The Great Max McGee and Football Bars of Cave Creek

From ImagesAZ magazine, October 2013 edition:

Many of us from places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Illinois pretty much came here as a mad scramble away from the weather. Once that fall snap comes, it’s a misery of snow and slush and that icy wind that slaps you in the face, sacks you and drives you into the cold, hard ground. Oh, and let’s not forget the “audible at the line”: When you look out the window at 7 a.m. and realize you have to shovel a foot of white off the driveway. Once the weather blitz begins, it’s one personal foul after another, for months.

No, there’s not much good about winter.

Except football.max mcgee super bowl

Those who left their beloved teams behind to come to the sun can engage in a sort of group therapy on Sundays, thanks to the Cave Creek bars that serve as home-away-from-home for fans looking for that stadium experience . . . minus the wind-chill.

While the biggest of the Phoenix sports bars cater to the fantasy football crowds, with dozens of TV screens and show EVERY game, here in Cave Creek four big saloons lock-down on one particular team. The four bars – three a screen pass from each other, the fourth a punt down the hill — support four of the NFL’s oldest, most-treasured teams. So it is that Bears, Packers, Steelers and Vikings fans come from miles around to Cave Creek, where bars turn into mini-stadiums, crowds roar or groan with nearly every play, and bartenders offer that proven (if not FDA-approved) medicine for homesickness: beer.

Buffalo Chip Saloon/Green Bay Packers

Two words tell the story of football and Cave Creek: Max McGee.

Any student of NFL history knows the name. In 1966, McGee was in his 12th year with the Green Bay Packers, and Vince Lombardi hardly played his aging receiver. Figuring he’d be watching the game from the bench, Max went out the night before the first Super Bowl and partied around Los Angeles until dawn. As fate would have it, the starting wide receiver went down with an injury early in the game, and Lombardi pointed to the hungover McGee.

Max promptly made a lunging, one-handed catch for a touchdown, and finished the game as Bart Starr’s favorite target, with seven receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Pack to the championship.

Two decades later, after retiring from football and becoming a part-time Cave Creek resident, McGee bought the Buffalo Chip Saloon. Current owner Larry Wendt says McGee, who died in 2007, loved to tell stories of his football career, and the place naturally became a game-day hangout for Wisconsin expatriates and other Packers fans.

Buffalo Chip on Sundays in the fall and winter is a little slice of home for the likes of Stephanie, who grew up in Wisconsin, and has fond memories of watching football with her family, eating cheese and crackers and sausage and cheering on the home team. “As soon as I moved here two and a half years ago I scouted out Packers bars,” the north Scottsdale resident said. Her boyfriend, Doug Shriener, is from Minnesota, and knows better than to flash the enemy colors at the Buffalo Chip. “If I wore a Vikings jersey here, I’d get beat up,” he joked.

The regular season started with a quick 7-0 deficit to the San Francisco 49ers. No problem, a master of ceremonies promised the packed Buffalo Chip. “We’re Cheeseheads, we’re going to come back,” he announced.  The Cheeseheads, as Packers fans are called, were in full force in Cave Creek, with hundreds in Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers jerseys, bursting into applause at Rodgers completions and Matthews tackles and erupting with cheers, high fives and even a cowbell-led conga line after a touchdown.

Note: Even though Arizona was starting its season at the same time as the Packers-49ers game, none of the dozen TV screens at the Buffalo Chip were tuned to the Cardinals game. Here at the Chip, the Packers are the home team.

Buffalo Chip Saloon, 6811 E Cave Creek Rd.; (480) 488-9118; http://www.buffalochipsaloon.com.

Harold’s Corral/Pittsburgh Steelers

The huge sign advertises “Heinz Field West,” and inside on game days, this is a sea of black-and-gold, with fans wearing Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys, T-shirts and hats. Upwards of a thousand Pittsburgh fans pack the spacious bar and restaurant on game days, when a master of ceremonies cranks up Steelers fight songs with polka beats. The bartenders serve up the likes of “The Irish Ambassador,” dedicated to Steelers owner Dan Rooney. It’s a healthy shot of Jamieson’s Irish whiskey . . . flavored with pickle juice. (Heinz pickles, surely.)

Harold’s has been a Cave Creek saloon since way back in 1935. A half-century later, Pittsburgh restaurateur Danny Piacquidio bought the restaurant and bar. His son, also named Danny, was going to Arizona State University, where he and a handful of Pittsburgh buddies were frustrated in finding a place to watch Steeler games. So the elder Danny started putting the games on the TV in Harold’s bar. Danny Jr. and his friends watched the game in the bar, cheering on the Steelers and pumping Steelers fight songs through the sound system. Word quickly spread. “It went from 10 people watching the game, to 120, to 400,” said Danny, wearing a No. 43 Troy Polamalu jersey.

Whenever the Steelers win, Danny celebrates with a face-first slide across a stage lathered with shaving cream. In February of 2011, Danny Piacquidio was revved up like never before to make that victory slide; it was Super Bowl XLV, and not only were the Steelers in it – they were taking on the Green Bay Packers. The owners of Harold’s and Buffalo Chip co-hosted a giant pre-game party in the parking lot they shared, with fans hitting their respective “home bars” for the game.

Alas for Piacquidio and the Pittsburghers, a Steelers comeback fell short, giving the Cave Creek football bragging rights to Max McGee’s old place. As for Harold’s, well, there were those pickle juice drinks for drowning sorrows after Steelers losses, whether it was the Super Bowl or the opening game of this season, which as usual filled Cave Creek’s oldest bar with Pittsburghers in black and gold. With hundreds chanting and booing, it was almost like the Steelers own Heinz Field . . . minus the cold.

“Last game I went to at that stadium,” one woman was saying, “it was 20 below — I froze my (blank) off!”

Harold’s Corral, 6895 E Cave Creek Rd.; (480) 488-1906; www.haroldscorral.com.

Cave Creek Tap Haus/Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears are football’s oldest franchise, with some of the greatest names of the game: Bronko Nagurski, George Halas, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Walter “Sweetness” Payton . . . So when the Tap Haus opened two years ago, and decided to adopt a team, it was a no-brainer. “You’ve got the Steelers over there,” bartender Jim Hamilton said, pointing across the street, “and the Packers over there, and the Vikings down the street. So we said, ‘Let’s make it a Bears bar!’”

Which leads a patron to almost involuntarily comment: “Da Bears!”

Snowbirds from the Midwest and those who permanently fled Illinois’ bitter winter for these parts almost instantly gravitated to the Tap Haus to watch Bears games. It doesn’t hurt that, as manager Antonio Peirce points out, on game days the Cave Creek brewhouse grills up “real Chicago hot dogs.”  (“That’s a Vienna beef hot dog, Vienna relish – you’ve got to have the right kind of relish. A poppy-seed hot dog bun, a pickle spear, peppers . . .”)

A reserved bar stool for all the Bears games at the Tap Haus costs $75 per season, with a table for 11-to-20 running $320. And, for the opening game of the season, the bar and a big dining room were jammed with fans in Bears jerseys and T-shirts; during a tight, back-and-forth game, the Chicago faithful were staying hydrated on drink specials like The Brandon Marshall (Malibu rum and pineapple) and The Sweetness (Jim Beam and Mr. Pibb). The Tap Haus was rocking, and a come-from-behind win led by receiver Marshall was sweet indeed for fans of Da Bears.

Tap Haus Cave Creek, 6900 E Cave Creek Rd.; (480) 488-3300; http://www.cavecreektaphaus.com.

Pour House/Minnesota Vikings

“Official Minnesota Headquarters,” says a big sign at the Pour House. And, for the opening game of the season against the Detroit Lions, many of the few dozen who came to watch the battle were sporting Vikings purple. You didn’t see Kristen Huebsch in Vikings attire, and you never will, she says. “I’m a Buccaneers supporter,” she says with a big smile. “My husband is from Minnesota.” She points to a nearby stool, where Pour House owner Kyle Huebsch is drinking a beer, the sour look on his face due to the Vikings hope for an opening-game win quickly fading.

After buying the former Satisfied Frog three years ago, owner Huebsch decided to honor his hometown team. “I was born and raised in a little town in Minnesota called Lake Lillian,” he says. A few Vikings fans showed up for games the first year, with steadily growing crowds of those who fled the bone-cracking winters of Minnesota, but want to continue the football-watching ritual with their homelanders.

“All these people,” Kyle Huebsch said, waving his arm to indicate the patrons, “they’re all Vikings fans, all good people. It’s awesome.” Even if it wasn’t an awesome game. Coincidence or not, as Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder tossed another interception, an infant at the Pour House began wailing.

Say, kid – you really want something to cry about? Try a winter in Minnesota!

Smokehouse & Pour House, 6245 E Cave Creek Rd.; (480) 488-3317; http://www.cavecreeksmokehouse.com.

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