To celebrate the anniversary of Max McGee’s July 16th birthday, here’s an excerpt from my new book, Green Bay Gold:
Across from Billy Howton as the team’s second receiver for three seasons was Max McGee, a fifth round pick out of Tulane in 1954. Yet McGee is not only much better remembered by Packer fans decades later, but is also part of overall NFL lore and more likely to be recognized by the average NFL fan. McGee caught roughly 150 fewer passes than Howton for 11 fewer touchdowns over the course of their careers, but Max was a sly, clutch player on the game’s greatest team at the beginning of the television era and stayed close to the game as the Packers’ beloved dry-witted color analyst for another two decades, retiring from the airwaves soon after the Pack at long last returned to championship form.
Lombardi kept the 6’3” 205-pound McGee, but traded Howton for several reasons it appears. Howton was two years older, had a slighter frame and was less useful as a blocker in the run game; he also was more of a team leader who might clash with the revamping Lombardi envisioned. Probably the biggest reason is that Howton would bring more in a trade, allowing the Packers to shore up two weaknesses in exchange. While the assistant coaches were unanimous in their post-1959 evaluations of McGee (detailed in Len Wagner’s Launching the Glory Years) as a talented end, but a poor character risk off the field, Lombardi seemed to admire his free-spirited players like Hornung and McGee. At least he admired the ones who bought in to Vince’s program, willingly accepted his discipline and helped the team win. McGee told the Chicago Tribune years later, “He wanted to win. If you made a big play for him, you could go a long way.”
Big plays were McGee’s specialty. He scored nine touchdowns as a rookie, when he lined up outside in a standing two-point stance similar to that utilized by Fred Biletnikoff a decade later. Max remained a deep threat throughout his career, averaging 18.4 yards a catch and leading the league with a 23.2 average in Lombardi’s first year of 1959. He never caught more than 51 balls largely because the team did not throw the ball much in Lombardi’s Run to Daylight offense. Packer fans remember his gutsy 35-yard fake punt from his own 11 in the 1960 title game. He also scored the only Packer touchdown that day.
His biggest splash came in Super Bowl I, two years after the aging end had moved to the bench as a reserve. When starter Boyd Dowler was lost to injury in the first series of downs that day, McGee, hungover from a night on the town, replaced him and caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. He scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history on a one-handed catch of a pass that was behind him and joked after the game, “You’d expect a $100,000 quarterback to throw it better to a $25,000 end.”
Above all, Max was shrewd player who remained effective even after he lost his speed. Boyd Dowler explained for The Glory of Titletown, “You know Max is always being characterized as a free spirit and all that kind of stuff, but Max was very disciplined about what he was doing, very disciplined about his football. He wasn’t loose about it at all. He was also very, very smart.” Although McGee was known to drop the occasional easy pass, his attention was focused rigidly with the game on the line; then, he would catch anything close to him. T. J. Troup praised McGee’s “long striding speed and excellent hands,” at one point and at another averred he was “very effective in deep crossing routes.” Max’s ratio of one touchdown catch for every 6.9 pass receptions is second only to Hutson in this elite crowd. He was also a fine punter.
Here’s a selection of custom Max McGee cards (the 1955 Bowman, 1957 Topps and 1962 Fleer are colorized)…