To tell you the truth, I don’t remember Super Bowl I; I had yet to reach my seventh birthday and was truly in the early stages of football familiarity. It was the day when an aging, hung-over William “Max” McGee, unexpectedly playing in place of the injured Boyd Dowler, snared seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns–helping lead his Packers team to a 35-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. So when the news came down recently that McGee had passed away at the age of 75 (after falling off his home’s rooftop in Minnesota while cleaning leaves), why did I feel as if I had lost a friend? I can only surmise that it was because the guy was so likeable; even though I had never met old #85, the little that I DID know about him over the years had always left me with the feeling that this was a man I would have truly enjoyed knowing on a personal basis.
I don’t know–maybe it’s because the guy was such such a terrific athlete. The Packers fifth round pick of the 1954 draft, he had been the nation’s top kick returner in 1953 while at Tulane. He could kick, he could run, he could catch; former Packers teammate/fellow hell-raiser Paul Hornung always admired McGee’s athleticism–once remarking that Max “could do anything with his hands.” I’ll add FEET, too; in addition to catching 345 passes for Green Bay over a dozen-year span, he averaged 41.6 yards a punt (256 attempts) over his career. Ah, yes, I’ve always LOVED those kinda guys like McGee and Hornung–multi-dimensional players who could truly do it all.
Perhaps part of my admiration involves Max McGee’s well-known reputation as a “regular guy”–an incredibly comical one at times who also never really embraced the term “team curfew.” It was McGee who would keep his fellow Packers teammates loose during the tough reign of no-nonsense, Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi while in Green Bay (a well-publicized example is when Lombardi, stressing fundamentals one day, said to his team, “Gentleman, this is a football”–to which McGee humorously replied, “Not so fast, not so fast”). And his partying reputation was legendary; he barely made the team breakfast the day of the aforementioned Super Bowl–leaving the team hotel AFTER the 11 P.M. bed-check by coaches the night before and getting only an HOUR or so of sleep before performing his gridiron magic that Sunday. “Truly personable” is how many described Mr. Max McGee; after his death, writers like former Milwaukee Sentinel scribe Bud Lea stressed how uncomplicated and approachable Max was–a refreshing thought considering these current days of often-spoiled, unappreciative athletes. Yeah, the man simply loved people and energized others–and his zest for excitement was obviously never limited solely to the gridiron.
Maybe I’m impressed by the way McGee played his rookie year with the Packers and then selflessly served his country for the next two years as a pilot in the Air Force. Yep–I’ve always been in total awe of guys like McGee, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, and others–men who were truly clued into the fact that certain things were just a little more important than throwing/kicking a ball around on occasion.
Finally, perhaps I am taken in by the fact that Max McGee refused to spend his retirement simply cashing in on being a member of five championship squads. He teamed with Jim Irvin and developed into a very insightful broadcaster for the Packer Radio Network–adding a touch of humor and candidness like only Max McGee could. He also became the very successful co-founder of the Mexican restaurant chain Chi-Chi’s–rendering him a very wealthy individual. More important, he founded the Max McGee National Research Center for Juvenile Diabetes in Wisconsin–inspired by both his own brother and youngest son’s battles with the disease. Yeah, like I said, folks–the man did it all.
Max McGee once said, “When it’s third-and-ten, you can take the milk drinkers and I’ll take the whiskey drinkers every time.” Ah, truly spoken like a man who undoubtedly lived life to its fullest. In researching for this column, I came across NO ONE who had a single, bad word to say about one Max McGee; yes, a beloved figure, indeed. A free-spirit, too–which perhaps contributed to his unfortunate death. Then again, it probably wouldn’t have seemed appropriate for a revelrous individual like Max McGee to die in his sleep, right?
Aforementioned Hall of Famer Paul Horning, upon hearing of McGee’s passing, simply said, “I just lost my best friend.” Many of us feel the same way, Paul–even if we DIDN’T personally know a legend named Max McGee.