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Ernie had city's first, and finest, sports joint
Seattle Times staff columnist
Before there were sports bars, there was Ernie Steele's place. Before basic cable and fantasy leagues, back even when World Series games still were played in the afternoons, people came to Ernie Steele's at the corner of Broadway and Thomas.
"It was an original kind of sports bar," said former Huskies quarterback Sonny Sixkiller.
And Ernie Steele was a Seattle original. An Everyman with a heart as big as one of his thick steaks. A football player. A restaurant owner. An institution.
He played high-school football at Highline and illustrative of just how much times have changed, was ready to accept a scholarship from Washington State. But before he left for Pullman, he demanded the Cougars also offer his fiancee, Jo, a scholarship. When they refused, Steele became a Husky.
He played halfback for the Huskies from 1939-41. After leaving Washington, he was working on the docks in West Seattle when his good friend and former Huskies teammate, the late Jack Stackpool, called him.
"We need a halfback and I told them that I've got just the guy," Stackpool, who was playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, told Ernie. "I want you to come back here and try out."
Ernie Steele played seven years with the Eagles.
"We took every penny we had and moved to Philadelphia and never thought about whether or not we'd make it there," Jo Steele, Ernie's wife of 65 years said Tuesday afternoon.
He was a member of the Eagles' 1948 championship team and, in 1943, was part of the Steagles, when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Eagles merged because World War II had taken so many NFL players.
In his seven professional seasons, Steele averaged 5.2 yards a carry, scored 14 rushing touchdowns and caught four TD passes. This was back in the day of the two-way player and, as a defensive back, Steele also intercepted 24 passes.
"It was a lot of fun back there," Jo said. "All the players had their own apartments in the Hotel Philadelphia. We went to wonderful parties. I even got to dance with Clark Gable once."
After his football career, Ernie Steele returned to Seattle and opened a restaurant and bar.
Before pretense, before ferns and flat-screen TVs, back when poker was played in back rooms and not on television, people came to Ernie Steele's. And once they came, many became regulars.
It was a simple, throwback place. A 1940s-kind of restaurant that lasted into the 1990s. He finally sold the beloved joint with the comfortable booths and the long bar in 1993.
"When you were in Ernie's, you felt like you were home," Sixkiller said.
Ernie's Checkerboard Cafe became a part of Seattle sports, just like Hec Ed or the Kingdome. It was an equal-opportunity establishment. Steele served gamblers and businessmen, rich and poor. He had a loyal, local following that stuck with him for decades.
"It was a classic greasy spoon that was the kind of place that people felt comfortable in," said Hannah Brown, who went there often in the 1970s and '80s. "Maybe you couldn't get snails there, but you could get a good burger. You would see everybody from every walk of life. And Ernie was the kind of guy, if you didn't have a couple of dollars to pay for your burger, he would float you the money.
"He would always amaze me the way he would let homeless people come in — and some of them wouldn't smell particularly nice — and he would take them to the back of the restaurant and give them a meal and never think twice about it. That's how I'll remember him."
Ernie's was a joint, in the best sense of the word. And, although it was a plain place, celebrities often stopped in to see him.
Former NFL star quarterback Y.A. Tittle came in. So did Hugh McElhenny, a young Shawn Kemp and fellow adventurer, mountain climber Jim Whittaker.
"Ernie was a good old Seattle pioneer," Whittaker said from his Port Townsend home. "He was a guy who loved life, a real sportsman. When I went in there, we'd talk about mountains and fishing. He was a great fisherman. I felt like we were kindred spirits.
"The food there wasn't gourmet, but it was standard fare served wonderfully. There was a comfortable atmosphere and the people were really nice. We should have more places like that."
Less than a month short of his 89th birthday, Ernie Steele died Monday after a long illness. His funeral will be 1 p.m. Friday at Bonney-Watson Funeral Home on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Steele left behind his wife Josephine, four daughters, a son, 13 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.
"All of his children worked there. It was always our summer job," Ernie's daughter, Becky Whitescarver, said. "And Dad brought so many of the people from the restaurant home. We felt like so many of them were part of our family and that our family seemed even larger than it was."
Ernie also left behind the memory of a great, old joint where people could come indoors and talk about the outdoors, come in and eat a real meal at real prices. His was a joint where everyone was welcomed, where sports talk hung in the air and sports memorabilia hung on the walls.
"You went in there and you felt like you had found a nice corner bar in a much larger city," Sixkiller said. "Ernie served good, honest food. And if there was a game on TV you wanted to watch, you knew it would be on.
"I didn't know Ernie well, but I really enjoyed the time we did spend together. If you asked me to describe him, the best way I could do it would be to say that he was a good, old Dawg."
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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