PHILADELPHIA – Deep in a thicket of South Philly row houses where 11th meets McKean, and the butchers, barbers and grocery men still keep their grandfather's shops, there stands a most unusual corner football bar called Big Charlie's Saloon.
From the outside there is little to separate Big Charlie's from the dozens of other corner football bars in South Philly. It has the same brown brick facade and oversized square sign above the awning. But look close and notice the absence of the requisite Philadelphia Eagles, whose gleaming stadium is but a mile away. Big Charlie's doesn't run gameday bus and keg trips to Eagles games. You won't find wings on the walls or the local football team on Big Charlie's flat screen TVs.
From left, Domenick Berardi Jr., Paul Staico and Michael Puggi are die-hard Chiefs fans in the unlikeliest spot. …
Because if you walk into Big Charlie's on a football Sunday and meet the cold, probing glares that greet strangers, you better say you are there to see the Kansas City Chiefs or you'll probably want to leave.
None of the traditional reasons explain why a Kansas City Chiefs bar exists in the grumble of South Philly. Paul Staico, the bar's owner, is not from Missouri. He grew up a few blocks away on Hutchinson Street which runs between 9th and 10th. The bar originally belonged to his father, Big Charlie, who had no real affinity for anything Kansas City or anything Chiefs. Nor is Staico one of these people who grew up hating the Eagles and wanted to cheer for another team.
Rather, this is about a bike. A Huffy bike. The kind a 4-year-old Paul dearly wanted in the winter of 1970 when Big Charlie threw down a hefty bet on that year's Super Bowl. Big Charlie promised Paul he would buy him the bike if his big bet came through. Then when it did and the Huffy bike was his, Paul made a promise too. He would love the Kansas City Chiefs.
"After that, all my presents from my mother and my sister and my friends, they all gave me Chiefs stuff," Staico says.
His friend Domenick Berardi Jr. laughs.
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"The funny part is how he actually acts surprised when he gets Chiefs stuff," he says. " 'Oh wow my 400th Chiefs mug.' "
The men laugh. They are sitting in the back bar at Big Charlie's, which is more a shrine to their team than a serviceable drinking place. The walls are filled with Chiefs photos, a Chiefs logo is painted on the floor, a row of Chiefs helmets dangle from hooks. In South Philly, where folks debate daily the fate of their "Iggles," it is a most improbable sight.
Staico looks exactly how you would think a Paul Staico from South Philly would look, wearing a sleeveless Chiefs T-shirt with giant tattooed arms and a booming voice. Berardi, smaller and quieter, wears a Chiefs golf shirt and Chiefs cap. They are "family" as Staico likes to say. For instance, Berardi is his brother and Michael Puggi, who is sitting against the wall wearing a red cap, is his cousin even though none of the men are related.
Paul Staico shows of his ink and loyalty. (Y Sports)
"Our home away from home," Puggi says.
This is an important week for Big Charlie's. People have been calling the only Kansas City Chiefs bar in South Philly because the Chiefs are coming to play the Eagles on Thursday night. And that means Andy Reid, who took the Eagles to five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl in his 14 years as coach of the Eagles, is coming back as the head of the Chiefs.
At Big Charlie's this qualifies as a really big game, which means Staico will have a cookout outside and as many as 70 Chiefs fans will pile into the bar to watch the game. They're going to block off the street and the NFL Network will broadcast some of its pregame show from the sidewalk out front.
The men at Big Charlie's seem delighted that Reid is their coach. While they didn't watch Eagles games much during his time in Philadelphia, they know enough about his success with the Eagles. It would be impossible to live in South Philly and not understand this. They talk vaguely about the Chiefs moving "in the right direction." Still, even with this optimism, they say little about Reid and his return.
The most any of them say comes from Puggi who thinks Reid was: "A really good coach [for the Eagles] but the last couple of years he looked burned out."
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Big Charlie's has gained fame over the years as the Chiefs place in the most rabid of Eagles neighborhoods. The Chiefs have a wide and passionate following in the Midwest and the story of Big Charlie's has made its way to Kansas City, where Staico, Berardi and Puggi are treated like mini celebrities when they make their yearly pilgrimage to Arrowhead Stadium to watch their beloved team up close.
Several years ago, when Dick Vermeil went to Kansas City to coach the Chiefs, Joe Saunders, the son of Vermeil's offensive coordinator, Al Saunders, landed a job at NFL Films. Looking for a place to watch his father's team play, Saunders drifted into Big Charlie's. In a return visit, he brought a crew from NFL Films. Big Charlie's had to be shared. He even arranged for Vermeil to magically appear to the delight of the people gathered in the bar. The resulting video won an Emmy, a copy of which Staico proudly displays as a memory of the day his bar went Hollywood.
Derrick Thomas, the great Chiefs linebacker who is one of Staico's favorite players, once sat in Big Charlie's back bar. When Rich Gannon, who was raised in Philadelphia, was the Chiefs quarterback, his family watched the games from Big Charlie's. Gannon's father, Jim, enjoyed Big Charlie's so much he was criticized on local radio for not attending a Chiefs-Eagles game his son played in 1998 to watch it at Big Charlie's instead.
But no one from the Chiefs may have made a bigger impact at Big Charlie's than the recently fired general manager Scott Pioli, who visited in 2009 when the Chiefs came to play the Eagles. Pioli walked into the bar, flanked by two beefy team security men, and was immediately touched. He later told Staico that he called his mother after the visit to say he had been to a place that reminded him of his old neighborhood.
When Staico's mother, Millie, died last fall – Staico remembers the date (Oct. 28), a day the Chiefs played the Raiders – Pioli heard of her death and sent flowers.
"He's a gentleman," Berardi says of Pioli. "Classy. Very respectful man."
Which appears to be a big reason why the men at Big Charlie's don't celebrate Reid publicly. They want to be respectful to the general manager who had been good to them.
It's hard to understand how a group of men from the same Italian neighborhood in South Philly became fans of a football team halfway across the country. The best way Staico puts it: "All our friends converted." He goes on to say that a few of the people he knew growing up, whether it was at the playground or school, were not Eagles fans. They were looking for a new team. Thanks to his Huffy bike, Staico had a team. One by one, he dragged them over to the Chiefs.
Staico is clearly the leader. He booms through the bar in camouflage pants and that sleeveless Chiefs shirt. He shouts when he talks. And though his voice is a rumble, he can be soulful. He asks people about their lives and he seems interested in their answers. It's easy to see how if he picked the Kansas City Chiefs to be his team the others would follow. And if he wanted his bar to be a Chiefs bar, who was going to question him?
In the beginning, Big Charlie's wasn't a Chiefs bar. In fact, Staico kept his Chiefs passion confined to his parents' house, where he watched games that he pulled down on a rooftop satellite dish. It wasn't until Big Charlie died of a heart attack in 1983 that Staico began converting the place into a Chiefs haven. At first it was tough. In a pre-Sunday Ticket world he had to get a dish installed on Big Charlie's roof. Then he had to hope he could find a feed from some station in Denver or Des Moines that had been left unscrambled by the networks.
"It would take hours and hours," Staico says. "We were sweating it out."
Even after they found a game on the satellite they couldn't always keep it on, especially on windy days. For one particularly big Chiefs game against the Raiders in 1989, Marty Schottenheimer's first year as coach, they promised a neighborhood kid named Vinnie a bottle of Jack Daniels if he stood on the roof in a rainstorm and held the dish in place. The Jack Daniels proved irresistible and the game was on. Though every once in awhile Vinnie's grip slipped and someone had to go outside and shout: "A little to the left" or "A little to the right."
There are also strict rules, one of the biggest being that Big Charlie's does not play music during a Chiefs game. Doing so is a sin. But nonetheless, as the Chiefs built a big lead in a game, Puggi couldn't help himself. He wanted to dance so he turned on the jukebox. Almost immediately the Chiefs collapsed, eventually losing the game they were certain to win. Staico and the rest of the Big Charlie's crowd knew exactly who to blame.
The next week they banished Puggi from the bar. It was raining, much like the day Vinnie stood on the roof holding the satellite dish, but a banishment was a banishment. They put a chair outside and handed Puggi a pair of binoculars. Every few minutes someone opened the door and allowed Puggi a glimpse of the TV.
Nobody thought it a heartless punishment. Not for costing the Chiefs a game.
"I gave him an umbrella at halftime," Berardi says.
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The men claim to have photos of Puggi in the chair, yet when asked to produce them they get vague. They can't find them, they say, leaving one to wonder if it really happened or is part of a bar's legend that has become a spectacle in itself.
One thing Staico is serious about is violence. He won't tolerate it. Thanks to a certain contingent of fans at Eagles games, Philadelphia has a roguish reputation. Staico hates this. His bar might be in South Philly and South Philly can have its rough edges, but a great source of pride for Staico is that Big Charlie's has never had a fight in its four decades of existence. He wants to keep it that way.
Part of the reason for this is that it's a neighborhood place where people of all ages come. Among the regulars are people in their 70s who have been venturing to the bar back when it was under Big Charlie's rule and didn't have a single picture of a Kansas City Chief. At the hint of a dispute, the combatants are led outside and told to go elsewhere.
"If you act a certain way you're in the minority," Staico says. "You can't act like that in here. There are women in here. Elderly. Look, it's no romper room, believe me. But you will be asked to leave."
The NFL Network is scheduled to make a stop at Big Charlie's on Thursday, when the Eagles host the Chiefs.
And nobody wants to leave. If you are going to go to the trouble to live in South Philly and love the Kansas City Chiefs you are not going to get tossed from the only place that will take you in.
Where else are you going to find a place like Big Charlie's? Where else will you have a glass cabinet filled with Chiefs photos, mugs and bobbleheads? Where else will you find a giant photograph of Arrowhead Stadium on the wall and team logos on the bar stools? Where else does a piece of the Midwest wind up in the land of the Eagles?
Staico smiles and looks around his kingdom of Chiefs red and gold.
"You know it was never meant to be anything more than it was," he says with a hint of wonder in his voice. "Now it's taken off."
All of this for a bet and a Huffy bike.