback. He scored two touchdowns against Navy (in 1962) and I think that’s when pro scouts realized he could run and catch.”
Mackey dominated more at the next level than he ever did at Syracuse or even at Hempstead. He was a second-round draft pick of the Baltimore Colts, where he played for nine of his 10 pro seasons. He was a five-time All-Pro, averaged 15.8 yards per catch and won a Super Bowl ring in Super Bowl V when the Colts beat the Cowboys, 16-13, on Jan. 17, 1971. In that game, he caught a memorable 75-yard TD pass from Johnny Unitas on a twice-deflected pass.
“He was most proud of his Super Bowl win and his Hall of Fame induction,” Sylvia Mackey said. “He always wanted to be the best.”
Beside his hall of fame honors, The John Mackey Award, established by the Nassau County Sports Commission, is presented annually to college football’s most outstanding tight end.
Mackey, who died after a well-documented battle with dementia, never set out to be a trailblazer at the position, his wife said, but is considered just that for being one of the first NFL tight ends who became a downfield passing threat instead of just a blocker. “He didn’t realize how he was changing the position when he played,” Sylvia Mackey said. “He was just happy that (Colts coach) Don Shula let him catch passes. He was always turning negatives into positives.”
Even accidental ones, like his “indictment.”
NASSAU’S CLASS OF 2017
Nassau County High School Athletics Hall of Fame’s 2017 inductees. Bios at newsday.com.
Derrick Adkins, Hank Bjorklund, Crystal Boyd, Stephen Boyd, John DeTommaso, Warren Koegel, Danielle Gallagher, Scottie Graham, Steven Hunte, John Mackey, Don McCauley, Don McPherson, Billy Wilson
Russ Cellan, Peter Cerrone, George A. Craig, Becky Crawford, Angelo Giugliano, Carol Ann Habeeb-Kiel, Bernard Hintz, Francine Nocella, Steve Shippos, Kenneth Sicoli
Ginny Gandolfo, Roger Glazer
Frank Saracino, Dr. Santo Barbarino, John Kickham, Alfred Kumerow, Patrick Pizzarelli