Syracuse Football Top 25 Players of All-Time: No. 10 John Mackey

Syracuse football, John Mackey (Photo by Vic Stein/Getty Images)
Syracuse football, John Mackey (Photo by Vic Stein/Getty Images) /

Syracuse Football has had a long history of success. We look back at some of the best players to play at Syracuse University. Up next, No. 10: John Mackey.

Syracuse Football has had some amazing athletes come through its program since 1889. In this series so far we have already talked about the likes of Vic Hanson, Walter Reyes, Jim Nance, Chandler Jones, Gary Anderson, Qadry Ismail, and so many others. Now that we have finally reached the Top 10 of our list, this is where we meet the cream of the top: the best of the best, and next up is John Mackey.

Of the 10 athletes remaining, seven have had their jersey or number retired by Syracuse Football. In total, there are nine athletes on our entire list who have had their jersey/number retired by SU, some having the same number: No. 44. Only Don McPherson – ranked 11th, and Joe Morris – ranked 12th, are the only others on this list not in the Top 10 who have their jersey/number retired. Mackey, the first one in our Top 10, is one of those privileged few who have had that honor of having his No. 88 jersey retired, according to

Mackey may not have been the best tight end to ever play for Syracuse Football, but he redefined the tight end position in an era when rushing the ball was a huge part of the offensive strategy. Though Chris Gedney, who we had highlighted previously was great, Mackey was the one that paved the way for Gedney’s success.

Mackey played for Syracuse Football from 1960-1962. To give you an idea, this was around the time Ernie Davis played (1959-1961), who will later be on this list. Though Mackey was not nearly as dynamic an athlete as Davis was, his ability to catch the ball over the middle of the field revolutionized the tight end position for football forever.

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Up to the 1960s, tight ends were mainly used for blocking. In other words, they were pretty much a sixth offensive lineman that was used to help the running game and protect the quarterback. They were not really expected to make many catches as they often lacked the abilities that wide receivers had. Mackey though showed that if you are gifted with the right size, height, weight, and speed, that a tight end could be just as effective as any other weapon on offense.

Syracuse Football Career

In his first year in 1960, Mackey was primarily used at running back, rushing 32 times for 129 yards (4.0 avg.) and one touchdown, according to He paired that with four receptions for 29 yards. As a sophomore in 1961, he was utilized more as a wide receiver/tight end, his more natural position. In that role, he thrived and had his best season: making 15 catches for 321 yards (21.4-yard avg.), a school record at that time, and four touchdowns.

In his final season with the Orangemen in 1962, he still had a decent season. He had eight receptions for 131 yards (16.4-yard avg.) and one touchdown. He also had 26 rushes for 130 yards (5.0-yard avg.) and three touchdowns.

Overall in his SU career, Mackey finished with 27 receptions for 481 yards and six touchdowns. He also rushed the ball 58 times for 259 yards (4.5-yard avg.) and four touchdowns. Though those numbers seem low by today’s standards, they were exemplary for a tight end in that era when running the ball was the main offensive strategy.

Following his career at Syracuse, the Baltimore Colts would select Mackey 19th overall in the second round of the 1963 NFL Draft. He would also be selected with the 35th overall pick in the fifth round of the 1963 AFL Draft by the New York Jets, according to, but would end up choosing to sign with the Colts instead.

NFL Career

Mackey would go on to have an amazing 10-year NFL career; one season with the San Diego Chargers and nine seasons with the Baltimore Colts with whom he went to two Super Bowls. His first appearance was in 1968 (Super Bowl III), and the second was in 1970 (Super Bowl V).

Back in the 1960s, the NFL- National Football League (later called the NFC conference) and the  AFL- American Football League were not yet merged, and played their own schedules. However, at the end of each year, they agreed to play in an AFL-NFL Championship, named the “Super Bowl”, pitting the best team from each league against each other.

The reason we bring this up is because, in 1968, Mackey helped the Colts win the NFL championship (today’s equivalent of the NFC Championship) and advance to the Super Bowl, but lost in Super Bowl III to the AFL’s New York Jets 16-7. So in other words, he and the Colts won their own league’s crown, but did not win the nation’s ultimate football game: the Super Bowl.

Two years later though, the NFL and AFL merged, and became the NFL as we know it today – split into two conferences: the NFC and AFC. The NFC was comprised of all NFL teams, and the AFC was comprised of mostly AFL teams. To make the conferences more even, the Colts and three other teams in 1970 were moved to the AFC conference. The result was that the Colts, led by Mackey, would make it to the Super Bowl at season’s end and face the NFC’s Dallas Cowboys.

In Super Bowl V, Mackey had a heck of a day for the Colts. He recorded two receptions for 80 yards, one of which went for the longest touchdown reception in Super Bowl history (up to that point). Mackey caught a 75-yard reception off a deflected pass from Colts legend Johnny Unitas. That touchdown pass to this day is still tied for 7th all-time in Super Bowl history. The Colts would go on to win Super Bowl V, 16-13, according to Pro Football

In his 10 years in the NFL, he had 331 receptions for 5,236 yards (15.8-yard avg.) and 38 touchdowns, according to He would also rush the ball 19 times for 127 yards (6.7-yard avg.) and have nine kickoff returns for 271 yards (30.1-yard avg.). Mackey would retire from the NFL in 1972 after being named an All-Pro three times and be selected to the Pro Bowl five times. He would also later be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, only the second tight end in NFL history to do so at that time, according to

His achievements both at Syracuse and after at the tight end position led College Football to name an annual award after him – the John Mackey Award. The award is given out each year to the nation’s most outstanding tight end. As mentioned previously, Mackey’s number No. 88 football jersey was also retired in 2007 by Syracuse University.

Next. Syracuse Football: Top Super Bowl superlatives for the Orange. dark

Though his numbers at Syracuse were less than impressive by today’s standards, Mackey made the tight end position what it is today: a reliable source of production across the middle when receivers are not open. It gives the quarterback another threat on offense. For all his achievements both professionally as well as in college, Mackey deserves to be remembered as being one of the best to ever play at his position. It’s for that reason, Mackey deserves the honor of being listed in the Top 10 of Syracuse Football’s Best Players of All-Time.