PHILADELPHIA — It's fitting Pennsylvania was one of the first states to legalize sports gambling, because the story of Big Charlie's Saloon — aka "Arrowhead East" — starts with a bet.
Charlie Staico, "Big Charlie" himself, placed a wager on the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV. All Paul, his toddler son, knew at the time was that a "red team" victory meant a new toy bike. Paul Staico doesn't remember that the Chiefs beat the Vikings 23-7, but that event transformed him into a diehard. Fifty years later, he's converted nearly an entire neighborhood to adopt that same team, and since 1986, Big Charlie's has been a haven for Chiefs supporters.
Sunday was the most important day in the bar's history, but that distinction will be short-lived. Two Sundays from now, and Big Charlie's will be a sight to behold once more, just like it was for the 35-24 win over the Titans in the AFC Championship Game. If a Chiefs fan couldn't make it to Arrowhead, Big Charlie's was the place to be.
Big Charlie's opened in 1973. It began its transformation to the part of Chiefs kingdom it is today in the 1980s. (Photo: Courtesy of Marina Mazzone)
One could pass Big Charlie's 100 times without ever going in. The term "dive bar" appropriately fits the establishment, except when the Chiefs are on.
The surrounding blocks of rowhouses here by 11th and McKean have adopted a team that plays more than 1,100 miles away.
Go Chiefs, someone yells from a passing car. A man yells the same out a window down the block.
Cheeseburgers and hot dogs sizzle on a charcoal grill right on the corner, next to a tailgating tent with a TV under it. By game time, it's a necessary accommodation for overflow. The burgers and dogs cost $0, same as the 10 pies of pizza that arrive during the game. It's all on Staico, because family eats for free, and everyone is family during Chiefs games.
"We’re surrounded by people that we love and love us. This is home," Staico said. "I think what made it work was this is where we grew up. This wasn’t, we moved here and put a claim here. Our roots are right here."
Bartender Michael Puggi earned a reputation as a bad luck charm, so the regulars began calling him "mush." That hasn't stopped him from painting his face yellow and blasting an air horn inside the bar about 90 minutes before kickoff.
Step outside and images of Rocky Balboa running in his grey sweats come to mind. So it only makes sense "Gonna Fly Now" blares over the speakers just as the game begins.
Big Charlie’s is not big. Capacity laws are pushed and then some, with approximately 200 people packed into the joint. Abandon your spot to use the port-o-potty outside, the only functioning restroom for the front bar patrons, and it's going to take a while to get back inside.
Staico and his crew, meanwhile, have their reserved spaces with their families in the back room which has been dubbed the "war room." The décor of the bar is half shrine and part family photo album, and there's hardly an inch of free space on the walls. In the "war room," Staico, his best friend Anthony Mazzone and Mazzone's son Anthony Jr., have mini-lockers where they will quite literally get ready for the game like the players.
Between the two rooms and an outdoor arrangement, about 200 people were at Big Charlie's for the AFC Championship Game. (Photo: Courtesy of Marina Mazzone)
"I don’t do anything but root for the Chiefs," said Anthony Jr., 31, who refers to Staico as "Uncle Paulie." "I don’t root against anyone. I don’t root for anyone else in any sport. I’m just Chiefs."
"The Chiefs, it’s just in my blood. It’s all I care about."
The quietest this bar has ever been, Staico and Anthony Jr. said, had to be last week when the Texans took a 24-0 lead in the first quarter. That became a quick afterthought, and the bar became frenzied during the comeback that brought the Chiefs to the AFC title game.
“The only way you can get that high,” Staico said, “is being so down.”
The parallels between the previous week’s first quarter and this one made for an uneasy mood early, as the Titans raced to a 10-0 lead and then 17-7.
When the Chiefs score, the place obviously explodes. Someone yells "I gotta go bang the drum!"
"The drum" is an ATM by the door.
An Emmy Award sits behind the bar. NFL Films produced a piece on the place in November 2003, and former Eagles and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil surprised the Big Charlie's crew. If a bartender reached a foot to the left, he or she would pick up a bottle of Jose Cuervo Especial instead.
The trophy blends in, like everything else on the shelves or hanging on the walls. The painting of the mother of Joe Pesci’s character makes in Goodfellas is right next to the door, and not far from there is a picture of Don Vito, Sonny, Michael and Fredo Corleone from The Godfather.
In 2003, Anthony Jr. road tripped to Kansas City with Staico, who has been to actual Arrowhead 20 times, in a Winnebago for Week 1. He was overcome by the hospitality.
"They made us feel like I hope the same way we make people feel when they come here," Anthony Jr. said. "It’s not like a patron coming to a bar, it’s a family member coming to your home.
"Arrowhead is a place second to none. That being said, I still wouldn’t rather be anywhere but here to watch a game. You could have given me tickets to the game today. Money to go. I got to be here. It’s where it started for me. And it’s where they got to finish it."
Only 24, Patrick Mahomes has captured the hearts of Chiefs fans everywhere, especially at Big Charlie's. (Photo: Courtesy of Marina Mazzone)
In charge of finishing it is Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, whose tightrope dash up the sideline and effort to reach the end zone sent Big Charlie's into full-on delirium.
"We think we got an all-time great, already. Dan Marino and (John) Elway combined," Staico said.
"And he has the Jordan ‘it’ the Lebron ‘it’ gene the Derek Jeter ‘it’ gene," Anthony Jr. quickly added.
Reaction to the Mahomes TD run @bigcharlies here in Philly. pic.twitter.com/PsrNfoylgw
Someone realized the outside TV was playing the Spanish broadcast, so after some shouting from the back corner, a remote was passed among the sea of people. A vast majority of Big Charlie’s business was conducted in that manner Sunday — cash passed forward, bottles and change making the journey back.
Other than Chiefs scores, the biggest cheers erupt when Titans running back Derrick Henry goes for a loss or short gain. To have all of these people, from New York to Kansas City, all pulling for the Chiefs is not something Mazzone could have imagined four decades ago.
In 1980, Big Charlie — who opened the bar in 1973 — offered Mazzone a bartending gig. Three years later, the year Big Charlie passed away, Staico put a satellite dish on his mother’s house and invited Mazzone over.
"It just snowballed from there," Mazzone said.
The significant amount of memorabilia that lines the walls in "the war room." (Photo: Courtesy of Marina Mazzone)
Three years after that, Staico put a satellite dish on the bar and thus began the transformation into a Chiefs sanctum.
"One time at the bar, we had someone standing on the roof holding the satellite so we could watch the game," Mazzone said. "It honestly got that crazy."
Finding the game was sometimes induced the biggest cheer of the afternoon.
"It's been a great ride," Mazzone, who has a picture with Staico and Joe Montana hanging in the back room, and pictures of his kids in Chiefs gear throughout the bar. He has his own theory about why Big Charlie's has found success in the city of brotherly love.
"It’s a south Philly thing. This is the way we were brought up. This is the way we were raised, to have that open arms demeanor and attitude," Mazzone said. "People in the Midwest, Kansas City particularly, they seem to have that whole demeanor anyway. It winds up gelling pretty good."
A scoreless third quarter from both teams has tightened the mood inside the front bar. But the Chiefs are knocking on the door of another score, in addition to the Super Bowl.
When Rich Gannon and the Chiefs were playing the Eagles, his parents were not at the game. They were at Big Charlie's and became regulars during their sons playing days. Earlier Sunday, the former quarterback who hails from Philadelphia tweeted at Big Charlie's "Bring it Home!"
Miss you guys! Bring it home!
Staico could tell stories for hours about the Chiefs luminaries who have given business to Big Charlie's. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo came by in August, and Eric Mackinson — one of Staico's longtime pals who adopted the Chiefs about seven years ago and has been all-in since — took a picture with him.
"I said, ‘We’re going to get a couple Super Bowls when we get that D together,’ and he said, ‘Man, you’re putting a lot of pressure on me,'" Mackinson said.
Spagnuolo and the Chiefs are 15 minutes away from delivering. Damien Williams' touchdown early in the quarter brings an anticipation of this is actually going to happen and the rest of the game is more of a coronation than a sweat.
As the clock ticks down, an “Andy Reid” chant breaks out. House of Pain’s “Jump Around” starts playing. The Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl, and beer is starting to fly inside Big Charlie's.
Michael Puggi lifts a lucky fire extinguisher amid celebrating the Chiefs' win. (Photo: Courtesy of Marina Mazzone)
Grown men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek at Big Charlie's. So the celebrating scene has a lot of embracing and holding onto one another and even some tears.
Nearly everyone sticks around to watch Jim Nantz hand Reid the Lamar Hunt Trophy. General manager Brett Veach is in the frame. Below the TV is a picture of him and his parents wearing Big Charlie's gear in the Chiefs locker room.
"I want to cry," Staico, the star of the evening, said.
"Paulie deserves this more than anyone," Johnny Alessi, who manned the grill all day in shorts, said. "He's been with them through thick and thin. I’m so happy for him."
Puggi, in elation, is telling everyone about his new nickname: Lucky.
In less than two week's time, hundreds will swarm Big Charlie's again for the chance to watch the Chiefs end a 50-year championship drought. Staico said they're going to have to somehow expand the outdoor setup to make sure everyone who wants to be a part of the Chiefs journey can be.
"It's going to be unbelievable," Anthony Jr. said.
Anguish and demons have been expelled. There's one game left. Arrowhead East is ready.
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