The news reached me midday, July 7, 2011: John Mackey died today. For many current fans of the now Indianapolis Colts Football team, the name John Mackey conjures little more than stories passed down from seniors who lived and witnessed a legend in the making. I’m proud to add my name to that list.
Once upon a time, a football team known as the Baltimore Colts served as one of the dominant forces in the National Football League. Despite franchise issues that plagued the team in the early fifties, fate smiled on Baltimore. Talent waited in the wings. One was named Johnny Unitas. Another was years removed from college and pro football, but a recognized talent in his home town of Roosevelt, Long Island. One among several siblings and the son of a prominent minister, John discovered early the pursuit of his dreams faced road blocks. His father was committed to the building of a congregation with his sons following in his footsteps. John Mackey faced the first crossroad of his life. He took the advice of his coaches and accepted a scholarship to Syracuse University.
It would be at Syracuse that our paths would converge. John was beginning his junior year as an established star on the elite Division One contender. I was a mere freshman, forced to wear a humiliating cap that comes with tradition. A freshman colleague, gifted with his own athletic scholarship (wrestling) and signature cap entered my room with the news: Ron, come quick. We gotta get to the Savoy. They’re there!
“John, John and Ernie. Damn, man, don’t you know where you are?”
In fact, I wasn’t sure where I was at the moment. My primary concern centered on the number of sweaters in my inventory before the upstate glaciers made themselves prominent. Nevertheless, I followed my new found friend to the Savoy. John, John and Ernie were maintaining their seats of honor as they held court. In keeping with protocol, I and my freshman colleague waited our turn as the crowd increased. Unable to contain himself longer, the introduction flowed without warning: Ron, this is John Mackey and this is John Brown. Over here, is Ernie Davis. Having reduced me to the lowest level of adolescent embarrassment, I watch my friend gloat in self congratulatory praise of name recall. He obviously expected his actions to earn points in the Syracuse hall of fame.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” quizzed one of the Johns. Which one I do not know. I was preoccupied with the mass of humanity that sat before me. The size of each man dwarfed my presence.
“Looks like two frosh to me,” answered Ernie. “Don’t lose those hats. We like to see you coming.”
Rub it in, why don’t ya.
After a brief inquisition: hometown, age, dormitory address, upper class friends, the question came from John Mackey. “Either of you two play ball?”
“I’m here on a wrestling boat.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Lew Roberts. Remember, John, we met this afternoon.”
“Right – the wrestler from Amityville. What about you, Ron?”
Not bad on name recall.
“A little in high school – not much to talk about.” Water seeks its own level and I was about to drown.
Mackey’s facial characteristics seemed to inflate with color while his associates appeared to recede into the background. “Let me tell you something, frosh. There are over twelve thousand students here at Syracuse and less than fifty soul brothers and sisters. We need to be seen and heard. A little in high school is a lot to me. Don’t sell yourself short. Come on down to practice; let coach see you. I’ll walk you through.” Options – none.
The following afternoon, I faced a catharsis. Sitting on the bench in nondescript whites, equipped with body armor, sans number, I became witness to Division One football. True to Mackey’s promise, I was not restricted and allowed to partake in the practice. Important business was the first order of the day. The varsity team would scrimmage against the freshman arrivals. Fortunately, my status as walk-on did not merit that recognition. It did, however, offer the opportunity to observe. And observe I did when a 230 pound freshman fullback by the name of Jim (Bo) Nance broke through the line of scrimmage on his way to significant yardage. That is until he met the one man left in his way. The collision was a blur from my vantage point, but the clear image of an orange helmet flying through the air was no illusion. The freshman prospect was assisted to his feet as John Mackey returned to the bench.
“Where you going, frosh? Coach hasn’t seen you yet.”
“Thanks, John, for the invitation, but not this time. No hard feelings, but I think the man upstairs would like me to see my next birthday.”
“Hey, Ron … no hard feelings. Thanks for coming out. See you again, soon. Remember – less than fifty.”
I expected more resistance, another pep talk – something. Lacking the capacity to read minds, I accepted my continuance into obscurity as a gift. But life is never that simple. A message was sent, a message not to be revealed immediately, but a message that would define both our characters. John Mackey and I would meet and address the Soul brother/sister issues on many a subsequent occasion. The sparse number of our community demanded a family attitude. Perhaps, that was the birth of advocacy for John.
Our careers took divergent paths. Hall of Fame statistics awaited Mackey as did credit for the establishment of the NFL Players Association. He took particular pride in the 1971 Super Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Vietnam awaited me along with a variety of business ventures, a not too ordinary life. We both met our wives of today at that upstate campus and time has played its tricks on all of us. I never classified our friendship as close, but I did think of family when the name John Mackey was spoken in my home. And finally, I understand the message, John’s message: What happens on the field is not important. The important thing is to show up, weigh the options and take action.