Saturday, February 04, 2006

"Lord of the Wings"

Some of you may remember my posts 'round New Year's time about the Mummers (here and here for those who missed).

As that airing of a revered Philadelphia tradition on these pages got a good response, here's another one....

Yesterday was Wing Bowl XIV in this City of Brotherly Love. The annual early-morning wing-eating contest -- always held the Friday before Super Bowl and started by the drive-time team on 610WIP, our local sports-talk station, who were looking to celebrate something (anything) as it seemed in 1993 that the Eagles would never again reach the Super Bowl -- has inexplicably taken on a life of its own since its first go-round, when 150 people showed up to watch fat men eat wings in the lobby of the Wyndham Franklin Plaza in Center City Philly.

It started as a goof, but now it's become a sporting mega-event all its own, being housed in ever-bigger clubs and concert halls with each passing year, then packing the 7,000-seat Palestra (home of my alma mater's basketball team) before going on to the Wachovia Center, the pro basketball and hockey arena, where in excess of 20,000 spectators have gathered for the last five years.

20K may sound like a lot of room, but it isn't.... Well, unless the event is a non-papal liturgy.

This was the first year that the Bowl was a ticketed event -- $5 a pop, the proceeds going to local charities. In years past, the wing-loving faithful would show up from 9pm the night before to try and secure a place in line that would get them into the arena.

Remember, the actual competition begins at 7am.

Last year was the last straw for the first come, first seated policy as this city was at a fever pitch. The Eagles had reached the Super Bowl for the first time since 1980, and we were all pumped through the roof -- you're born in this town never expecting to see a championship. Ever. I still haven't seen one, myself.

Given that background, the slighest glimmer of hope is cause for bacchanal.

So the usual Wing Bowl hype was ramped up by the Eagles' chance to bring the greatest monstrance of all -- the Vince Lombardi Trophy -- home. The city basically took a four-day weekend, and a full 100,000 people converged on the Wachovia Center lot way before dawn on a cold early Friday morning as freezing rain fell.

And, of course, I was there.

As parochial Philadelphians tend to do, and as there were no tickets, fighting broke out among the tailgaters. Since the only way the people could get in was by queueing up, rival lines started forming, some pulled knives, others threw ice, and there were nearly four stampedes.

For you Russian History buffs, it was remarkably akin to Khodynka Meadow -- just without the mass deaths, and replace the ciphered mugs with chicken wings. But everything else was there, vodka included.

I don't think they had public woman-on-woman oil wrestling in 1896, however, but I digress....

And for all that, showing up at 2am with fistfuls of Wawa hot dogs and Miller Lite, encountering masses of tailgaters and seeing loads of those wonderful things which can only fall under one categorization -- "Only in Philly..." -- your humble narrator e seguito still didn't make it in the door by the time the arena was filled.

Mind you, the arena was filled by 5.25am.

Ergo, there were more Wing Bowl "rejects" than attendees, by a margin of roughly 75,000....

What's a Wing Bowl reject to do, you ask? Easy: recoup at Geno's for a 6am cheesesteak, of course, then wind up at the city's biggest Irish pub with 3,000 of your closest friends at 7.15(am), drink Jaegermeister for breakfast, and try to keep up as a different group of revved fans launches into a different chant every 30 seconds. While drinking Jaegermeister for breakfast.

It didn't take long before the cops had to start turning revelers away from the bar, too. You can see why.

Suffice it to say, the rejects had a better time than those who actually got seats. I doubt we'll ever know anything like that in this town again -- at least, until the Birds actually win the Bowl.

As for this year's contest, it was decided that no past winners could compete, hence the term "Virgin" Wing Bowl. The winner was a 22 year-old from California, Joey Chestnut, who ate 173 wings in the 40-minute regulation period (there are intermissions).

Contrary to established Wing Bowl custom, the champion did not compete under a stage name.

Only in Philly....

PHOTO: AP/Joseph Kaczmarek