Tom Mack could have extended his Hall of Fame pro football career another year or two back in the late 70's but chose to go into engineering full time instead.
The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business these days, but back in 1978, the Super Bowl era was only 13 years old and salaries were more modest during that time than they are now. Having a professional vocation after football made plenty of sense to him.
Mack spoke at his alma mater of Cleveland Heights High School on Monday as part of a special ceremony in his honor. He wants younger people – and athletes in particular – to understand the importance of an education and heed the warnings that professional sports careers are short.
“(Pro football players) still have probably a 50 percent chance of ending up in bankruptcy in three to five years out of ball. So there’s still a lot of work to do whether you have a second career or you’ve got some passion you want to invest in. The real secret is you’re going to have to work. I had a great career, but when you’re 35, it’s done. You’ve got the rest of your life to live,” Mack, 68, said.
The former Los Angeles Rams left guard was honored as a“Hometown Hall of Famer” on behalf of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance. Mack, a 1962 graduate, received a plaque that will hang at the school and a specially-made jersey presented by the current football team.
Mack was the Los Angeles Rams’ first round pick out of Michigan in 1966 after earning a degree in mechanical engineering. Mack was named an All-Pro eight times and a Pro Bowler 11 times. Mack didn’t miss a single game for the Rams in his pro football career that ended in 1978. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
Unlike a lot of players, Mack wasn’t pushed out of the game because of an injury or ineffective play. More than anything, it was about making a prudent career choice.
“I retired because the opportunity to go into the engineering business was (there). They said basically if you want to come, now’s the time you’ve got to come,” Mack said. “I knew I could play a year or two more, but there was certainly, in my mind, no guarantee that one more year was going to make the difference.”
Still, Mack’s decision to leave the Rams in 1978 did come with a certain price – that of missing Super Bowl XIV against the Pittsburgh Steelers the following season.
For all of Mack’s lofty accolades, they don’t include a Super Bowl appearance. For years, the Rams either lost to the Dallas Cowboys or the Minnesota Vikings in NFC Championship games, but Los Angeles finally broke through in 1979 after they defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to reach the Super Bowl.
Despite the team’s 9-7 record, the Rams actually led, 19-17, heading into the fourth quarter against one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. But John Stallworth and Franco Harris, also Hall of Famers, each scored a touchdown to seal the Steelers’ fourth Super Bowl title with a 31-19 win.
“(Hall of Famer) Merlin Olsen and I were very good friends. We car-pooled together for seven years. We both lived right near Pasadena, Calif. And we took our two wives to the Super Bowl that year … and collectively cried in each other’s soup.
“We’d come so close and we wanted it so badly to win a championship. And yet, when you’re not part of the team, you’re not part of the team. I couldn’t have been happier for the guys who were there, but there’s real melancholy in the fact that they got there especially the year after you quit,” Mack said.
Mack, who splits his time between Henderson, Nev., and Philipsburg Mont., drove his grandchildren to the house he grew up in on Belvoir Blvd. His parents built the home in 1940, and the family lived there until Mack graduated from high school.
“Coming back is fun. You get a little bit melancholy because things aren’t the same as they were, and I think we want to freeze in time and remember everything like it was. But at the same time, the school system is constantly sending you stuff and pushing you as alumni. It continues to be a progressive school system. They’ve done a real good job of keeping the kids engaged in both the academic chase and in extracurricular activities,” Mack said.