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Lew’s got game

Scores winning Between the Uprights kick with Sunday football

The sports bar.

Otherwise known as a haven for sports fans, where those passionate for the pigskin can convene on a Sunday afternoon and watch an array of games in the company of other fans with the same fervor.

The lure of going to a sports bar may not be as enticing today as it once was, with so many people nowadays owning big screen televisions and getting their football fix by watching the action through the NFL Redzone (a station that shows live action from every game on Sundays, including every touchdown) or DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket Package (which offers every football game but can only be purchased by people who have the satellite television provider).

So, why do people still go to sports bars to this day? Lew Collins, owner of Between the Uprights on the corner of Avenue A and Second Street in Turners Falls, offers an array of reasons for football fans to get off the couch and spend the day at his establishment. Collins is celebrating his 10th year of offering football fans all they could want on a Sunday afternoon and that tradition continues to grow.

If you drive by BTU on a Sunday during football season just before noontime, you are likely to see a small group of people already gathered outside its doors. These folks are not there to get an early jump on drinking; they know the importance of getting perfect seat for a full day of football.

This is something that has been going on at the bar since 2003, when Collins, then still only the manager at what was then still called Second Street Bar, first bought the Sunday Ticket program and began putting out a food spread.

“It just grew every year,” he said. “It probably went from being an average, to just above-average day, to now, when it’s our best day of the week.”

Collins bought the bar in 2008 and changed the name to Between the Uprights, an ode to the fact that he was a kicker for the Turners Falls High School football team until he graduated in 1980, and then went on to kick for Norwich University, where his claim to fame is that he was the last straight-toe kicker at the college before players switched to what is now the traditional method: kicking with a bent foot. A photo of Collins from his college days as well as an old pair of flat-toed cleats are among the memorabilia adorning the bar, which is painted the colors of the Notre Dame football team in homage to the Fighting Irish; Collins claims to be that team’s biggest fan in our area.

But nobody is really there to stare at an old pair of smelly cleats. The gems of the place are the 14 high-definition televisions spread out around the bar. The televisions vary in size, but each is plenty large enough to please fans looking to watch any game on a Sunday afternoon.

The reason that some people get to the bar early is to make sure they can set up shop near whichever television they are most interested in watching. All the TVs, from the biggest to the smallest, have labels detailing the games they will be tuned to.

Some fans are there to watch their favorite out-of-market team, while others simply wander around or turn their heads from another seat, in order to watch a plethora of games.

On this particular Sunday afternoon in October, fans were trickling in just after noontime in anticipation of another busy afternoon of NFL action. Upon entering, they were greeted by bartender Tara McCarthy, who is the usual face behind the bar on Sunday afternoons. Ironically, McCarthy is a New York Giants fan working at a bar in New England Patriots country. You wouldn’t know that she roots for one of the local team’s biggest current rivals, however, because she was wearing a Patriots T-shirt. Collins and her joke about the bar’s policy that she can only wear a Patriots team jersey. “I came in once wearing a Giants’ shirt and he made me change it,” she joked.

Collins laughed at the comment from his seat at the bar, which is reserved for him every week in what he calls the “Big Guy VIP section.” It’s located at the far end of the bar and consists of three seats, one for Lew and two more for anyone lucky enough to be considered VIPs. Collins can be found sitting on his throne throughout the day and, as we talk about the bar, a number of people approached and handed him a piece of paper, which he stamped.

These people are vying to win the Big Guy Mystery Tour contest, which Collins does for the regulars that come in on Sundays. Anyone can enter, but in order to win, people must show up every Sunday sometime between noon and 6 p.m. and get their paper stamped by Collins. Participants are allowed one “excused” absence during the 17-week regular season and all those with at least 16 stamps go into a drawing to win the grand prize: an all-expenses paid trip with Collins, who takes the winner and three friends “out on the town.”

“I take some of the people that work here out on the town and they became known as ‘Big Guy Tours,’” said Collins. “I’m always getting asked by other people to go on one of these, so we came up with this idea. It’s called a Mystery Tour because the winner will have no idea where we are going.”

Collins believes there are still eight people eligible for the grand prize this season.

On this Sunday back in October, the Patriots didn’t play until
4:25 p.m. when they were set to take on the Denver Broncos, so the majority of jerseys worn by those at the bar belonged to fans of other teams, in anticipation of the six early games, which included the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Giants.

Multitude of giveaways

Ordering a drink is not the only thing that those arriving prior to the opening kickoff are inclined to do. Collins has a multitude of free giveaways. They can sign up to guess which team will score the first touchdown and the first field goal of the day and Collins buys each winner a free drink. There is also an “Early Bird Raffle,” in which people who sign up prior to 12:50 p.m. get a chance to win a Mystery Prize Bag.

Another contest that people sign up for is the chance to spin the prize wheel. After every quarter of the Patriots game (as well as numerous drawings during the day’s opening games on this Sunday), Collins draws a name and the winner gets to spin a “Wheel of Fortune”-type wheel that is filled with numbers. Each number has a corresponding prize. Prizes for both the wheel and for guessing the first scores include T-shirts and hats, a Patriot magnet, a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup book, a Bruins cooler and NFL team sunglasses, to name a few.

There are plenty of other prizes awarded throughout the day as well. To pay homage to his former position of kicker, Collins has a contest called “Pats Cash,” in which he gives away $50 to one lucky person every time the Patriots kick a field goal of 50 yards or more.

Collins also has another contest that varies from week to week, depending on the Patriots’ opponent. The Pats were taking on the Denver Broncos on this Sunday afternoon, so Collins concocted a contest in which he gave away a free drink every time Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw an interception.

“Lew does a lot of stuff for the people that come in,” said John Collins, who sits at the bar alongside his friend, “Big John” Scott.

“It’s like a big family,” Scott adds.

Massive food spread

While large televisions and giveaways are great, the thing that every person in the bar takes advantage of is the massive food spread that Collins puts out for free. If you think of a food that goes great with football, Collins probably has it in one of the many crockpots and platters he puts out. Nachos with chili and cheese, mini kielbasas, green bean casserole, hot dogs and sauerkraut, meatballs, baked beans and buffalo chicken dip were each heating, while cheese and crackers, pretzels, cookies and peanuts were also set out. For those who want to watch their figure (and who isn’t these days?), there is even a vegetable platter. And we’re not talking about small servings; it’s enough to fill up a crowd of hungry football fans. And if you’ve ever been around football fans on Sunday, they can eat like they haven’t seen food in a month. Collins said it costs him over $200 a week.

“Where else can you go on a Sunday afternoon and get free food while you watch football?” asked a regular everyone knows as “Meat.” “Lew’s the best guy ever. We have a great time and it’s the best place to go to watch the games.”

Meat’s real name is Chris Kuzmeskus, but only a select few at the bar would know that. In Turners Falls, everyone has a nickname. No one calls Turners Falls High School super fan Stash Koscinski by his given name “Stanley” and it’s the same for many of the regular patrons at the bar who all go by their nicknames.

Other choices for football

And Meat was close to correct. BTU is the only place in Turners Falls that offers the Sunday Ticket package and gives away free food. Places in Franklin County that also offer fun options on game day include Taylor’s Tavern and The Red Door in Greenfield.

Taylor’s has 11, 50-inch, high-definition televisions in its sports bar and is the only place that offers a full menu on game day to go along with the Sunday Ticket package. There are raffles for sports memorabilia as well as free pool all day long. The Red Door also offers the Sunday Ticket package on its four, high-definition televisions and has a game playing on its 92-inch projection screen. Free pizza and chicken wings are available most every week.

Game-day banter

Back at BTU, as the early games got under way, it began to grow audibly louder as fans cheered on their favorite teams. It’s wasn’t so loud that you’d need an aspirin, but you couldn’t take a nap, either. The atmosphere was fun, especially on this day when the Cleveland Browns scored an early touchdown against the New York Giants, prompting the Patriots’ fans in the house to chide the roughly 10 Giants’ fans in attendance.

“Giants can’t stop Trent Richardson,” said one person, referring to the Cleveland running back who scored the touchdown.

“Over-rated,” retorted another.

That sort of banter between fans of different teams took place throughout the day. Fights don’t break out all over the place like it’s the Double Deuce in the movie “Roadhouse.” It was just good-natured, back-and-forth ribbing that had people laughing around the bar. Former Turners Falls football player Ben Banash was wearing a Giants jersey on this day and received most of the abuse from a group of friends, although he got the last laugh when the Giants went on to win. Banash used a series of one-liners and arm punches to celebrate victory.

About an hour into the first games of the day, Collins drew the first name to spin the wheel. Nuni Rindone was the lucky winner, or at least he though he was. Rindone headed to the wheel and gave it a spin and, as it began to slow down, people in the bar started to get a collective smirk across their faces. That’s because there is one spot on the wheel in which the prize is not a prize at all. Instead, the entire bar gets to call the person a “Loser.”

As luck would have it on that day, Rindone’s spin stopped right on the “Loser” prize, and Collins rattled off a three-count before the entire bar yelled out “Loser” as everyone erupted in laughter, including Rindone.

It was a scene out of a comedy, but hammered home the point that those in attendance came together for a day of fun. Everyone got in on it, from the regulars, to the two guys who had driven from Athol to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers, to the couple that simply stopped in to check the place out on game day.

One person who shows up every week is Allison Thomas, who comes in wearing her New Orleans Saints jersey. Thomas is originally from Lafayette, La., and she found out about BTU when she moved to the area. Every week, she shows up to watch her hometown Saints and she said it was here that she watched the Saints win the first and only Super Bowl in franchise history in 2009.

“I don’t have family up here, so it’s like going to my mom’s for Sunday dinner,” she said.

About an hour before kickoff of the Patriots game, the bar began to fill up and by kickoff, it was buzzing as people devoured chicken wings that had just come in courtesy of Zeke’s Tavern.

The excitement hit a high point in the first quarter of the Patriots’ game when Wes Welker hauled in a touchdown pass and the bar erupted into high-fives and cheers. It continued throughout the game as the Patriots went on to take a 31-21 victory.

It’s that sort of togetherness that Collins believes is the biggest draw. “I think, more or less, people come for the camaraderie,” he explained. “That’s what happens here. You see people that you may not see all week and you get the chance to talk football — to talk about the Patriots, or to be near other fans of your team. Plus, if people are in office pools or fantasy leagues, they can come watch every game and keep track of their players.”

And the excitement doesn’t end at the conclusion of the regular season. Collins offers the spread right through the playoffs and the Super Bowl and then continues to throw events throughout the rest of the year. Whether it’s during college basketball’s March Madness, on the day of any of the Triple Crown horse races, when the Bruins or Celtics are in the playoffs, or every Saturday during a Notre Dame football game, Collins always has something going on.

It’s an experience that cannot be matched by sitting in your living room. Sure, the seating may be more comfortable on your couch or in a recliner, but the free food, prizes and overall atmosphere make it a must for a football fan looking for something different. And it’s all those reasons that a sports bar, whether it’s BTU, Taylor’s Tavern or The Red Door, is still a great place to watch a game.

Staff reporter Jason Butynski covers sports for The Recorder. He can be reached at
jbutynski@recorder.com or 413-772-0261,
ext. 256.

Megan Haley is a freelance photographer living in Shelburne Falls. www.meganhaley.com

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