"I'm blown away," he said. "The fact that all of these players would show up tells me that they had a lot of respect for my dad, both on and off the field."
John Mackey, the Colts great tight end and Pro Football Hall of Famer, died July 6 of frontotemporal dementia. He was 69.
Thursday night, Mackey's family received friends and fans at the Burgee-Henss-Seitz Funeral Home, where more than a dozen of his former teammates came to pay their respects to the man who transformed the game, both as an explosive receiver and as the strong-willed president of the National Football League Players Association.
"In the vernacular of the 1960s and 1970s, John was a drum major for justice," defensive tackle Joe Ehrmann said. "He always had the moral courage to stand up and speak out for what was right. He loved people, and he left the world a better place."
Huge floral displays, photographs of Mackey's life and keepsakes from his career graced the room. On one table sat a decorative urn containing his cremated remains, flanked by his Colts' helmet, his Syracuse letterman's jacket and a two-foot blue-and-white arrangement of roses and lillies surrounding a large "88" (Mackey's number).
Teammates spoke more readily of Mackey's character than of his immense prowess as a player.
"If there were things you did that you weren't proud of, you wouldn't do them around John," said defensive end Roy Hilton, who played with Mackey on the Colts' 1971 Super Bowl championship team. "You didn't do those things because you didn't want to let him down. He had that effect on people."
Running back Lydell Mitchell said that during his rookie year in 1972, Mackey "took me under his wing and taught me a lot."
About football? Yes, said Mitchell, but moreso about life.
"He taught me how to observe people off the field," Mitchell said. "And that helped him as [NFLPA] president. There's an old saying: 'See a good fight and join it.' John joined in and dealt with players' pensions and benefits. He was The Man."
Several Ravens officials attended, including President Dick Cass and General Manager Ozzie Newsome. Cass acknowledged Mackey's greatness in uniform but said it is overshadowed by his union efforts at a time rife with strife.
"It's ironic that, while he's a Hall of Fame player, John will probably be remembered longer for what he did for the players union," Cass said. "To be a Hall of Famer, both on and off the field, is an incredible achievement, and I can't think of anyone else in football who has had the impact that John Mackey has."
Mackey's heroics in Super Bowl V run deeper than the twice-tipped touchdown pass he caught in the Colts' 16-13 victory over Dallas.
"That year, we traded for veteran receiver Roy Jefferson, who'd had some controversy around him in Pittsburgh," said former Colts GM Ernie Accorsi, then the team's publicity aide. "When Jefferson got here, the coaches asked him to run [sprints], so they could time his speed. He refused.
"Well, Mackey saw the whole incident and walked into head coach Don McCafferty's office and said, 'Coach, room him with me — I'll teach him how we do things here.'
"Jefferson became a great player for us. Without him, we don't win the Super Bowl. Mackey had a power about him that was just tremendous."
A public memorial service for Mackey will be held Saturday, August 13 at 10:30 a.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen at 5200 N. Charles St.