Fame is fickle.
For most professional athletes, their fame peaked in college.
They make it to the pros, but barely play and are released before they know it.
Others are famous for their God-given skill set.
They are professionals for a reason and they prove it week in and week out.
Then, there are the athletes who become famous for a specific reason.
One moment they are in the background, putting in the grind and doing their best to contribute.
The next moment, a game or a play happens that thrusts the athlete into the spotlight.
Suddenly, they are forever synonymous for that moment, never to be forgotten.
Max McGee was one of those athletes.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) February 27, 2014
He put in the work each year for Green Bay and had fairly good success.
Then, just when it looked like he was washed up, McGee had an unforgettable day on the NFL’s biggest stage.
He has been famous for that moment ever since.
This is the story of Max McGee.
Early Life in Texas
William Max McGee was born on July 16, 1932 in Overton, Texas.
Max was the youngest of six children which included five boys and one girl.
All the McGee boys were athletes and played football at White Oak High School while growing up in White Oak, Texas.
Max’s older brother, Coy, played for coach Frank Leahy at Notre Dame in the mid-to-late 1940s.
Coy McGee played halfback for the 1946 Fighting Irish team that is widely regarded as one of the best college football teams in history.
At the end of the ‘46 season, Coy came off the bench to rush for 146 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-6 victory over USC.
That game clinched the national title for the Irish.
Meanwhile, Max continued the McGee tradition of fine football at White Oak.
McGee would become the first high school football player in history to rush for over 3,000 yards in one season.
In his 1946 senior year, he ran over and through his opponents for 3,048 yards.
Did you know? #Packers great Max McGee rushed for 3,048 yards as senior at White Oak (Texas) High School in 1949. 1st prep player to get 3K.
— Green Bay Press-Gazette (@gbpressgazette) October 26, 2011
(The 3,000-yard mark has since been reached 87 times).
McGee was a four-year letterman at White Oak and was named All-Texas twice.
His otherworldly stats during his final year in high school brought him national attention.
McGee chose to continue his playing career at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Green Wave Star
Despite the higher level of talent, McGee’s natural athletic ability did not abandon him in college.
As a running back for the Green Wave, McGee starred on the program’s Freshman team.
That season, he led the SEC with 125 rushing yards per game.
Tulane wrapped up 1950 6-2-1 and it would prove to be the best record McGee would experience in college.
In 1951, McGee became a member of the Tulane varsity.
He was the leading rusher for the team that season with 543 yards.
As a junior in 1952, he led the Green Wave for the second year in a row, tallying 428 yards.
During the 1953 season, McGee had a great day against the Citadel.
Carrying the ball just nine times, he racked up 132 yards.
That season, McGee led Tulane again with 430 yards and he led the nation in kick return yardage.
Top 10 all time #Tulane players in the NFL per PFR:
1. Richie Petitbon
2. Matt Forte
3. Steve Foley
4. Max McGee
5. Lionel Washington
6. Tommy Mason
7. Lonnie Marts
8. Eddie Murray
9. Rodney Holman
10. Bubby Brister
— Saints Happy Hour Podcast (@SaintsHappyHour) May 25, 2021
In addition to his rushing ability, McGee was a dependable receiver with 34 career receptions for 437 yards and four touchdowns.
He also spent considerable time on special teams.
While toting the rock on punt and kick returns, McGee was also the Green Wave punter.
He averaged 13.3 yards on punt returns, 21.3 yards on kickoff returns and 36.4 yards on 142 career punting attempts.
McGee was an All-SEC selection in 1952 and was selected to play in the 1953 Blue-Gray All-Star Game.
As the 1953 season was getting underway, McGee married Marcia Priebe, his girlfriend from nearby Newcomb Memorial College.
They had their first child, a daughter, while still living in New Orleans.
(The couple would have a second daughter, but Max and Marcia would divorce in 1957).
In four years at Tulane, McGee had 1,401 career rushing yards, which ranked fourth in team history at the time of his graduation.
Drafted by Green Bay
Despite their early success as a franchise, the Packers had fallen on hard times.
By the time McGee arrived with the 51st overall pick of the 1954 draft, Green Bay was mired in a losing streak.
Since 1944, when the Packers won the NFL title, the team had not won more than six games in a season.
McGee’s rookie year of 1954 wasn’t much better.
Don Shula was on the front page of the Baltimore Sun sports section on Oct. 25, 1954. That's him, No. 25, breaking up a pass to the #Packers' Max McGee — who, *12 years later*, would star in the 1st Super Bowl. Note: Neither is wearing a facemask. pic.twitter.com/3mkCOi7JRz
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) May 4, 2020
Under first-year head coach Lisle Blackbourn, Green Bay faltered to a 4-8 finish.
McGee was one of the lone highlights that season.
Acting as the team’s punter and a receiver on offense, McGee led the NFL in punting yards.
He also caught the ball 36 times for 614 yards and nine scores.
Military Detour Then Return to the Packers
Before the 1955 season, McGee took a leave of absence from the team to serve as a pilot in the Air Force.
He served in the military during both the ‘55 and 1956 seasons.
In 1957, McGee returned to the Packers, although he didn’t quite pick up where he left off.
That year, he collected 17 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown.
McGee also rushed the ball five times for 40 yards while continuing his punting duties.
After a 3-9 season, the Packers fired Blackbourn and hired Ray McLean.
Although Blackbourn did not see a lot of success during his tenure, he was responsible for drafting many of the Packers who would later become a juggernaut.
Those players included Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer and Ray Nitschke.
During McLean’s lone season as coach in 1958, the Packers hit a low point, bottoming out to finish 1-10-1.
That would prove to be the worst record in the franchise’s history.
Meanwhile, McGee continued to soldier on.
— Arrick Upton (@ArrickUptonGB) June 13, 2018
He led Green Bay that season in receiving with 37 receptions for 655 yards and seven touchdowns.
McGee also led the league in yards per catch with 23.2, punting yards (2,716) and net yard average (36.0).
The Arrival of Lombardi
After over a decade of losing football, the Packers were ready to try something completely different.
They parted ways with McLean and hired Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi.
Lombardi was a firecracker from the Bronx who had coached at the high school, college and NFL levels.
Almost immediately, Lombardi got to work molding the Packers into a championship contender.
OTD 1959: Five years and a day after debuting as an NFL assistant coach, Vince Lombardi makes his NFL head coaching debut for the #Packers.
Jim Taylor tallies 98 yds rushing and the game's only TD. Max McGee's 62-yd punt sets up the clinching safety
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 27, 2020
In his first season, Lombardi coaxed a 7-5 record out of his team.
McGee led the team in receiving again with 30 catches, 695 yards (for a league-leading 23.2 yards per average) and five touchdowns.
Even with Lombardi’s intense demeanor, McGee enjoyed needling his coach from time to time.
During one practice, Lombardi was lambasting his team for mental breakdowns in their fundamentals.
“We’re going to start at the beginning,” he (Lombardi) says. “This is a football.”
At that point McGee said, “Whoa, coach, could you slow down? You’re going too fast.” (former teammate Jerry Kramer adds a twist to this story: “Vince had no idea where he was going after he said that about the football. Max got him off the hook with that line.
And Max did that all the time. And it’s funny, because Max was actually a very shy, gentle man, but his sense of humor was the way he got past that.’’)
McGee would, on occasion, talk his way out of something he didn’t like and tried reasoning with Lombardi while doing it.
During one particular tackling drill in practice, McGee sidled up to his coach and explained why he wouldn’t be taking part.
“Early on I went to Lombardi,” McGee said. “I told him, ‘Coach, I know [vicious, 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.’ And sometimes people did get called out, because the whole team would watch that drill. But 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.”
Lombardi proved to be a revelation in Green Bay.
Although he was demanding and his practices could be oppressive, the players recognized his willingness to get the best out of them.
In 1960, the Packers would win eight games for the first time since 1944.
Their 8-4 record propelled them to the NFL Championship game where they lost to Philadelphia 17-13.
The following season, Green Bay finished 11-3 and defeated the Giants 37-0 in the Championship game.
In 1962, the Packers only lost one game on their way to a repeat win in the title game over the Giants.
#200thTuesday: From the archives @NevilleMuseum – As a part of the Civil Defense routine of the #ColdWar every citizen had to do their part, even the @packers. Here we have (L to R: Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, and Max McGee) hamming-it-up for the cameras in October 1962. #BroCo200 pic.twitter.com/cBoSmtqVhp
— Brown County's 200th Anniversary (@BroCo200) October 23, 2018
McGee benefitted in playing for Lombardi as well.
38 receptions in 1960 gave way to a career-high 51 catches for 883 yards and seven scores in 1961.
Those stats were good enough to get McGee voted to his first and only Pro Bowl.
1962 brought 49 more catches for 820 yards and three touchdowns.
McGee led the Packers in receptions and receiving yards in both championship seasons, though he failed to score in either of the title games.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) August 26, 2018
At that point in his career, it was obvious to his coaches and teammates that McGee was a very capable receiver.
What vexed them the most was his propensity to drop easy passes but catch the harder ones.
“Max’s only fault is he gets a little careless and drops the easy passes,” Red Cochran, Lombardi’s backfield coach, once said. “He drops those, but catches the hard ones as well as anybody.”
“Max would make big plays,” said Kramer. “He might drop a no-account pass, but he would catch the big ones. Vince loved him for that.”
Green Bay finished second in the Western Conference in both the 1963 and ‘64 seasons.
Since they were not first-place finishers, the Packers could not take part in the NFL Championship games.
However, at the time, there was a third-place game called the Playoff Bowl.
The winner of the game would be the official third-place winner behind the two teams that played in the title game.
Green Bay split the contest both years, first defeating the Cleveland Browns 40-23 in 1963 and losing to the St. Louis Cardinals 24-17 in ‘64.
McGee continued to contribute both years by compiling 70 total receptions for 1,341 yards and 12 touchdowns.
While Max McGee is best remembered for his heroics in Super Bowl I, it was his big-play ability throughout his career that made him one of the best receivers in #Packers history.#TBT 📖: https://t.co/HrfMuyOXGT pic.twitter.com/OiA8m4ZgRp
— Packers Hall of Fame (@PackersHOF) June 6, 2019
Beginning in 1965, McGee’s career began to decline.
While the Packers were on their way to a 10-3-1 record and an NFL Championship over the Browns, McGee rarely saw the field.
That season, he started only one game, caught 10 balls for 154 yards and scored one touchdown.
Unexpected Super Bowl Legend
In his 11th season, McGee was on the Packers roster mainly for a veteran presence.
Age and injuries kept McGee on the sidelines that season and he did not start any games.
He was only able to corral four passes for 91 yards and a score during the year.
About the only thing McGee was known for that season was carousing with some of his teammates.
He had been divorced for years and living high on the single life with the likes of Hornung.
Max McGee and Paul Hornung. Lovable stayouts. pic.twitter.com/fme09I6bBV
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 13, 2020
Their very late nights and early mornings were no secret to Lombardi or the team.
“Hell, Lombardi knew where we were every night. But he knew we would play ball on Sunday,” said Hornung.
McGee was an absentee father, though he was known to spend a few minutes with his two daughters from time to time.
“We didn’t grow up with football as a part of our life,” says his daughter Mona. “Max was an enigma to us, frankly. He was bigger than life, this other parent in my life who was there but not really engaged. There came a time when I understood that he was a wild man with Hornung, and they liked to party. I kind of thought he was funny and charming but not much beyond that.”
Little did McGee, Lombardi, Hornung, or the Packers know that McGee’s nightlife would soon become a narrative of legend.
In 1966, Green Bay rolled over their opponents and ended the season 12-2.
The team then dispatched the Cowboys in the NFL Championship 34-27.
In any other year, that would have been it for the season.
However, there was a new game that year that pitted the NFL champion against the American Football League (AFL) champion.
It was affectionately called “The Super Bowl.”
Super Bowl I would be played in Los Angeles Coliseum and would showcase the Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL.
Leading up to the game, Lombardi was adamant that his troops be disciplined and treat it just like any other game.
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 his fate on the bench during the game assured, McGee decided to break his coach’s curfew after the team bed check and spend the evening entertaining.
He invited Hornung, but his teammate declined, citing a sore neck and the fact he was getting married later that week.
At 6:30 the next morning, McGee called Hornung’s room.
“He called from the lobby and asked if they did a second check,” Hornung later recalled. “ I said ‘No, you lucky bastard, now get your ass up here.’ “
After breakfast, McGee decided to take a quick cat nap.
Once he awoke, he made a request to starting receiver Boyd Dowler.
“We’re having our little (game plan) meeting,” says Dowler, 79 and living in Richmond, Va., “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.’ “
As fate would have it, Dowler did go down with an early, first-quarter injury, one that would keep him out for the rest of the Super Bowl.
“My shoulder was not in good shape at all coming into the game,” says Dowler. “I usually put a foam pad underneath my shoulder pad, but since we were going to be throwing the ball a lot, I wanted to have some flexibility. I took the pad out. When I hit Johnny Robinson, I heard the calcium deposit (that had built up over two seasons) crack and I knew immediately that I was finished.”
At that moment, Hornung and McGee were sitting on the bench having a chat about the previous night, oblivious to what was happening on the field.
Suddenly, Lombardi’s gruff voice rang out in McGee’s direction.
“McGee! McGee! Get your ass in there,” yelled the coach.
Startled, McGee jumped up and headed toward the field.
That’s when he realized he didn’t have his helmet.
In fact, his top hat was still in the locker room where he left it since he didn’t expect to play.
A teammate shoved his helmet toward McGee and the receiver entered the game.
On one play during that offensive series, Starr threw a pass in McGee’s direction.
The only problem was, the receiver couldn’t see the pass because he was wearing a lineman’s helmet.
“I remember that first series very well,” Kramer said years later. “Max couldn’t find his helmet when Boyd was injured. So Max is looking around for it and couldn’t find it. Finally someone hands him a hat, but it was much too big for him. After Max comes in, Bart calls a square-out play that Max runs and the pass by Bart hits Max in the helmet, as it went right through his hands. Not a great way to start for Max.”
On the next offensive series, McGee was back, but this time he had found a helmet with a single bar across the front.
would be the difference on a small post pattern during the fourth play from scrimmage.
While McGee ran his route, Starr spotted him wide open.
Just as Starr threw the pigskin, he was hammered on a blitz and the ball arrived slightly behind McGee.
In an amazing, athletic move, he reached back and snagged the ball with one hand.
The very first Super Bowl.
52 years ago today.
The @packers defeated the @Chiefs 35-10, with QB Bart Starr taking MVP honors after a 250-yard, two-TD outing. WR Max McGee caught both TDs, finishing with seven catches for 138 yards. pic.twitter.com/lhhIgo6IbP
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) January 16, 2019
McGee brought the ball to his chest and continued to run all the way to the end zone.
Just like that, the inebriated McGee, who hadn’t expected to play, had scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history.
For the remainder of that historic day, McGee continued to dazzle and surprise his teammates.
In the third quarter, he and Starr connected again on a 13-yard touchdown reception.
The Packers easily won the first Super Bowl 35-10.
Today in 1967: Packers win inaugural AFL-NFL World Championship Game with 35-10 triumph over Chiefs. Bart Starr earns MVP honors, while Max McGee catches seven passes for 138 yards and two TDs. pic.twitter.com/QDUMcHz3Bx
— Packers History (@HistoricPackers) January 15, 2021
McGee’s totals for the contest were seven receptions for 138 yards and his two touchdowns.
Final Season and Second Super Bowl Appearance
McGee was going to call it quits after the ‘66 season but decided to stay one more year in 1967.
Just like the previous season, he did not start any games and was on the receiving end of just three passes for 33 yards.
The Packers went 9-4-1, defeated the Rams and the Cowboys in the first two rounds of the playoffs and faced the Raiders in Super Bowl II.
For McGee, the second Super Bowl would not be anywhere near as eventful as the previous year.
This time, he was ready for the game, had his helmet with him and saw some game action.
— Packers Dynasty (@packers656667) January 13, 2018
During the third quarter, Starr found his teammate for a 35 yard gain that would set up a Green Bay touchdown.
That was it for McGee’s personal stats in the game.
The Packers would net their second Super Bowl championship with a 33-14 win.
Not long after the game, McGee called it a career.
In 12 years, he had 345 receptions for 6,346 yards and 50 touchdowns.
McGee also punted 256 times for 10,647 yards and had a 41.6 average.
He went to the Pro Bowl once, was a First-team All-Conference one time, won five NFL Championships and was a two-time Super Bowl winner.
Life in Retirement
While he was still playing for Green Bay, McGee and teammate Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston operated a number of restaurants.
When he retired, McGee eventually became part owner in a chain of restaurants called Chi-Chi’s.
The name came from fellow owner Marno McDermott’s wife, who had the nickname in childhood.
The franchise soon became very successful, making McGee and his partner wealthy.
“I remember the day we finished the backdoor (IPO) deal,” said McDermott in 2015. “Max and I were playing gin rummy at the country club and we were telling the other guys, you really should buy some of the stock. They were more interested in playing gin rummy. That was a mistake; we made a lot of people millionaires, including two or three of my secretaries.”
The duo’s initial investment of $600,000 ballooned to a value of over $1 billion.
In 1982, Time Magazine wrote an article about the success of the restaurant chain and its two owners.
“No other company has gained more from the rage for Mexican dining than Louisville-based Chi-Chi’s (fiscal 1982 sales: $35.8 million)…. The explosive run-up has made wealthy men of Chi-Chi’s founders, Marno McDermott and Max McGee. McGee, 50, a former star of the Green Bay Packers, now owns some 150,000 Chi-Chi’s shares, worth about $4 million, and is a director of the company,”’ wrote Time.
McGee eventually sold out of his share of the chain in the mid-1980s and invested in several Native American casinos in Wisconsin.
That endeavor also made him a lot of money.
“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.’ ”
In addition to his lucrative businesses, McGee was an analyst for Packers radio broadcasts, a position he held for nearly two decades.
He was also voted into the team’s Hall of Fame in 1975.
McGee eventually got married for a second time, to Denise Dawson.
Together the couple had two boys that McGee loved dearly.
One of their sons’, Dallas, was born with Type I Diabetes.
McGee sprang into action and founded the Max McGee National Research Center for Juvenile Diabetes in 1999 at the Children’s Hospital in Wisconsin.
By that time, Denise and other family members noticed that McGee was becoming more forgetful.
In 2002, he was diagnosed with an early form of Alzheimer’s.
For the next several years, the family developed a routine for McGee that he could stick to and not get into trouble.
On October 20, 2007, McGee climbed onto the roof of his house to blow leaves off the shingles.
Sometime later, Denise arrived home to find McGee lying in the driveway unconscious and bleeding from his head.
He had apparently slipped on the shingles and fell onto the driveway below.
By the time paramedics arrived, McGee had passed away due to blunt force trauma to his skull.
The "Hero" of Super bowl 1 for the Green Bay Packers who came off the bench drunk and had over 125 yards receiving, Max McGee, who later while blowing leaves from his roof, slipped to his death. By Sports beat Radio. pic.twitter.com/fxcLLA7Nxc
— Sports Beat Radio (@johnspoulos) March 25, 2019
When news broke of his passing, his friends and former teammates were grief stricken.
“I just lost my best friend,” said Hornung. “(His wife) Denise was away from the house. She’d warned him not to get up there. He shouldn’t have been up there. He knew better than that.”
McGee was also remembered with great love and appreciation by those who played with him and knew him well.
“Max was my kind of guy,” said Bob Schnelker, who spent 27 years as an NFL assistant and coached the Packers receivers when they won Super Bowls I and II. “Max could do anything. He could make impossible plays. Certain guys, no matter where they are or whom they’re playing with, make sensational plays. It’s just in their nature and Max was one of those guys. He didn’t have the great speed or the great this. He didn’t always do what you told him to do and didn’t give a (darn). Yet when the chips were down, Max could play.”