By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
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By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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This year, in preparation for the Footy's Y-100 Wing Ding in Miami, LaRue was invited to the nine Hooters restaurant qualifiers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Anyone who finished first or second was qualified for the Wing Ding. LaRue swept all nine, including two in one day. He won the second leg by a scant wing, then ordered a cheeseburger out of gastric chutzpah. Some wise guy bought him another, then someone ordered him a third. Another man pulled out $300 and bet LaRue that in his current state, he couldn't eat five cheeseburgers. "I wanted to," LaRue says. "But I just couldn't cover the bet." At the Wing Ding, he razed more than three pounds of chicken wings in 12 minutes to earn a giant, gold, wrestling-style title belt that he keeps in a cotton cover in his bedroom.
"Some people look at [the contests] with disbelief and disgust," says James Gelfand of Coconut Creek, a friend and fan of LaRue's who helped coordinate the Wing Ding and qualifiers. "It's a freak show."
This April, LaRue finished second in the Sweet Corn Fiesta contest at the South Florida Fairgrounds. To earn a trip to the 2004 Nathan's contest in Coney Island, he vacuumed up 18 dogs in a qualifier at Pembroke Lakes Mall, then told a Miami Heraldreporter, over a huge post-match pastry, "I do it because I can."
He's perfecting his techniques yet. He lifts weights, cycles, and runs nearly every day to maintain enough muscle to burn the excess calories. He has learned not to starve himself before a race and instead pounds a gallon of water about six hours ahead of time, to hose himself out. He lost the corn contest because of sheer mandible fatigue. Before next year's event, he's determined to develop some kind of jaw-strengthening apparatus.
What began as a simple, consuming-all proposition has become all-consuming. "To have the model of the alcoholic father -- I learned those excesses, and later on, after I got sober, I could still eat, but it wasn't an escape that the drugs and things were," he says. "It went from fun to a minor hobby to I don't know what you call it now. I'm a professional eater. I can't make a living off it, not yet. I'm trying to figure out a way to."
Maybe one day, there will be sponsorships, movie deals, signature restaurants. To this point, LaRue has done well to break even. Maybe five grand in travel expenses, five grand in winnings. And a cholesterol level of about 230. He's trying to bring that down a few points.
"Joe's going to any length to enter the contests, whether he has to scrape up his last dime," Stacey says. "I wonder sometimes, but he seems to have faith that something's going to work out in the end."
One night after throwing a massive roast beef sandwich to that prolific furnace in his abdomen, LaRue rests on his floor, his legs sprawled on the carpet. For once, he speaks softly, as if revealing a tender revelation. He says, "I think I can do fuckin' anything."
The weather conditions on July 4 in Coney Island are clear, breezy, and wonderful. Eaters worry about standing in the sun for a half-hour at a time. Wrapping their stomachs around dozens of hot dogs is brutal enough and can induce crippling perspiration fits known as "the meat sweats." But the sun today is mild. It's a delicious day for spectacle.
George Shea, wearing a sport coat and barbershop quartet straw hat, barks to a throng of what must be thousands, in addition to the live ESPN audience, proclaiming his precontest show of rappers and banjo players and cheer squads "Broadway meets Vegas meets vaudeville meets grade school." (Shea later admits he was scared out of his wits, improvising like hell for the broadcast, and had a total budget of $75 for the entertainment. All considered, he performs admirably, though his blue tongue, stained by Gatorade, belies his inexperience.)
As the contest draws near, the 20 eaters pile out of their charter bus and approach the long stage surrounded by photographers. LaRue stands in a sleeveless white shirt and a pair of up-yours black Oakleys. "The sweet corn-eating champion of Florida! The conch fritter-eating champion of Florida!" Shea proclaims. "The missing link -- but not between man and ape. Between man and God! Jammin' Joe LaRue!"
They seat him near the end. Other eaters file on. To huge fanfare, Kobayashi takes center stage. He waves and smiles without showing his formidable teeth. At the devouring hour, 12:45, it becomes spectacularly apparent why the young Japanese glutton has groupies.
He is the embodiment of eat. He is a plague against hotdogkind. He is astonishing. Superhuman. Nauseating. It's downright violent, the way he buzzsaws through a hot dog, then pulverizes the wet bun and mashes it open-palmed into his mouth. The spangled girl flipping Kobayashi's tally card for the crowd stares at her eater like a child watching a mare drop a foal.
The horror. The horror.
From down the row, LaRue is having his best contest ever. But he is a tortoise chasing the hare. His difficulty arises from his blind adherence to the traditional human impulse to chew. He noshes at full height, tilting his head backward like a Tyrannosaurus, and lumps slide down his exposed throat. Later, he recalls the dialogue in his head as he forced himself to swallow: "More, more! You must eat more! Keep shoving food in me!"