Print the Legend

Every football fan knows the tale of Max McGee's hungover heroics in Super Bowl I. But there was much more to the man than one epic day (and night). McGee embraced that story, but he never let it define him
February 08, 2016

This story

is decidedly not untold. It is, in fact, one of the most told stories in the half-century history of the Super Bowl—spun and respun, embellished and then embellished some more, until one day even the man at its center jokingly confided to his wife that he could no longer remember which parts were real.

It is the story of how, on the eve of the first Super Bowl, 34-year-old Packers wide receiver Max McGee, an 11-year veteran who had caught only four passes in the regular season and was fast bearing down on retirement, decided to break curfew and spend the night with two flight attendants—stewardesses, in the language of the time—he had met in the bar at the Wilshire Ramada in Los Angeles, where the team was staying. After all, he wasn't planning to get off the bench the next afternoon against the AFL-champion Chiefs.

It is the story of how McGee shuffled back into the hotel around daybreak on Jan. 15, 1967, passed early-rising quarterback Bart Starr in the lobby and went up to his room to snag a little sleep. How Green Bay starting wideout Boyd Dowler hurt his dodgy right shoulder on the third snap of the game and coach Vince Lombardi summoned McGee. And how, improbably, McGee scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history on a 37-yard pass from Starr and went on to make six more catches for a total of 138 yards—just barely missing the list of the top 10 receiving performances in the history of the big game, even after 49 years—and another touchdown in the Packers' 35--10 victory.

It is a story that irresistibly finds its way into the snickering, puerile hearts of male football fans of all ages: the Packers playboy who not only ignored the Man (and no coach has ever been more the Man than Lombardi) but also got the girl(s!) and then dominated the Super Bowl with a hangover, winning a chest full of macho merit badges. As long as there are Super Bowls, there will be Max McGee, the guy with an alliterative name straight from a dime-store novel who caroused through the darkness of a winter night and groggily emerged a hero in the sunlight at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

The best part is that all of that is true—but it's not all there is. There is a man behind the story, and a story behind the man. That story is about a gifted athlete who once lived every bit of the legend, and then for a long time after that stopped living it altogether. Who was always better on third down than on first, and who loved life much more than he loved football. Who didn't care at all for business, but who turned every business he touched to gold. Who married once young, and badly; then once old, and exceptionally well. Who struck a deal with the tale of Super Bowl I and agreed to embrace it, yet never let it define him. Who left not a moment's happiness on the table when his life was done.

A LINE STRETCHES along the shore of Lake Tomah, in Tomah, Wis., where Packers fans are waiting to get autographs from McGee and former star halfback Paul Hornung, featured guests at Tomah's late spring festival in 2002. They are sitting side by side in a picnic area, each with a stack of photos in front of him. McGee signs a copy of the picture that appeared on the cover of SI after that first Super Bowl, a tight shot of his face and torso as he crossed the goal line on the first touchdown, his features vaguely contorted in an expression of fatigue, a single-bar face mask slicing across his chin. It is without question his greatest moment as an athlete.

To the fans in line Hornung and McGee are frozen in a time long past, two of Lombardi's men. They approach Hornung cautiously; he was the celebrity then and remains one here, ever so distant. Not so with McGee. He is affable and welcoming at age 70. The fans can't tell that he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease because McGee is so practiced in his role. One after another they ask about that afternoon in L.A. (and, implicitly, about the night before). Time and again McGee gives them the response they seek, cocking his head to the side and squinting upward like a fraternity brother trying to piece together the remnants of a lost Saturday night. "I sort of remember that day," says McGee to one man, and everyone nearby has a good laugh at that. It is the line they came to hear.

William Max McGee was born in 1932 and raised in White Oak, Texas, a tiny oil-boom town 125 miles east of Dallas. McGee was the youngest of six children—five boys and one girl born to Robert Lee and Beatrice Parks McGee. Robert supported the family, first by working in a shop in town and later as a school bus driver. Beatrice and at least three of her children were diabetic, and Max would carry the image of his mother injecting herself with daily insulin shots into his adult life.

All the McGee boys were athletes and, most notably, outstanding football players at White Oak High. Coy, six years older than Max, played four years at Notre Dame and was a reserve halfback on coach Frank Leahy's teams from 1945 to '48; the '46 team is regarded as one of the best in college football history. Max was every bit as good as his brothers. As a senior in '49, he rushed for 3,048 yards and, according to the National Federation of High Schools, became the first player to surpass 3,000. (That mark has been reached only 86 times.) He earned a scholarship to Tulane, where he was a running back, return man and punter, and was the team's leading rusher for three consecutive seasons.

In New Orleans, Max met Marcia Priebe, a young woman from Rochester, Minn., who was a student at Tulane's sister school, Newcomb College. They were married in 1953 and had their first child, a daughter named Marla, the following year. Green Bay chose McGee in the fifth round of the '54 draft, and he played one season before enlisting in the Air Force. At Eglin Air Force Base, near Valparaiso, Fla., he participated in an early drone program along with another NFL player, Bears quarterback Zeke Bratkowski.

In 1957, McGee rejoined the Packers. By then he and Marcia had a second daughter, Mona, but their marriage was failing; they were divorced early that year. While Marcia moved to the Twin Cities to raise their daughters and work for a travel agency, Max remained in Green Bay to partake of a less settled life. "What it came down to is they were clearly too young and they had different aspirations," says Mona Olson, now 59.

McGee would spend the next 11 years in Green Bay, the first two on bad teams that won a total of four games and the next nine as an important cog in the Lombardi machine that seized five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls. In the six seasons from 1959 to '64, McGee caught 238 passes for 31 touchdowns. At 6'3" and 205 pounds he had long-striding speed and sure hands. "He was one of the most talented natural athletes we had," says Hornung.

"Max would make big plays," says Jerry Kramer, a famed pulling guard on Lombardi's power sweep. "He might drop a no-account pass, but he would catch the big ones. Vince loved him for that."

If McGee was a valued asset on the field, he was even more cherished off it. His quick wit endeared him to teammates and helped lighten the tension under Lombardi. There's an oft-told story in which a red-faced Lombardi screams at the team for its persistent breakdown in fundamentals and hoists a ball into the air. "We're going to start at the beginning," he says. "This is a football." At which point McGee says, "Whoa, Coach, could you slow down? You're going too fast."

Throughout his career, McGee was prone to concussions. Few teammates remember his active participation in the brutal one-on-one tackling drill known as the nutcracker. Years later he explained the reason to Kramer. "Early on I went to Lombardi," McGee said. "I told him, 'Coach, I know [nasty, old-school linebacker Ray] Nitschke can kick my ass. You know Nitschke can kick my ass. And I'm pretty sure Nitschke knows he can kick my ass. I've got a paper head, and I'd probably just get another concussion. What's the sense in me getting in that drill and getting my ass kicked?"

Kramer finishes the story: "So Coach says to Max, 'Well, if the guys don't call you out, I won't say anything.' Max just stayed in close proximity to the line, cool as a cucumber, and nobody ever called him out. He was a little older and a lot wiser than most of us."

That didn't temper his nights. McGee lived with Hornung for much of his time in Green Bay. Many of the Packers were married; McGee and Hornung were single. "Hell, Lombardi knew where we were every night," Hornung says, "but he knew we would play ball on Sunday."

Four hours away Marcia remarried. She raised their two daughters and another child as well. McGee was a fleeting presence in the girls' lives. Marcia brought them to see the Packers play the Vikings and for occasional games in Green Bay. "Max was an enigma to us, frankly," says Mona. "He was bigger than life—there, but not really engaged. I kind of thought he was funny and charming but not much beyond that."

Shortly after McGee retired, he brought the girls to his second home, in Miami. "He wanted to be a dad, but he had no idea how to be a father to two teenaged girls," says Mona. "He took us to the Playboy Club, which was interesting. Neither of us was mad about it. He gave what he could give." When Marla was 15, Max left her in his Cadillac, in the empty parking lot at Lambeau Field, and told her, "When you've learned how to drive, give me a call." He was proud of the girls and would brag on them all the time. "But he never told us," says Marla, now 61.

THE FIRST of the Super Bowls was almost an experiment: a matchup between the champions of the established NFL and the upstart AFL. It was played in bright afternoon sunshine, with thousands of empty seats in the cavernous Coliseum. Lombardi was obsessed with defending the honor of the older league. In When Pride Still Mattered, his seminal biography of Lombardi, David Maraniss wrote, "No relaxation for his men, no distractions. He raised the fines for curfew violations to record amounts. 'Vince made it very clear from our first day out there that we had to win that game and that he didn't want to make a squeaker out of it,' said Red Cochran, his offensive assistant. One loss and all was lost, [Lombardi] said."

With just 14 catches in his last two seasons, McGee was seemingly in the final days of his career. In 1965 the Packers acquired flanker Carroll Dale from the L.A. Rams and paired him with Dowler, a veteran split end. McGee was relegated to backing up Dowler and getting occasional reps at split end when Dowler moved to tight end.

McGee had chafed at a week of locked-down training camp in Santa Barbara, and when the team moved to L.A. on the eve of the big game, he made plans with the two flight attendants, assuming that Hornung, who was sidelined with an injured neck, would join him. McGee snuck out after assistant coach Hawg Hanner's 11 p.m. bed check. "He called and said, 'I've got two girls, and yours is gorgeous,'" says Hornung. "'Come out and have a couple of drinks with us.'" The fine was at least $5,000, and Hornung, who was getting married later that week, declined. The next time he heard from McGee was at 6:30 a.m.: "He called from the lobby and asked if they did a second check. I said, 'No, you lucky bastard, now get your ass up here.'"

Before every game Dowler, Dale and McGee would gather to go over the game plan and review tendencies one last time. "We're having our little meeting," says Dowler, now 78 and living in Richmond, "and Max says, 'Whatever you do, don't go down today.' I said, 'What do you mean?' Max says, 'I was out all night, and I had a few more drinks than I should have, and I didn't get much sleep. So just don't go down.'"

This was a potential problem. Dowler had played for the past season and a half with a bad right shoulder; a calcium deposit had developed on the joint. As McGee sat on the bench chatting with Hornung, Lombardi opened the game with three consecutive running plays. On the third one Dowler executed a crackback block on free safety Johnny Robinson. "My shoulder was not in good shape at all coming into the game," says Dowler. "When I hit Robinson, I heard the calcium deposit crack, and I knew immediately that I was finished."

Unable to find his helmet, McGee put on a lineman's with a full cage, then missed connecting with Starr on a curl route. On Green Bay's next possession Starr came out throwing: 11 yards to tight end Marv Fleming, 22 yards to running back Elijah Pitts, 12 yards to Dale. And then, on third-and-three from the Kansas City 37, McGee ran a skinny post against cornerback Willie Mitchell's outside position and broke wide open. Robinson had blitzed, leaving acres of green in the middle of the secondary. Starr's pass was far behind McGee, who reached back with his right hand, controlled the ball and then turned straight upfield, into the end zone and history. It was a remarkable catch, especially by a man with a hangover and no sleep running at full speed. McGee's second touchdown, on another inside move against Mitchell, gave the Packers a 28--10 lead in the third quarter. That one came on a better throw by Starr, but McGee juggled the ball as he crossed beneath the goalposts, then on the goal line. "The game of his life," says Hornung.

It's likely that McGee had planned to retire, but instead he came back for one more season. Again backing up Dowler and Dale, he caught a career-low three passes, but in the third quarter of Super Bowl II, against the Oakland Raiders, he grabbed a 35-yarder from Starr on third-and-one, leading to the touchdown that gave the Packers a 23--7 lead; they won 33--14. There is no evidence that McGee was anywhere but asleep before that game, his last in the NFL.

NOT LONG after retirement McGee and former Packers offensive lineman Fuzzy Thurston partnered with businessman Bill Martine to open a group of successful supper clubs in Wisconsin called The Left Guard (and one called The Left End, after McGee), and later opened a Left Guard location in Minneapolis. When those three amicably dissolved their partnership, McGee was left with the Twin Cities club, and moved there.

In 1975, McGee and another businessman-restaurateur, Marno McDermott, opened the first location of a franchise that would become Chi-Chi's (after the childhood nickname of McDermott's wife, Ruthann), one of the earliest Mexican-themed full-service restaurant chains in the U.S. McGee and McDermott put up $300,000 each to start the project just outside Minneapolis. It was a roaring success, and they executed a backdoor IPO that made both men wealthy.

McDermott says that from their initial investment of $600,000, the company reached a value of more than $1 billion. With some of those profits, McGee and McDermott opened a disco-era nightclub/steak house called Maximillian's, attached to the first Chi-Chi's. McGee was a regular presence at the club, a latter-day playboy in his element. To this day, Minnesotans who remember that era refer to him as the Twin Cities' Broadway Joe.

After McGee sold his share of Chi-Chi's in the mid-1980s (the chain eventually grew to more than 250 locations before it was gutted by an E. coli incident in 2003, long after McGee and McDermott had cashed out), he became an investor in several Native American casinos in Wisconsin. Kramer once visited with several former Packers. "I asked him how that deal was going with the casinos," says Kramer, "and he says, 'We're having trouble.' I said, 'What kind of trouble?' Max says, 'Trouble finding a big enough truck to haul the money.'"

McGee, a physical-education major at Tulane, did all this by his wits and instinct. "My father was not a traditional businessman," says Mona. "He never had a full-time job, he never worked more than a few hours a day. He was the face of those businesses. But he was very, very lucky in his decisions."

McDermott says, "Max was the consummate partner. He had great ideas. I had a business background, and I operated the business on a day-to-day basis. But Max did a lot of the thinking."

From 1979 to '98, McGee also worked as the analyst with play-by-play man Jim Irwin on Packers radio broadcasts. He brought a folksy charm to his work that generally endeared him to listeners. That same style also occasionally got him in trouble. During a '90 broadcast McGee said of Vikings running back Herschel Walker, "You know Walker looks like he has on so much pads when he carries the ball.... It looks like he's just stole a watermelon headin' south." McGee apologized for what was perceived as racist comment and said that as a kid in Texas he had often stolen watermelons and run away with them.

THROUGH THE early years of McGee's business success and broadcasting work, he remained single and somewhat estranged from his first family. That began to change in 1981, when at 48 he met 26-year-old divorcée Denise Dawson at Maximillian's. After dinner and dancing at a rival nightspot, they came back to Maximillian's after closing and waltzed on the empty disco floor. For a second date McGee took Denise to the Kentucky Derby in the Chi-Chi's private jet and sat in Hornung's box. They dated for a year and a half, lived together for a year and a half and then were married in the spring of '84. "The thing about Max," says Denise, "is that he seemed much younger than his age. He was energetic and he was fun. And he had the quickest wit of anybody I've even known."

The first child of McGee's second family was born in 1986, a boy they named Max and would call Maxie. He has Down syndrome. A second boy, Dallas (not for the football team but for a character in a Jackie Collins novel, Lovers and Gamblers), came along in the spring of '89. They became Max's life. "He loved those little boys," says Denise. "He cuddled with them when they were little, he watched sports on television with them, he sat in the Jacuzzi and splashed in the bubbles." Maxie endured 11 surgeries by age 11 but later became a student-manager for the powerhouse Minnetonka High football team and was so popular and respected that as a senior he was elected Homecoming King. "Dad Max had tears that night," says Denise.

Max and Maxie were particularly close. "Joined at the hip," Dallas says. "My dad was Maxie's life, and vice versa." Max was not handy around the house—"He couldn't fix a leaky faucet," says Mona—but the one job he enjoyed was blowing the autumn leaves, because Maxie loved to watch him working the blower and sending leaves flying into the air. Max would do the yard work in his Tommy Bahama shirt, silk shorts and Italian-leather loafers, sockless. The neighbors found this hilarious, but Maxie loved it.

Dallas was a football player as a young boy but switched later to snowboarding, and Max would drive him to the mountain and watch. "Once he told me he never drank a drop of alcohol in his life," says Dallas. "I can laugh about that now. If he had lived a little longer, maybe he would have told me those other stories." In truth Max seldom told football stories without prodding. "Not once did I ever hear Max start a conversation about that Super Bowl," says McDermott. Once, after a few fans came to Max and Denise's table during dinner out and asked about the legend of Los Angeles, Max told his wife, 'I've told that story so many times, I'm starting to wonder how much of it is true.'"

Early in life Dallas was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, the McGee family disease that Max had so hoped his children would dodge. Max reacted by gifting $1 million to start the Max McGee National Research Center for Juvenile Diabetes in 1999 at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, and later raised millions more through an annual golf tournament and other fund-raisers. Frequently Max would speak at events for the center and would tell the audience, "I always thought the first Super Bowl was the most significant event in my life, but it wasn't. The most significant moment in my life was when my son was diagnosed with diabetes." He could never get the word out—diabetes—without choking up.

Mona worked with her father for the diabetes center. "We never had a traditional father-daughter relationship," says Mona, "but it became very special." (Marcia died in 2014.) "He was all about family," says Dallas. "I don't think he was there for his daughters, the first time, the way he was there for us. I think he learned from that."

In 1994, through the settlement of a defaulted loan, McGee and Denise became owners of the popular Original Pancake House location in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. Every morning he would go there and meet several friends for breakfast, and together they would work on the crossword puzzle. Later he would play gin rummy at his country club—he was ruthless at that, too—before returning home in the afternoon. That was his ritual.

In the late '90s family members began noticing that McGee was becoming forgetful. They took to tracking his movements every day, and in 2002 he was diagnosed with an early form of Alzheimer's. (The family suspects a link to concussions from his playing days.) For the next five years that daily routine sustained him.

On the morning of Oct. 20, 2007, he took Maxie to the pancake house for breakfast and then brought him back home and dug out the leaf blower. After the yard was finished, Max climbed onto the roof over the garage. It wasn't very high, but it had rained the night before and the cedar shingles were still wet and Max was wearing those Italian loafers. Denise arrived home to find Max lying in the driveway, unconscious and bleeding from his head, Maxie standing over him. The doctors assured her that Max had died instantly from blunt trauma to his skull, but still, a month later Maxie said, "I should have saved him."

Maxie lives with another young adult with Down's in a house with two caregivers. Dallas is one of three owners of a commercial production company in Chicago. Denise acquired two more Original Pancake Houses and then, last year, sold all three. Mona is a health-care executive in Minneapolis, and Marla has lived for 31 years in Arizona; both have families of their own. They are all doing well.

Long before his death McGee had set aside $50,000 for the services to follow his passing. "Max hated going to funerals," says Denise. "He told me to throw a party." So there was a "celebration of life" at a nondenominational church in Eden Prairie, Minn., followed by a catered party for guests. Everybody talked about that night out, a couple of the damnedest catches you'll ever see, and then, so much more.

"I SORT OF REMEMBER THAT DAY," SAYS MCGEE, AND EVERYONE LAUGHS. IT IS THE LINE THEY CAME TO HEAR.

TO THIS DAY, MINNESOTANS REFER TO HIM AS THE TWIN CITIES' BROADWAY JOE

SI.COM

UNTOLD SUPER BOWL STORIES

FIVE DECADES of Super Bowls, five million narratives (rough count there). In the run-up to the Big Half-Century Game, SI went back and sifted through the obvious stories—Broadway Joe, Garo Yepremian, the Harbowl—to find the tales that had slipped through the cracks: postscripts that were never written (Where art thou, Jackie Smith?) or telling moments that never came close to the front page. Before Super Bowl 50, visit SI.com/SuperBowlStories for the tale of the boy wizard who bailed out the 1984 Raiders, the '85 game that tore a power family apart and the hobo king who ... well, you should probably just give it a read.

PHOTOPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr. For Sports Illustrated FREEZE FRAME McGee spent decades signing copies of the photo from his SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover for Packers fans, but he never brought up the game himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOROD HANNA/USA TODAY SPORTS PACK MEN McGee (with Hornung, top) saw limited action in 1966, but his knack for big plays (left, in Super Bowl I) endeared him to Lombardi. PHOTO [See caption above] TWO PHOTOSWALTER IOOSS JR. FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED [See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY OF DENISE MCGEE SECOND ACT While famous for his TD catches, McGee focused on business and his family: second wife Denise and sons Max (bottom) and Dallas. PHOTOJAMES DRAKE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED [See caption above] PHOTOTONY TRIOLO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)