In the distance, an elderly woman is cheering wildly. She is perched on the back of a restaurant booth while smoking a cigarette with one hand; she's shaking the other--back and forth, hard, really getting into it. Her name is Rose. She's fun.
So are her friends--Joe, Marsha and Ellis. They have come here, to Lonnegan's Grill & Sports Pub in Hurst, for ESPN radio's Wing Bowl--a celebration of gluttony where the contestants (read: dupes with big appetites) eat as many "inferno" wings as possible in three minutes.
The place got packed quickly tonight. There's no shortage of people who, like Rose and her Super Friends, love a good spectacle. This night certainly hasn't disappointed. The competition began earlier in grand fashion. ESPN GameDay girls--sprites with short shorts--smiled with the contestants while Bill Stinneford, who co-hosts a drive-time show on ESPN with Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist/legend Randy Galloway, emceed the carnage. Big guys, small guys, all shapes and backgrounds with one thing in common: carnivorous intent. They tore through copious amounts of chicken with no nod to manners or decorum--just picked them up, cleaned the bones and then tastelessly tossed them into a container for all to see. It was sick. And wonderful.
In the first qualifying round (four heats of three eaters produced one person each who advanced to the semifinals, and so on), the winner ate 24 wings in the allotted three minutes. He was a large man, maybe two of me, and had a lot of experience--he won a brat contest not too long ago.
Tom, a family man and Desert Storm vet, took Round 2 by consuming 29 wings. He's about 6-foot, 200 pounds and told me that he learned to eat fast while serving in the Air Force. His wife, Melissa, came in support and drug along their two children. They rooted for him because they love him. And also because the eventual winner was promised an all-expenses-paid jaunt to Vegas.
Round 3 was a bit weak--won by a Nebraska fan who managed "only" 18. But he had a lot of backers rooting for him. Let that be a lesson to you kids out there: Cheering sections are of paramount importance in competitive eating.
Which brings us back to the present--Round 4 and my friend Rose. She and the gang are really going after it now, trying to will their guy to victory. His name is WingZilla. I know this because the dashing lad has scrawled WingZilla across his white T-shirt in permanent marker. Very classy. He's also wearing a headband. The rest of the crowd is cheering for him, too, and laughing a little--definitely at him. (Before his round started, he came running out of the back and started high-fiving people and hooting like a loon. He did some stretching and hamming for the cameras, too.)
But now WingZilla--undersized at 5-foot-10, about 170 pounds--is in a serious battle. Both of his challengers are keeping pace, maybe even surpassing him as one minute expires in the round. Already WingZilla looks like he's slowing, and the paramedics who are on hand (yes, there are paramedics here) are perched on the end of their chairs, ready to leap into action when the stupid bastard lapses into a wing coma.
Then, from the back: "Come on, WingZilla!" Rose hollers, smoke pouring out from her mouth with each word. "Stop chewing and start swallowing!"
The words are at once unsettling and comforting to me. Oh, I forgot to mention: I'm WingZilla.
Some background is in order, lest you think I'm just some lunatic looking for a free lunch and an easy column. Of course, I'm both of those things, but there's more to it.
In my childhood I quickly figured that nothing would come of the sports I played--baseball to basketball, you name it, I was mediocre. I was "the effort guy," the miniature Rudy the coaches loved--and then sat on the bench.
As I grew older, hope came in the form of a competitive eating contest run by the local sports radio station. As far as I know, they started the Wing Bowl concept and grew it into the spectacle it is today--an event that defies all logic where more than 17,000 people fill the Wachovia Center at 7 a.m. to watch a bunch of sweaty men eat wings. That's my kind of sporting event.
So, at an early age, I began training for what I figured would be my only shot at fame. It wasn't hard, because I'm half-Italian, and my mother and grandmother are wonderful cooks who place a premium on quality and quantity. I was never allowed to leave the table until my stomach--affectionately known as my "pasta muscle"--had gotten a real workout.
After 26 years of eating to excess, I was ready to take my shot. My friends and co-workers urged me on because they were frequently amused (and horrified) by my caloric intake. (We calculated one Sunday's dinner and dessert: more than 5,000 calories and somewhere near 200 grams of fat. "That's just wrong," a friend said.)
The original intent was to kick off my career in a chicken-fried steak contest in Austin. Except I got my days mixed up and missed the event. It was probably for the best. The winner ate more than 70 ounces of steak.
Then, a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon ESPN's Wing Bowl promotion. Perfect, I thought, and signed up. Call it foolish if you like; I saw it as destiny.
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No, in retrospect, you're right, foolish is probably a better description. There is only one minute left in our qualifying heat. I've eaten maybe 12 wings, and just looking at the enormous plate in front of me makes me want to boot. But I push on, biting into more wings even though there's no room in my stomach or my mouth, because Rose and the crowd expect it of me. I don't want to disappoint them.
When time is called by the judge, I'm convinced of two things: I've won my heat, and I'm going to need to see the paramedics posthaste. Unfortunately, I was right about the latter only--turns out the guy on my left, Jay, ate 18 wings to my 15. I begin to point out to the judges that he didn't clean his bones, as per the rules, but then I stop. The victor has to eat again in 10 minutes, something that's well beyond my capabilities at this point. Just like that, my first foray into the world of competitive eating is over. I congratulate Jay and go in search of somewhere to lie down and concentrate on breathing. WingZilla has become SkirtZilla.
Before I can leave, the owner of Lonnegan's, a big guy named Bob who looks like he could have done well in the contest, comes over to say hello. "You may not have won," he tells me, "but I loved your enthusiasm. The shirt, the whole deal was great. You're welcome back here anytime. The wings are on me."
"Thanks," I tell him, thinking, "Yeah, that's exactly what I need--more wings."