Reno Mahe one year later: undrafted but loved.
Three weeks ago, Philadelphia's NBC Channel 10 aired a story that Mahe, a Philadelphia Eagle running back, was working part-time as a host at Chickie's & Pete's Cafe on the corner of Broad and Packer avenues near the stadiums in South Philly.
Within minutes, phone calls poured in to the newsroom. Philadelphians, who are known for cannibalizing their sports icons, proclaimed the story really touched them. Fans told Channel 10 that Mahe is the kind of athlete they can cheer for because they hate rich, spoiled superstars who don't relate to the working stiff.
"Reno is like a rock star in this town," Channel 10 sportscaster Vai Sikahema said. "He's a rock star in Philly. People just love him. He's a kid that just doesn't think he's better than anyone else."
Both Mahe and Sikahema are former BYU football players. So are Eagle coach Andy Reid and All-Pro tight end Chad Lewis. These BYU guys are on a run in this City of Brotherly Love.
But it is Mahe, an undrafted free agent, who struck the latest chord.
"Fans here love the underdog," Sikahema said. "That's why the movie 'Rocky' remains so popular because these people relate. They pull for the flat-footed underachiever who's battling the world to get ahead."
The owner of Chickie's & Pete's, one of Philadelphia's most popular sports bars, agrees. Mahe's smiling face and friendly demeanor is sugar to even the crankiest patrons waiting for a table.
"If all Mormons are like these guys, then I'm going to have to open up a restaurant in Utah or hire more of them around here," owner Pete Ciarrocci said.
Chickie's & Pete's is a gargantuan sports feed-and-drink stop before and after sporting events in South Philadelphia. Ciarrocci takes care of Eagle players and coaches, giving them free food. Stars are constantly dropping in. One day a waitress came up to Ciarrocci and said Eagle running back Reno Mahe wanted a job. "He said he'll do anything, including wait tables," Ciarrocci was told.
Ciarrocci was shocked.
Mahe, who signed for the NFL minimum of $250,000, earned another $50,000 bonus when the Eagles made the playoffs this past season. Ciarrocci hired Mahe for $7 an hour as a host.
When Mahe roamed the halls at Brighton High School, it was like this. People found it this way at BYU and with the Eagles. Mahe's laughter, jokes and easy smile became infectious at Pete's.
"I don't know if there are many people like Reno in the world," Ciarrocci said. "He's so approachable and fun to be with. He loves to be around the public and it shows. My place gets pretty busy and it's impressive to people to be greeted by an Eagle football player who is so friendly and will sign autographs and make himself available. Obviously, I'm not paying him enough.
"His name is so easy to remember Reno and people are always calling him by name and he's always coming over, smiling and just being himself. The women keep saying he's so adorable, he's so sweet. Of course, he's a family man, but I hate it when he goes back to Houston."
Mahe flies to Philadelphia from his in-laws' house in Houston every Monday to work out at the Eagle training facility. When he's through for the day, he works the gig at Pete's. He then flies out on Thursday to be home with his wife, Sunny, and daughter, Evie, in Houston. The Mahes broke ground for a house in North Houston on Tuesday.
When Mahe returns to Houston on Thursday nights, he checks his computer for his Friday substitute teaching assignment. He is on call to work Fridays anywhere from kindergarten through the 12th grade for a Texas school district.
Mahe described the Philadelphia cafe as "humongous," with giant walls of TVs that broadcast sporting events all the time. The menu specialty is crab legs and crab fries.
"It's the best," he said. "I think Pete patented the crab fries. Good thing I only work there three days a week or I'd have a heart attack from all the crab fries I eat. It's fun. I get to meet a lot of real South Philly people."
After Mahe's prime-time host job for Pete, he retires to an apartment rented by teammate Quentin Michael, where he sleeps in a spare bedroom. Michael recently got it furnished. Mahe's rent is putting together furniture for Michael, who doesn't like to do that stuff.
When Mahe first hooked up with Michael, who played at Boise State, Michael slept on a blowup mattress and Mahe used a mat on the floor in the spare bedroom. Michael later got a futon which Mahe assembled and Mahe inherited the mattress, which has a leak.
"I wake up a couple of times during the night when it goes flat and hit the button on the air pump and it inflates back up in a few seconds and I go to sleep until it goes flat after a few hours," Mahe said.
Last week, Michael's cousin dropped in for a visit and took the mattress. Mahe was back on the floor. "But this week, I'm on the futon, baby," he said.
While in Philly, Mahe drives his old college vehicle, a mid-'90s Ford Explorer. He parks it beside other Eagle players' fancy cars, a Lexus here, a Porsche there and a few Hummers. He bought a second car so Sunny could take the Ford. One day he went to a car auction, plopped down $1,200 and drove the junker to work out. When Mahe came out after toiling under the weights, the car failed to start. It remains in the training facility parking lot.
Working for minimum wage in the nation's fourth largest city doesn't faze Mahe. He told Channel 10, "I figured I had a little time on my hands. Actually, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I thought it would be worthwhile to go get a second job, do something fun and kill some time. My motto is: Diapers aren't free."
Eagle offseason workouts continue through June, and Mahe plans on keeping his current schedule.
"It keeps me busy and keeps my mind off missing my wife and little girl," he said. "It's not a bad little gig. I fly in Monday and leave Thursday. I have a cousin who works for the airlines, and she gave me 20 buddy passes. It costs about $150 round trip from here to Houston."
Ciarrocchi is pulling for Mahe to make the Eagle roster this summer. Mahe did it last year as a rookie and saw playing time, including a spot appearance as a return specialist in the playoffs.
"Reno is a humble guy," Ciarrocchi said. "He tells me he doesn't think they're going to keep him. I keep telling him they're gonna do it, that Reid will take care of him."
Said Sikahema: "When I was playing, Reno wasn't even born. But I will say this, he has amazing instincts. He's got a chance."
Mahe's approach is that he has almost no chance. Same M.O. as a year ago when he earned all-MWC honors but was ignored in the draft.
"No, no, no. I don't think I've made the team," he said Wednesday. "You just keep the same mentality. It's possible but I just don't know. I'm confident in my abilities of making the team again, but so much has to fall into place. I can't say I'm confident in making the team, but I'm confident in my ability and preparation. Nothing is guaranteed. I'm trying to make money while I can."
Mahe likes Ciarrocchi and is grateful for the part-time job. "He's like a guy in the movies who knows everybody. This guy is connected."
Ciarrocchi jokingly admits he personally is witness to the impending Reno power grid.
On April 1, Ciarrocchi received an invitation to ring the opening bell at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. The Philadelphia Business Journal wrote up the honor and in part of the article, the reporter noted that Ciarrocchi owned the place where Reno Mahe worked.