By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
George Shea says the league lost money for years but is finally looking up and working on television deals, and talks are moving for a reality TV series. "We're not making these guys up," he says. "It's not like 'Stone Cold' Joe LaRue who people see through. The quest is real, and the competition is real."
You will never eat so well as when you hang around LaRue. "Dude, you hungry?" is a standard greeting at his front door, then out comes, say, a roast beef, pepper jack, lettuce, tomato, and mayo sandwich built into a half-yard of French bread from Publix. On a night when he barbecues, he stands in the small apartment courtyard wearing a pair of cloth shorts with the fly down and a T-shirt with a cartoon pig head from a North Carolina barbecue joint named Lancaster's. He's a droll sort of jolly, quick to offer a dry joke or a flat Sprite. He talks about how he loves the pots and pans at work as he arranges his $29-a-set cookware and begins preparing the exquisite barbecue chicken and what he calls "salt potatoes." He boils them along with a pound of salt and slathers them in so much butter that they taste like candy-coated heart attacks. In a 12-minute contest, he figures, he could eat three, four pounds of them.
"I'm a person of limited moderation," he says. "In every aspect of my life. Except for money. Earning has always been in moderation."
He was born in Binghamton, New York, the third of four children, in 1960. One of his earliest memories is from when he was about 6, when his dad, Lloyd, drank himself out of his job as loading-dock muscle at IBM. The family left its house and moved to a mangy apartment with graffiti in the hallways. LaRue remembers a Christmas when he was about 10 years old -- his entire haul was a secondhand vinyl gym bag. From a young age, LaRue's appetite was remarkable. His old man, a 325-pounder who also answered to "Ox," used to ask him: "Do you have to make a fuckin' meal out of everything?"
"He had a rough growing up," says his maternal aunt, Evelyn Napierala. "His father was not the best provider."
Ox had a hard time getting or keeping work. When the old man would guzzle a quart of Fleischmann's whiskey by 1 p.m. and pass out, LaRue would sneak a couple of ounces from the bottle and stash the stuff. At age 11, he was meeting friends on a nearby railroad trestle to drink.
He had a mind to play wide receiver in high school, but his coaches wanted to put his six-foot-four, 178-pound frame on the line. LaRue ditched and took up soccer, which he wasn't particularly good at because by that time he was generally too stoned to much care. After graduation, he went to work as a cook but dedicated himself to getting drunk.
At the time, his mother, Irene, suffered from epilepsy, diabetes, and vicious mood swings. "I was the only one who could calm her down," LaRue recalls. When he was in his mid-20s, they found part of the cause: She had a brain tumor nearly the size of a baseball. That one, surgeons carved out. In 1986, they found a second one. LaRue thinks her medication kept her blood sugar artificially high, which prevented her family and doctors from noticing that she wasn't eating. Only after she died did it occur to Joe that she had starved herself. "I never really felt it until years later," he says of her death. "Addiction numbs quite a few things."
In this time, LaRue worked a steady procession of humdrum jobs. He sold insurance, then swimming pools, then windows, then home improvement; then he turned a wrench for a while as an auto mechanic. By 1990, he was running deliveries for an industrial laundry. Then he met Stacey Rehberg, whom he would later marry, at the gas station where she worked.
She remembers his vast appetite. Sunday breakfasts were a pound of bacon, two pounds of potatoes, and a pile of eggs. At his favorite restaurant, Old Country Buffet, she would so tire of watching him eat that she would bail mid-meal to read a book in the car. "He was a big boy, and he ate a lot of food," she says. But she loved him for what he was, and LaRue was moderating other parts of his life. He got sober in 1991, an event he commemorated with a tattoo on his left biceps of the Alcoholics Anonymous symbol breaking through a chain. He and Stacey tied the knot in a hilltop park in June 1994.
In 1995, his brother Mark, an addict, succumbed to a brain tumor. Then his dad, who puffed chains of Chesterfield King nonfilters pulled up with emphysema and heart problems. LaRue put him in a home and visited him weekly. "We didn't get along until I was sober," LaRue says, taking the blame for that rift. "I saw too much of me in him." His father died in February of 1998, and later that year, LaRue quit smoking. He bought pretzel sticks and Tootsie Pops in bulk, to give him something to hold, and packed on about 15 pounds.