At Wing Bowl XX, Two Competitive Eaters' Legacies Are on the Line

He demonstrates his technique, moving the French fry baskets to show me what goes through his mind as he decides which hypothetical wing he was going to eat first, what angle he was going to pick it up from, which wing he was going to have next, if the angle would be different on that one, and over and over again. He dips his hand into his glass of water to show that he needs his water at a certain height. He's cerebral, even professorial as he explains it to James for me. It's a balance that he says he got from his father, Yasouo, a historian at Japan's first Buddhist temple, and his late mother, Toshiko, who died about five years ago.

Wing Bowl won't be a completely new experience for Kobayashi—he ate a cheesesteak in 24 seconds at last year's halftime show - he admits that he doesn't fully grasp the enormity of this year's event. That is starting to change.

"I don't really feel nervous or anything, but now that you're saying it to me, it's kind of making me excited," he says. "I haven't had a moment to get excited."

"He's thanking you for that," James says.

SHORTLY AFTER CROSSING OVER the Walt Whitman Bridge, the El Wingador-mobile pulls up to Vitale's Bistro in nearby Gloucester, N.J. Walking out of the car, Bill Simmons—not to be confused with the ESPN personality—is an intimidating figure at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, dressed in a red T-shirt from a South Jersey pub and metal blue cargo shorts. He says to me that it will be a light lunch today. "I do dress better than this," he tells me, nodding his bleach-blonde hair, "but it's Saturday." He again insists that it's going to be a light lunch. Walking inside the dimly lit Italian restaurant and bar, several sets of eyes turn to El Wingador as he makes conversation with the bartender, making time for each person who passes by to wish the local legend good luck; one man brings over his son to remind Simmons how he once tossed his boy a bandanna at an event. Soon, he becomes the main attraction.

"I'm not nobody's hero," he turns to me before ordering the "light lunch," which consists of a Caesar salad, a chicken cheesesteak with French fries, and mussels marinara over a heap of linguine. "It's just an eating disorder and I'm really good at it."

El Wingador has one more Wing Bowl in him and he knows it. He couldn't step away after last year's one-wing loss to Squibb, not after he ate 254 wings, the second most in the history of the competition. One more run, that's what he needs.

"I got a family I have to worry about," he says. "I always go to the edge."

Simmons' story remains the stuff of local folklore once reserved for fictional boxers. Coming from a humble Woodbury Heights, N.J. home—his father a truck driver for a food services company for 35 years, his mother a homemaker—Simmons was a tall, skinny kid who loved baseball and tried out for the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves when he was 19. He also had a penchant for skipping school—he ditched class and baseball practice on the day that then-Temple baseball coach James "Skip" Wilson was supposedly going to offer him a full ride. Soon thereafter, he got his first wife pregnant, putting baseball and college ambitions on hold indefinitely. Simmons would follow his father's path, working as a truck driver for almost 19 years, driving tractor-trailers, dump trucks, cranes, anything.

Things would change. In January of 1999, Simmons' friend, Kevin "Heavy Keavy" O'Donnell, was bowing out of Wing Bowl after winning it twice. Organizers wanted him to find a replacement. Enter Simmons, a guy who ate chicken every day of his life and ate it fast, thanks in part to the dinners he would crush as a kid when all he wanted to do was go outside and play sports. He would go on to redefine the event, winning five of the next seven Wing Bowls, cementing his place in Wing Bowl and Philly lore.

"He's become sort of a local face of the event and maybe the face of the event," Morganti says. "I really think the fact he's a local guy has meant a lot."

Simmons goes at one speed: max power. He's naturally hyper, texting on his phone, eating, calling people, eating, talking Philadelphia sports, eating some more. He keeps talking about life after Wing Bowl, how he and his management are taking meetings for a proposed competitive-eating show to find the biggest eater. He admits that he's had trouble sleeping lately amid the training.

"I'm not nervous, but I'm very anxious," he says, knowing his wife and his managers feel like he's one of the favorites to take out Squibb, Kobayashi, and co. on Friday. "I love to compete. I know a lot of people depend on me."

In the middle of the third part of his lunch, Simmons mentions to his friends that Joseph Paul, known as Wing Bowl VIII champion Tollman Joe to Wing Bowl loyalists, recently died. At 50, Simmons understands the risks involved with continuing to put a straining level of physical and mental pressure on his body. During the four-month period of training, he eats 15 pounds of food a day. To keep his blood pressure and cholesterol in manageable shape, he takes morning two-mile walks on his treadmill, does some work with weights, and walks another two miles at night with his wife, Debbie. He's anything but lazy.

"I didn't want to be perceived as a fat guy who eats a lot," he says. (When baseball player Jose Canseco originally brushed off the idea of fighting Simmons in a celebrity-boxing event because he was a chicken-wing eater, El Wingador recalls Canseco saying, "Dude, I didn't know you were that big.")

But he gets that this year has to be his last Wing Bowl. He said the same thing last year, too. Seeing one of his former Wing Bowl brethren die at 60 is a reminder of the long-term risks involved. He gets it. He pauses.

"I've thought about that before," he says in between bites of his linguine. "There's no turning back now. Let's hope they don't have to take me out in a body bag because I put my heart on that table."

Leaving Vitale's, he meets with his family and management team at a nearby bowling alley. He shakes more hands, talks to more people, bowls for a few frames, and eats some pizza. The eating will stop two days before the competition, sticking exclusively to coconut water, making him downright irritable the morning of the competition. Simmons wouldn't have it any other way if it meant riding off into the world of reality television with a sixth Wing Bowl championship.

"I'm not even full," he says, exiting the bowling alley in the El Wingador mobile, the sun beginning to set on the sunny day in the Philadelphia area.

YES, WING BOWL XX is going to be a spectacle, but it has also become a staple of the sports diet in Philadelphia, where names like El Wingador and Super Squibb have become part of the order of local athletes. For Morganti, Wing Bowl's staying power remains amazing. "Some of these [Wingettes] that are 20 or 19 weren't even born when we started this thing," he says. "Every year, I think it's going to be the last one. So far, every year I've been wrong."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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