On a Chicken Wing and a Prayer

Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — It was 8 a.m. Breakfast was served: several hundred pounds of congealed chicken wings.

Tepid. With mild sauce.

About two dozen hungry men attacked the wings — tearing at the meat, their faces smeared with orange sauce. Perfumed young women wearing almost nothing kept the wings coming, bending low with paper plates.

Nearly 20,000 people cheered the spectacle, having paid $5 each for the privilege.

That team across the state, the Pittsburgh Steelers, may have the honor of playing for the NFL championship, but this is how Philadelphia celebrates Super Bowl week.

This is Wing Bowl.

A radio station stunt created 14 years ago to placate Philadelphia Eagles fans, whose team almost always sits out the big game, Wing Bowl is supposed to be an eating contest. It is actually a bacchanal — a beer-soaked, stripper-friendly, crack-of-dawn orgy that has become a local institution, the city's version of Mardi Gras.

The Philadelphia 76ers and the Philadelphia Flyers don't regularly sell out the Wachovia Center, where Wing Bowl 14 crowned a new champ Friday. The Wing Bowl always sells out. Last year, when the Eagles did make it to the Super Bowl, police had to turn away some 10,000 rowdy fans trying to join 20,000 already inside for Wing Bowl 13.

This year, organizers for the first time sold tickets, hoping to manage the crowd. Cups of beer and soda were thrown onto the stage. Women bared their breasts. The parking lots were ankle-deep in beer cans.

In other words, it was a huge success.

In the soothing words of Angelo Cataldi, the morning guy for WIP, the sports radio station that sponsors the feast: "Nobody got hurt."

Try telling that to Dave Inderbitzin, also known as Dr. Winglove, who turned as green as his Eagles shirt after downing more than a hundred chicken wings in 25 minutes. He sat clutching his belly, unable to take another bite.

Timothy Cusich, also known as Dr. Slob, was in worse shape. In the heat of competition, he rose solemnly, turned, and threw up into a conveniently situated trashcan. The crowd went wild.

The annual festivities are not promoted by the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, which this year has preferred to focus on the 300th birthday celebration of another big eater, Benjamin Franklin.

But Wing Bowl seems to reflect the character of this proud, blue-collar town — a bit parochial, a little defensive, a burg with an attitude ("attytood" in Philadelphia-ese).

Political correctness was suspended for the day. The pre-competition parade of contestants featured a float honoring Steve Spaulding, also known as Ex Con, who was strapped to a 10-foot-high mock electric chair.

And the "Wingettes" — the young women who serve up the wings — vamped for the crowd.

"Nowhere but in Philly would you see this — or understand it," said WIP general manager Marc Rayfield, a proud son of the city.

Rayfield mentioned that a crew was there filming a Wing Bowl documentary. Working title: "Swallow Your Pride."

Philly.com, the website of the city's two main newspapers, has embraced Wing Bowl. The site offers a detailed accounting of each contestant's efforts, plus videos of Wingette hopefuls auditioning while wearing only bras and thongs.

Contest rules, as published on the site, run to several indigestible pages, which may be summarized as: No napkins. No vomiting.

And "chicken meat must be eaten directly from the bones. Stripping the bones of meat first and eating the meat at one time will not be allowed."

Contestants must sign a waiver declaring that "there is no physical, psychological, medical or other reason (i.e. heart condition, diabetes, food allergies, etc.) as to why the rapid consumption of a large quantity of food would adversely affect their health."

To qualify, contestants must prove that they are capable of eating prodigious quantities of their chosen food over a prescribed interval. One contestant, The Wingmaster, qualified by eating 10 hot dogs and downing a soda (a Diet Pepsi) in five minutes. Dave the Dumpster swallowed 10 cheeseburgers and a large order of fries in seven minutes. Robocop inhaled a pound of raw cookie dough in four minutes.

Eric Gregg, a plus-sized former major league umpire serving as the Wing Bowl commissioner, inspected each contestant's plate of chicken bones Friday morning. A wing wasn't certified as eaten until Gregg said it was.

"I don't make them eat gristle or bone, but they got to eat the meat," he said.

Gregg, wearing a cowboy hat and a black leather jacket, was guarding a supply of napkins. They were permitted only between rounds.

"People try to spit in them to hide meat," he explained.

After three rounds and 27 minutes of gorging, a winner was declared. Joey Chestnut, 22, a 235-pound San Jose State University engineering student, ate 173 wings, a record. He won a new car.

But this being Philadelphia, Friday's champion was saluted with a chorus of boos.

The crowd clearly preferred the runner-up, Rich LeFevre, known as the Locust. A pale, balding, 61-year-old accountant from Nevada, he stands 5 foot 6 and weighs just 130 pounds — not counting the 156 wings he wolfed down. He won a Wing Bowl medallion from a local jeweler (retail value $250).

His cheeks streaked orange and his breath fragrant with sauce, the Locust revealed that he practiced for the contest by eating 72-ounce steaks.

"Ate two of them in one hour on the 'Donny & Marie' show, April 2000," he said.

Chestnut was hugged by his Wingettes as he tried on the winner's blue cape and plopped a gold crown atop his crew cut. The crown was decorated with tiny rubber chickens.

Chestnut claimed to be the world record-holder for eating ribs and waffles. His next gig is the chili cheese fry eating contest in Long Beach next month.

But first, he made plans for dinner Friday night.

"Something light," he said. "Maybe a salad. Oh, and chicken. I like chicken. I really do."

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