By: Phil Houk of Fighting Irish Preview
William “Red” Mack started his football career when a Sister Madeline at an orphanage where he was raised in Pittsburgh, pushed him to play the game as a way to channel the hot temper he had. 20 or so years after that experience he ended his career as a member of the Green Bay Packers who won the first Super Bowl in his last ever game.
On that historic day, he made two tackles, including, according to a Packer website, the first ever tackle in Super Bowl history.
In between he had a successful but injury plagued four years as a tough as nails halfback at the University of Notre Dame from 1957 to 1960. Later in life after a short NFL career, he settled in South Bend, raised a family and had a successful career in quality control for the Bendix Corporation.
Oh, and for one youth football season back in the early 70’s, he was my coach.
William Red Mack passed away on April 8, 2021 at the age of 83. Distinguishable by his carrot colored red hair, he attributed the teasing he received over it to his success on the football field. In a 2017 interview he said, “there was a little saying that went along with (having red hair) that I didn’t like.” Apparently, the teasing often led to fisticuffs. So, Sister Madeline pushed him towards the football field, as a way to channel his anger, “Football was so good for a guy like me with a bad temper,” Mack once said.
Mack blossomed into a 160-pound speedy halfback in High School and caught the attention of several college football powers. In 1957 Notre Dame was in the midst of the Terry Brennan era. Brennan may have seen in Mack a player in a mold similar to his own combination of size and speed when he himself had excelled at ND in the late 40s.
Red accepted Brennan’s offer and headed to South Bend, a place that would become his home for most of the next 65 years.
Mack quickly earned the respect of his teammates at ND. His freshman year one day he had his two front teeth knocked out in practice by a forearm hit from two-time all-American Monty Stickles. The next day at practice, Mack was back and told the 220 pound linebacker, “don’t you ever turn your back on me, you big SOB.”
Mack had a long memory. Six years later on a kickoff in a game against the San Francisco 49ers, Mack saw Stickles out of the corner of his eye, he made a quick turn and layed a devastating blindside hit on him. According to Mack, he then stood over Stickles and said, “I finally got you back!”
In 1958 Mack found himself in a backfield featuring Bob Williams at quarterback and Nick Pietrosante at fullback. The ‘58 Irish posted a 7-3 mark and Mack was outstanding. He started every game and had 795 combined yards rushing and receiving and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. He scored 5 touchdowns that year, including a 65-yard punt return. A super sophomore season and Mack seemed destined for Fighting Irish stardom.
Interestingly his position Coach in 1958 was Hank Stram who went on to be an NFL Hall of Famer, and was on the opposite sideline leading the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay’s opponent in Mack’s last pro game, Super bowl I.
After the 1958 season, Terry Brennan was fired and Joe Kuharich, who had only coached in the pro ranks, took over in South Bend.
Unfortunately for Mack the rest of his career was injury riddled, and he never matched the promise he had shown in the 1958 season. Despite missing most of those last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers choose Mack in the 10th round of that year’s NFL draft. Apparently, team owner Art Rooney had been a benefactor of the orphanage where Mack had lived in Pittsburgh and remembered him from those days.
With the Steelers, Mack was moved to wide receiver and he was determined to make it in the NFL. In order to make the desired impression, in training camp according to Red, “there wasn’t a defensive back on the field I didn’t have a fight with. When they pushed me, I pushed back. When they hit me, I really went after them.”
Through two seasons he saw spot duty totaling 16 receptions and 4 TDs. He then posted his best season in 1963 when he appeared in all 14 games and caught 25 passes for 618 yards and 3 TDs. Throughout, Mack was also a steady and fearless contributor on special teams.
Teammates loved to watch him cover kickoffs because they never knew what he might do.
During his best season, the Steelers played at Dallas just a few weeks after the JFK assassination. Interestingly the Steelers had to modify their usual uniforms when it was determined that their logo resembled a bullseye. Mack earned the game ball that day as the Steelers prevailed over Tom Landry’s Cowboys.
Having earned a reputation as a deep threat (he averaged 22.8 yards per catch), tough play and versatility, Mack hung around the NFL for a couple more years that included a season in Philadelphia. In 1966 he was picked up by Atlanta in the expansion draft, but was cut after one game. By this point of his career, injuries having piled up, he was playing in a lot of pain.
He went home to South Bend with the intention of retiring.
A few weeks later he received a long-distance phone call. On the other end of the line was Vince Lombardi with an invitation to come join the Packers. The next morning Mack was in Green Bay.
Mack only saw action that year on special teams but he became a fan favorite for his reckless style of play.
For winning the Super Bowl, Red earned a $25,000 payday, which was more that twice his salary of $12,000.
During training camp with the Packers the next year he ended up being released, but not before a memorable matchup with 240 pound All-Pro linebacker Ray Nitschke in a one on one drill known as the “nutcracker”. The story is told in the classic book Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer. Nitschke was reluctant to take part in a matchup against the much smaller Mack, but Mack reportedly challenged, “get in here you SOB, and let’s go at it.” Nitschke got the best of the battle, but Red popped right back up and got back in line.
After his release, Red decided to hang up his cleats for good. A job with the Bendix Corporation, focus on his wife Jean, the raising of 3 boys, and thousands of hours volunteering in the South Bend community awaited. He became a fixture at ND football smokers and tailgate parties, always playing the role of Notre Dame man, to a “T”.
Cleats “hung up” as a player, but yes Mack also did some youth football coaching after retirement from the NFL.
In 1973, I was a gangly 12-year-old, 90 pound, five footer that had no idea what he was doing on a football field. I was playing for the St. Anthony Panthers in the 5th and 6th grade South Bend Catholic league.
I was vaguely familiar at the time that there was a man in the St. Anthony Parish who had played for Notre Dame and the Green Bay Packers. I knew this because I would see him at Mass and my Dad would make a point to say hello to him. Then I learned that that fellow was “Red” Mack and he was going to be a volunteer assistant coach for our team.
My memories of that season are a bit dim, but I do recall Coach Mack showing up for each practice and game with a Green Bay cap on and with some very red hair poking out.
I wish I could say we won a championship, but we didn’t win a lot of games. But I do remember Coach “Red” Mack as an intense and demanding leader, who insisted on toughness at all cost.
And I’ve never forgotten the impression he had on me.
Rest in peace, William “Red” Mack.