Arrowhead East in South Philly: The story of Big Charlie’s, the Mecca of the Chiefs in Eagles territory

PHILADELPHIA — On a Sunday in late October, Steve Spagnuolo made a pilgrimage to one of his favorite bars, a corner joint on 11th Street and McKean in the heart of South Philadelphia. Big Charlie’s Saloon — a two-room dive bar with a brick facade — has been in the neighborhood since the ’70s and has everything a South Philly eatery needs: weathered wood paneling, jukebox in the corner, cold beer on the menu, and owner Paulie positioned himself on a stool at the bar.

What sets Big Charlie’s apart from any other corner bar, however, is its almost spiritual obsession with the Kansas City Chiefs, an away soccer team who play their home games 1,100 miles away.

The odd football affiliation has piqued the interest of Spagnuolo, a longtime Philly resident who became the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator in 2019. So he paid a visit to his wife, Maria, a native of Philly, and then… they kept coming back. Spagnuolo came by after the Chiefs won the 2020 Super Bowl. Maria joined the staff and became a volunteer bartender, working 15-hour shifts for charity. In October, Spagnuolo returned with the Chiefs in a bye week, making good on a promise to bring his Super Bowl ring.

“It’s a unique group,” said Spagnuolo. “Right in the middle of South Philly.”

Big Charlie’s has been a South Philly staple for decades, although now it’s ready to kick off a week like no other. On Sunday, the beloved Chiefs will take on their hometown Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII, a happy moment that wowed a crew of regulars and made the little corner hangout zero in a matchup between two of the NFL’s top organizations.

There are countless football connections between the two cities: Andy Reid, Dick Vermeil, Herman Edwards, Carl Peterson and the Kelce brothers. But the most unlikely connection might be at Big Charlie’s, where a South Philly native named Paul Staico took over the bar when he was a teenager and then spent decades turning his neighborhood friends into Chiefs fans.

“This bar is family,” said Dennis Schuler, 33, a South Philly native, who sat at the bar in a black and red Chiefs sweatshirt on Saturday. “Now my real family is killing me.”

The Big Charlie’s story begins with – what else? – a bet. When Staico was a boy, his father Charlie bet on the Chiefs to win Super Bowl IV and then made a promise: if the team in red won, he would buy his son a bike. When Len Dawson and the Chiefs toppled the favored Vikings, Staico had a bike — and another team to cheer on. Nearly two years later, he watched the Chiefs lose to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC division playoff round on Christmas Day — still the longest game in NFL history — and a few years later his father took control a bar in the neighborhood. He called it Big Charlie’s.

It hasn’t been the best decade to become a Chiefs fan. After losing to the Dolphins in 1971, the franchise missed the playoffs 14 straight years, and Arrowhead Stadium emptied. But Staico maintained his loyalty, watching games at home via a satellite dish or forcing his friends to drive a bowling alley in Atlantic City where the Chiefs could play. When his father Charlie died in 1983, Staico was still attending high school with Bishop Neumann, and his family considered giving up the bar. Instead, his mother inherited the home and Staico became its de facto owner, learning on the job from a crew of neighborhood regulars.

“When I first started here,” Staico said, “I couldn’t even drink up front.”

In the early days, Big Charlie’s had a back room with a pool table and a few places to sit and drink. Staico removed the pool table, added a second bar, and turned the back into a private room for Chiefs Watch parties, installing a bowl so the crew didn’t miss a game. The group started small: Billy, Johnny, Frank, Staico’s best friend Anthony Mazzone. “First things first,” Staico said. “It just got steam.”

Around the same time, Staico and his crew began making infrequent trips to Arrowhead Stadium to play. According to Staico, on their first trip they met Chiefs offensive lineman Art Still, a native of nearby Camden, NJ, who looked at the Philly boys in disbelief.

“What are you doing here?” I asked anyway.

“We’re Philadelphians,” Staico said. “We follow the Chiefs.”

He still took her out for a beer, and when Joe Valerio, an offensive lineman from Penn, joined the Chiefs in 1991, Staico paid it up front and welcomed Valerio’s father, Mike, as a weekly guest at Big Charlie’s.

“He really, really adored those guys,” Valerio said. “And just seeing the Chiefs fandom right there in South Philly, where he grew up… he had pride of place at the bar.”

As word of the bar spread in the ’90s, Big Charlie’s occasionally received a call from a Kansas City transplant or anyone else curious about the Chiefs’ watch parties. Once a local couple called, asked if the bar was safe, then showed up for a game. It turned out they were the parents of Rich Gannon, the Chiefs quarterback who grew up in Philly. But everything changed in the early 2000s when Joe Saunders, the son of Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders — and an employee at NFL Films — started coming in. The relationship culminated in a 2003 NFL Films segment about the bar.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Paulie,” said Johnny “Crash” Alessi, a regular who sat at the bar Saturday in a Phillies jacket and Chiefs stocking cap. “And if he does, it’s because he’s a Chiefs fan.”


Johnny Alessi shares some customers’ torn loyalties, but not to Big Charlie’s.

The weirdest thing about Big Charlie’s isn’t that it’s a Chiefs bar in South Philly. There are Chiefs bars in most major cities across the country, and certainly a few Eagles fans in Kansas City who gather to watch football. But Big Charlie’s doesn’t thrive on finding transplants or a place to watch their team. When a reporter stopped by Big Charlie’s on Saturday, eight days before the Super Bowl, nine of the 14 people in the bar were wearing Chiefs clothes, and eight of the nine were from South Philly, the lone remnant, a Kansas City native named John Haake, who moved into the neighborhood a few years ago and started coming to play.

Behind the bar was Laura Sessa, a childhood friend of Staico’s who serves as bartender, bookkeeper, sales manager and occasional bouncer. College basketball was on TV. Some regulars discussed the continued presence of the Chinese spy balloon. According to Sessa, Staico began warning of a possible Chiefs-Eagles Super Bowl back in September. The Eagles had one of the most complete rosters in the NFL. The Chiefs had Patrick Mahomes. Thinking about the matchup, Schuler, one of the regulars, saw it as “win-win… and lose-lose.”

Or, as Alessi put it: “We are outnumbered; it’s like in the movie ‘300’. ”

Big Charlie’s back room remains a shrine to the Chiefs. There are photos of Mahomes and Dawson, autographed helmets, dozens of posters, and a Chiefs logo stamped on the floor. The locals called the place “Arrowhead East”. But the most prized memento is behind the bar in the front room. When the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in February 2020, Spagnuolo bought a specially engraved replica of the Lombardi trophy and sent it to the bar. Spagnuolo, 63, first came to Philadelphia in 1999 when he joined the staff of new coach Andy Reid joined. He married “a Philly girl,” as he puts it, and maintained connections in the city through stints with the Giants, Rams, Saints, and Ravens. He appreciated the regulars at Big Charlie’s, so he sent a keepsake as a thank you.

“We love those people over there,” he said.

When the Chiefs won the 2020 Super Bowl, Big Charlie’s turned South Philly into a full-blown Chiefs block party, a carnival with a 20-foot screen and hundreds of red-clad fans. NFL Films also returned. This time, Staico said, keep the party smaller. The Chiefs are playing the Eagles, who play their home games just two miles away, and making it big didn’t feel right. But on Sunday afternoon Maria Spagnuolo stopped by for another visit and if the Chiefs win there’s room behind the bar for another Lombardi.

“When you walk in here and meet our guys, you know right away we’re different,” Staico said. “Every year it just grew.”


The Chiefs’ defensive coordinator has pride of place in the Eagles’ backyard.

(Top photo by Paul Staico and all other photos by Rustin Dodd/ the athlete) Arrowhead East in South Philly: The story of Big Charlie’s, the Mecca of the Chiefs in Eagles territory

Russell Falcon

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