Longtime Wisconsin Badger football fans may remember Jeff Mack, Sr. as the wide receiver who caught a last-minute, 77-yard touchdown to beat fourth-ranked Nebraska in 1974.
Others, though, remember him as a family-first man with plenty of wisdom to impart to the young people he coached in football and basketball over the years.
Mack died May 8 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 68.
Mack became well-known in Chicago as a standout receiver and running back at Faragut High School, a perennial football powerhouse where he also starred on the basketball team. After a particularly good game against the rival Austin Tigers his junior year, Mack heard that some cheerleaders from Austin were outside the locker room waiting to meet the Faragut quarterback.
One of those cheerleaders turned out to be Kirbie Lyn Green, a senior at the time.
“So he’s in the locker room, and he said, ‘Girls are coming to meet Gordo (the quarterback)?’ He said, ‘They need to come see me, I just ran for four touchdowns,” she recalls. “So he comes out the locker room, you know, and we just laugh, we talk and stuff. And then, he goes back in the locker room, and we were leaving, and as I turned around, he winked at me. And I was like, Oh, God.”
She saw him again a few weeks later when Faragut played at Soldier Field, and the two reconnected at a post-game party. Despite going to different colleges – he got many scholarship offers and chose the University of Wisconsin, while she went to Northeastern University – they remained together and were married in the summer before Jeff’s senior year.
They were married 48 years and had three children: Maaina, Jeff Jr., and Anisha.
As a player at UW, Jeff Mack Sr. became a leader and mentor, especially for the sizeable number of Badgers coming from Chicago at that time.
“He was outstanding. Everyone knew who Jeff was and about his exploits at Farragut High School, both as a football player and a basketball (player),” says Michael Morgan, who was a freshman during Mack’s senior year. “He was just outstanding, so I knew all about him. When I first met him it was like meeting Chicago royalty. I was really happy to be on the same squad where there were a number of us who had played football in Chicago that were on the Wisconsin team, but Jeff was the most notable. He was a very, very helpful upperclassman, trying to counsel not just myself, but other members of the team, particularly freshmen or sophomores about what it took to succeed as an athlete in Big Ten football.”
Morgan, who later worked with Kirbie Mack at the State Department of Revenue before becoming the Secretary of the Department of Administration under Governor Jim Doyle, said Mack imparted life lessons about priorities off the field, too.
“He always talked about, we’ve already won,” Morgan says. “I mean, you have this wonderful opportunity to play football in the Big Ten, and you get this world-class education at the University of Wisconsin. Having him as a student-athlete talk in those meant something right to me. He had the sort of locker-room credibility that made you listen to him.”
Mack was a leader outside the football team as well; Kirbie Mack recalls that while he pledging for the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, he broke his nose in practice. In solidarity, all the other pledges wore bandages on their noses.
“Kirbie Mack’s husband”
After graduation, Mack enjoyed a bit of fame in the area. He set the record for most yards per catch – a record that stood into the 2000s – and everyone knew about that catch against Nebraska.
“Jeffrey had made a name for himself in Madison. So everyone knew him. As a matter of fact, the first job I got here was being Jeff Mack’s wife,” Kirbie Mack says. “I was at Oscar Mayer, Jeff Mack’s wife, and I went to the state, Jeff Mack’s wife. I mean people talk about my qualifications, well, a little bit of it is name recognition as well.”
Over the years, though, that shifted, as Kirbie Mack became a well-known community leader, including taking on the presidency of the local NAACP chapter and leadership roles in many other organizations.
“Eventually, Jeff always tells his story, that that changed and he became Kirbie Mack’s husband,” Kirbie Mack says. “Jeff really was instrumental in that and made sure that he was home with the kids a lot.”
Jeff Mack had worked for the Chicago Transit Authority during summers in college, and became a Madison Metro bus driver and soon thereafter a supervisor, a career he held for more than 30 years. He set his schedule such that he could be home for the kids – partly because it was hard for Black families to find daycare at that time, Kirbie says.
Jeff Mack, Jr. appreciated his dad’s commitment to his family, even if he didn’t always feel the same as a kid.
“In the morning, my mom was there. When I came home, my dad was home. Like it was just, there was no getting away from them,” he recalls with a laugh. “He always knew all the bus routes, so he knew to the minute when I was supposed to be home.”
“The Coach Mack”
The year before young Jeff was old enough to play for the Southside Raiders football team, Jeff Sr. volunteered to coach there. Jeff Sr coached football with the Raiders and basketball with the Spartans, and even went on to be the wide receivers coach at Madison West when Jeff, Jr played there.
The players didn’t always recognize the name Jeff Mack, Kirbie Mack says.
“If they didn’t know, their parents would make sure (they knew), that’s not just Coach Mack, that’s the Coach Mack, so now you give him ultimate respect,” she recalls. “It was easy to recruit kids because a lot of parents understood who Jeff was. He was a legend back then.”
Jeff, Jr says some of his fondest memories of those days weren’t on the field.
“When I was younger, when I played for the Raiders, it was just he and I always together in the car, going back and forth to practice,” he remembers. “There wasn’t always a ton of talking. The best times were just being with him in a car quietly because I got a chance to just see him and see how a man was supposed to act. It’s silly, because it wasn’t a lot of stuff we were doing, but I just remember emulating everything about him, whether it be how we sat in the car, how he drove, how we talk, what he talked about, not having to talk about anything and everything all the time. But when we talked, it was about something that was important. So being intentional about your conversations, not just talking to talk. I know sometimes in this day and age, I feel like parents have to be vocal and have to be all around, they have to be best friends with kids. My dad did not have to do that. And I appreciated that.”
One of Jeff, Jr’s basketball teammates remembers Jeff, Sr instilling what it takes to win.
“Just to have somebody of that caliber in terms of just class and care and integrity, and someone who really wanted to teach lessons within winning, it was much more of a blessing than I could appreciate at the time as a young man,” says Reece Gaines, who went on to the University of Louisville and played for the Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks. “I had many teammates who probably needed a father figure. He stepped in right there perfect for them and he had a long-lasting impact on their lives.”
Gaines recalls playing for the Raiders and celebrating a bit more than he should after a touchdown. Coach Mack calmly, quietly said simply, “Reece, don’t do that again.”
“It was so calm, but you can tell he was disappointed and that was more than he ever could do by yelling at me,” says Gaines, now an assistant coach at Louisville. “He was just that type of guy and a good coach. As a coach now, I’d never realized how lucky we were, all of us, to have someone like that in our lives.”
“He wasn’t always just about the physical side of stuff,” says Andrew Dean, who played football under Coach Mack with the Raiders and through high school at West. “He would teach you about the mental side of things, how you need to think, how you need to behave, how you need to act. He was very big into all about carrying yourself properly … He was one of the most important influential people in my life outside of my parents. He expected a lot out of us, but he was always very fair.”
Dean, now an emergency room physician, recalls the entire Mack family supporting the teams their kids played on. Kirbie Mack, in fact, coached cheerleading at West while Jeff coached football; “It was a family affair,” she says.
“They were just always so supportive and involved,” Dean says. “Always working for their kids and for our school, so it was just always great to have them around. And you know, they stayed super members of a community and society. I think he will be remembered very fondly as such. Such a good guy, touched many people.”
Jeff, Jr went on to play for his dad’s alma mater as a standout linebacker for the Badgers in the early 2000s. Jeff, Jr says he didn’t feel any particular pressure to follow his dad’s footsteps.
“He was super proud of me,” Jeff, Jr says. “I think he would have been super proud, probably no matter where I went.”
“A very family oriented man”
And through all the athletic success, it was always family first.
“You play on the south side, you gain a lot of friends and longtime brothers that didn’t have fathers around or didn’t have guidance like I did. I think I learned at an early age to be really thankful for my dad and for what he was actually doing, regardless of if it was hard,” Jeff, Jr says. “What I always appreciated about him was his ability to always want to teach, as well as his focus on the important things in life. It was really always about family, and then it was about being the best version of yourself.”
“Jeff was very family oriented,” Kirbie Mack says. “He carried that on to his grandkids, just very involved in family. He thought family first in everything. Anything and everything, a very family oriented man.”
Visitation will be held at the Fountain of Life Church at 633 West Badger Road, Madison, WI, 53713, on Friday, May 20, 2022, from noon until 1:00 p.m. The funeral service will be held from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the Mack family requests donations to the Southside Raiders Youth Football & Cheerleading Program, P.O. Box 258075, Madison, WI, 53725.