The owner of a south Charlotte restaurant says he is “heartbroken” over an incident Sunday in which bantering between football fans got out of control, resulting in a U.S. Marine who lost both legs in Afghanistan being forced to leave the eatery with his wife, parents and friends.
Chris Neilsen, owner of the Moosehead Grill on Montford Drive, has been in contact with family members of Marine Garrett Carnes, of Mooresville, following the incident that Neilsen says “was awful.”
“I want to somehow make it right by them,” Neilsen says.
During a verbal altercation that some witnesses said almost came to blows, one patron allegedly told Carnes he was using his wheelchair “as an excuse.”
In an interview with The Observer, however, the fan said Carnes and members of his party were equally abusive. And he denied making a remark about the Marine’s wheelchair.
The incident happened after Carnes, his wife Courtney, their parents, and friends Brett and Nicole Coburn stopped at the restaurant for dinner after attending the Carolina Panthers’ game against Dallas. Several members of the party, including Garrett Carnes, were wearing Dallas Cowboys jerseys.
“Courtney was the first one out of the vehicle, and while she was getting Garrett’s wheelchair, one guy immediately started yelling at her,” said Brett Coburn, who described the man’s comments as “taunts.”
Coburn said that when the group reached the front door, the fan was waiting for them.
“He was standing at the door, and he started harassing us because of the Cowboys jerseys,” Coburn said.
He said the fan told Garrett Carnes, “Don’t use your wheelchair as a crutch.”
The fan, who did not want to give his name, gave a different account.
“Moosehead is a Panthers’ bar,” he said. “When they came, wearing the Cowboys’ jerseys, I started up on them. I asked them if they were Cowboys fans who lived in North Carolina.”
“I’m not going to fight someone in a wheelchair,” the fan said. “I said to him, ‘I’m not fighting you. Get four of your boys, and I’ll fight them.’ “
According to multiple accounts of the incident, Carnes told the patron – and others who were ridiculing the group for being Cowboys’ fans – that he was a veteran and had lost his legs in Afghanistan.
Members of the Carnes-Coburn party tried to “defend ourselves verbally,” Brett Coburn said.
“We were going back and forth,” the fan said. “Yes, it got out of control.”
The fan said one woman in the Carnes-Coburn party swore at him.
He said the fan walked toward Carnes in a threatening way, and some other patrons stepped in to break it up.
Neilsen said his employees are trained to separate possible combatants, in an effort to defuse such situations. On Sunday, staff members asked Garrett Carnes and his party to leave, while they took the fan to another area of the restaurant.
“It spiraled out of control,” Coburn says.
Courtney Carnes called police, but no charges were filed.
Neilsen said he arrived at the restaurant after the group had left and was in the parking lot, talking to police.
“I didn’t want them to leave,” he said of the Carnes-Coburn party, “but I understand why they left. I’m miserable. My heart hurts for them.”
He said the trouble was caused by people who “are not regulars” at the restaurant and added that the fan was not welcome to return.
Carnes, who is still undergoing treatment for his wounds at a Washington-area hospital, is trying to stay out of the dispute, Coburn said. Carnes’ mother, Rhonda, addressed a note to restaurant patrons on Facebook, saying, “Why didn’t any of you stand up for my son and daughter? And to think my son almost died for every single person in that bar, by defending all your freedom.”
The fan told the Observer, “He (Carnes) is a veteran, and I appreciate what he did for this country. But I don’t appreciate how abusive they were.”