Strongsville's already been swallowed up by nightfall. It's early December, and the temperature is flirting with the teens. With rush hour shelved for the day and dinnertime done, the storefront monotony of Pearl Road is closed up for the starless, moonless night — all except for Cleats Club Seat Grille, tonight's unlikely setting for a stab at the history books.
Inside, Thursday-night football draws steady traffic to the bar. Moms and dads chug Miller Lites while their kids down onion rings under the glow of flat screens. Buzz-cut college students chat with pretty servers as the music overhead competes with the digital singsong of the arcade games in back. Wrapped up in this maelstrom of eating and drinking, the crowd is oblivious to the stocky guy in gym shorts and sweatshirt stretching over in the corner.
He's big — fridge-wide and over six feet tall, with the athletic 215-pound frame of a football player or foxhole grunt, both of which he once was. The resume doesn't stop there: He's also a published romance novelist, a magician, and an accomplished piano player, and all at the age of twenty. But tonight at Cleats, limbering up his legs like a sprinter at the starting blocks, he's wearing a different hat: competitive eater.
This is Scott "Beefcakes" Bickel. And tonight he will slam home more calories than you will eat next week.
"I always get a little nervous before events," he says, his mouth cracked in a grin. "But this one isn't going to be like most of my other ones. This time I'm just going to eat."
Since summer, Bickel has been eating a lot. He's noshed his way through eight-pound burgers, buckets of hot dogs, grilled-cheese monstrosities, and a local chain restaurant's entire appetizer menu, all in the divine mission to shatter world records. Such feats have drawn attention, bringing out crowds and nightly news cameras. But for Bickel, the stakes have always been much greater. With the city's three professional sports teams in a collective suck-rut, he wants to balm Cleveland's psychic bruises with a championship: first place at the world-famous Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Competition.
Tonight's event is low-key compared to the all-out pageantry of past attempts. On the menu: chicken wings. The goal: 242, one more than the current Major League Eating record. And yes, there is such a thing.
The bar music cuts out as a Cleats representative takes hold of a microphone to introduce Bickel and his mission. At first, her words are overlapped by the steady hum of bar business. Then the grub arrives: some 20 dozen sauceless wings arrayed on a half-dozen trays — 16 pounds of fowl delivered by a parade of staffers as the Rocky theme echoes around the room. The chatter drains away to a low mumble at the caloric majesty of it all.
The steaming trays are laid out on a table alongside Bickel's traditional setup: cups of water, Sierra Mist, and a large metal cross. The challenger stands nearby, now sporting a blue Cookie Monster T-shirt. The unsuspecting patrons are now on their feet, clapping and shouting in anticipation.
As the music segues into "Eye of the Tiger," Bickel tears into his first wing. It's a feeling he might never know again.
The cult of Beefcakes Bickel has sprung forth from a specific time and place: post-LeBron Cleveland, a cityscape in a desperate scramble for self-esteem. The years of losing seasons, national punch lines, the very public breakup with our hero — it's all taken its toll, shrinking our civic ego to that of a touchy teenager's, always sucking in that gut and checking the fly.
Is relief on the way? With the city's pro athletes useless to salve our wounds, a cottage industry has cropped up among the amateur ranks: the search for a championship — any championship whatsoever — for Cleveland. From women's boxing to ultimate fighting to Harry Potter fandom, newsmaking residents are eager to bring distinction back home. Prime-time glory? Not exactly. This is ESPN3-caliber fame.
Bickel is the latest — perhaps greatest — of them. He decided early on that his mission would not be merely about himself, but about Cleveland. Some would raise championship banners. Bickel will raise hot dogs.
"I think the city of Cleveland is a lot like me," he says, completely seriously. "It relates to my life. I've been through a lot of pain, I've been underrated, and I haven't gotten a lot of credit."
Bickel's life so far has been a juggling act between hard knocks and almost unbelievable achievement. Cleveland born, he is the youngest of four in a family of abusive drug addicts and alcoholics. He was only a year old when the state started bouncing him around the foster system, often separating the baby from his siblings. The trauma of the early years took a toll: Young Scott didn't utter a word until he was four years old.
At five, he was adopted by Norman and Patricia Bickel and moved to North Royalton. Today, he admits that even an ostensibly happy ending failed to numb the pain of his earliest years.
"I never showed it, but inside I was just miserable growing up," he recalls. "I just had so many questions that weren't answered and letdowns."
To cope, he turned to two things. One was his Catholic faith, which still is the steam engine powering everything he does; the second was a superhuman ability to pour every drop of himself into an endeavor — seemingly any endeavor. In high school, it was football; he was a starting linebacker on the varsity team for two years. But a squabble with his coach over what position he should play resulted in his exit. In the dark days that followed, he turned to mastering card tricks. Next up was the piano; he began by teaching himself his favorite tune — Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" — and moved on to other favs, like the Goo Goo Dolls and Taylor Swift.
After high school, Bickel was lured to the Marines by the prospect of college dollars down the line. He shipped out to Parris Island and finished in the top of his class. But Marine doctors determined he had a spinal birth defect and was not fit for duty. After being discharged, he mined the hurt from an old relationship and wrote a 114-page novel called The White Picket Fence, which is available today on Amazon. He dedicated it to Taylor Swift.
Despite an erratic to-do list worthy of a true renaissance (or ADHD-diagnosed) man, Bickel considered his achievements small change. Along the way, shouldering the painful past, he'd gotten the feeling he was destined for something bigger, something grand.
"Ever since I was six years old, I've been praying every night: 'God, I want to make it big in something. I want to be an inspiration to people. I want to show people that a normal person can do something big if they just don't let people get in their way and believe in themselves.'"
On July 4, 2010, he found that calling. After a friend canceled plans to go to a holiday picnic, Bickel dropped in on another buddy. He walked through the door and found the TV tuned to the ground zero of competitive eating, the annual gorge that draws aspirants from around the world: Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. As Bickel settled in and began to watch, a lone thought refused to leave his head: I can do this.
"There is no Kobayashi. There is no Joey Chestnut. There is only Scott Bickel."
The words are booming out of Oliver Gemmel, Bickel's friend and right-hand man tonight at Cleats. Gemmel is a huge oval of a guy, his round chin covered with a beard, eyes capped with glasses, and arms scribbled over with tattoos. A bulging gut props up a T-shirt printed with the words "Bring It Coney Island," Bickel's adopted war whoop.
Gemmel stands next to the eater, shouting his support and pointing out the finer points of Bickel's technique to up-close observers. His banter refers to the twin towers of competitive eating — Japan's Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi and all-American Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, the six- and four-time hot dog champions, respectively.
"I gotta support Scott," he says. "That's why I'm here."
By the time Bickel is one tray into his quest, the crowd's interest has slimmed down to occasional amused glances in his direction. He's still standing upright at the table, his neck craned down in concentration on the task still ahead.
Competitive eating events are usually horror shows of ingestion, the food slammed down in a frantic rush. But tonight, the pace is calm and steady. For one thing, tearing apart chicken wings is precision work: Bickel's fingers delicately twist off the meat like a clockmaker gutting a timepiece. Every so often, his eyes flick up to scan the room as he chews, then they drop back to the chow that's forever waiting below.
Bickel's cheerleading squad is rounded out by Tony "T-Fizz" Carter, a 34-year-old buddy who not only shows up for every challenge, but also photographs them for posterity. He leans the camera near Bickel's face, snaps a shot, and stands back, his face exploding into a smile as his pal toils.
A flat-screen TV nearby keeps tabs on the tally: Bickel's just put away his 101st wing. Despite the enormous schools of nitrates and calories swimming around his body, the man looks good — hasn't even broken a sweat.
The world of competitive eating isn't exactly a high church of athleticism or technique. Success usually rests on freak metabolism, twisted body chemistry, a wide tolerance for pain, and knowledge of the ins and outs of gluttonous self-abuse. When Bickel began to research competitive eating, he realized a guy in peak physical condition — someone like himself — would have an edge on the beer guts that usually come to play.
At the time, Bickel was living at home with his parents and working as a server at the Strongsville Applebee's. Gemmel was pulling shifts in the kitchen.
"When he first came to me after his epiphany, after watching the contest, he said that he could do it," Gemmel recalls. "He loved food, and he was in great shape, so I told him, 'Go for it, man. I'll support you.'"
Others weren't so easily convinced.
"There were a lot of doubters," recalls Rob Bejbl, a manager at Applebee's. "A lot of people thought he was just some goofy kid that thought he could eat a lot — that was my first impression before I got to know him. But I had no idea about the intense training regimen he had planned. That kid trained so hard."
Bickel stuck to a traditional exercise routine one might traditionally pair with not eating like a maniac: hours in the weight room and daily runs and swims. Then there was the water torture: tons of it, chugged in hopes of ballooning his stomach beyond its normal capacity.
Medical professionals recommend 8 glasses of water a day for optimal health. Bickel figured he would quadruple that. He started out drinking four or five gallons throughout the day and chugging at least one more in a single sitting every other day. Such intake can be dangerous. Massive doses of water dilute the bloodstream and screw with the body's electrolytes and sodium levels; sometimes people even die from it.
One day, Bickel downed a gallon too quickly. For two hours, he couldn't remember where he was or recognize his friends.
There were other roadblocks. Bickel's jaw would ache from eating, so he fashioned a homemade solution to strengthen the joint. He dismantled a basketball hoop, attached weights to the net, and put the contraption in his mouth to exercise the jaw.
The gag reflex was another problem. Bickel cleared that hurdle by repeatedly jamming a toothbrush down his throat, training his esophagus to fight off the urge. It was a tip he picked up from a women's magazine article on the finer points of oral sex.
The closest Cleveland has come to Nathan's Hot Dog greatness was David "Coondog" O'Karma, the competitive eater from Akron who placed 7th in the 2001 competition.
"For most people, this is just stuffing their face," Bickel says. "I'm doing it for a bigger cause than any other eater in the world. I'm doing it to restore the city's energy and motivation, and bring media attention to the city."
With eyes always on the prize, Bickel set about growing the buzz. He explained to local restaurants that he was training for July 4 and asked for a comped meal that could serve as an on-site training event. It would be good for business, his pitch went. His co-workers had written off the idea as ridiculous, and the restaurant managers he courted were also suspicious. Until they saw that Bickel was all business.
"At first, I thought he was just a punk kid who wanted to eat our burger and make a joke about it," recalls Sara Munnings, a manager at the Westlake Cleats. "Then I saw that he really wanted to make a serious career out of this."
His first trial: downing the four-pound Monster Burger at 82nd Street Grill and Pub; Bickel ate it in seven minutes, shattering the house record.
Next he hit up Lakewood's Melt Bar & Grilled for the five-pound grilled-cheese platter — a challenge featured on Adam Richman's Man v. Food television show. Bickel put the platter away in 18 minutes, humbling TV boy's effort.
He scraped clean a five-pound plate of mashed potatoes and roast beef at Beef O' Brady's. In six minutes.
Next up: Cleats' infamous Garbage Dumpster Burger. The name fits.
It's like a culinary experiment gone horribly awry: seven pounds' worth of beef patties, cole slaw, fries, bacon, cheese, onions, and lettuce. By Munnings' own admission, the dish is uneatable. No more than one or two had ever been sold. And those were for parties.
"I thought there was no way he's going to eat this whole thing," she recalls. But she also figured the ugly spectacle could be a hit with guests. So she agreed — even had posters made up advertising the September event.
By then Bickel had perfected his method: tear apart the food, dunk it in nearby water cups, then stuff the soaked debris down his gullet. Rather than flee from the carnage, onlookers drew close. Bickel dismantled the Garbage Dumpster in just over an hour.
"What was cool about it was that people who didn't know this was going on, who had just come to eat at the restaurant, they ended up staying the whole night because they were just so flabbergasted that this guy was eating this," Munnings says.
With all the big-game eating, attention followed. Friends and acquaintances began showing up for his attempts, the crowds growing to almost 100. Community papers and websites tracked his escapades. Soon, Bickel's mug was featured on nightly newscasts and he was making appearances on WMMS radio's Alan Cox Show. Fans wanted photos with him, even autographs. Then came a spot on Cleveland Magazine's Most Interesting People list.
But it was painful work. Hunkered down at the table, jamming food down his maw, Bickel was wheeled about by waves of constant nausea. After each competition, his body would be reduced to a grunting mound of drool.
Despite the constant emotional and physical hardship, Bickel was content for the first time in a long time.
"I was just happy knowing I was succeeding with something that took a lot of work," he says.
Bickel's quest peaked in November, when he returned to Applebee's to gobble the entire "2 for $20" menu, a lineup that includes stand-alone gutbusters like cheese sticks, onion rings, florentine ravioli, and a 7-ounce house sirloin.
"Insane," is how one Applebee's employee remembers "Scott Bickel Night," for which each staffer was decked out in a "Bring It Coney Island" T-shirt.
"There was at least 100 kids in our back room that seats 20, all there to see him," Bejbl recalls.
And the eater was in his element, running around the building prior to his trial, gulping down the energy from the crowd. By go time, he attacked the menu with full force: first the heavier food — proteins like chicken tenders and steaks — then carbs like fries, mashed potatoes, and pasta. He finally stalled on the chips and spinach dip — the first time a menu had bested him.
The 131st chicken wing doesn't go down without a fight. Bickel is standing straight up, looking out at the indifferent Cleats crowd and chewing, always chewing. His skin has soured to the color of bad milk, there's a halo of grease around his mouth, and his eyes don't seem to register their surroundings. He chews, coughs, then throws a fist over his mouth to hold back a burp, or something worse.
"He needs the Sierra Mist!" Gemmel tells a Cleats employee, pressing urgently. "It makes him burp. When you burp, you free up space in the stomach."
This challenge is trouble, and it's not just the wings. On this evening, Bickel took a secret to the battlefield that is only now becoming evident: He's not prepared. The normal exhaustive training regimen had ended weeks earlier. As he begins the 132nd piece, he's ready to give up, but not because his gut is begging him to.
In November, Bickel's jaw began to ache. Even the casual nosh of a banana shot a lightning bolt through his face. A doctor confirmed his greatest fear: The voracious chomping had maxed out his mandible. He was ordered to give up competitive eating, lest he risk serious injury.
Bickel didn't write off the twist of bad luck as meaningless. He began to wonder if he'd enjoyed the hot lights of local television just a little too much, gotten too cozy with the dozens of onlookers who would scream his name. Fame had drawn in close and wrapped its arms around him; he'd lost sight of his original passion to compete.
"Maybe God is trying to humble me down, to tell me I don't need to be a superstar or inspire people," he explains.
Bickel swapped the hot lights for hot coffee: He quit Applebee's, gave up training, and took a new gig at Panera Bread. Competitive eating would stop, if that's what the signs spelled out — but not yet. The wing challenge at Cleats had already been penciled in, and Bickel refused to back out on a promise. He would tackle those wings, elbowing aside the pain, and hope for a Hail Mary miracle. There would be none of the usual hype. Without training, the odds were slim. And he knew it would mark the curtain call of his eating career.
After downing the 166th sauceless wing, Bickel is wobbling slightly.
About half of the Cleats crowd has trekked back out into the iron winter night. T-Fizz and Gemmel are still by Bickel's side, shouting and clapping. The pace has slowed to a creep. Wings, once dispatched in a minute or two, now take a good ten minutes to go down. The discarded bones and flecks of skin are piled high on a nearby tray like the remnants of a barnyard massacre.
The food is beginning to jumble Bickel's chemistry; his sodium level has hit the floor, and he's feeling faint. After every swallow, he releases a deep sign, as if trying to shuffle around his insides for more room. Gemmel grabs a pink lemonade for his battered friend, then uncaps the emergency option: Pepto-Bismol. The eater sips from both, then reaches for wing 167. With never a grimace or frown, his face is expressionless as cured cement.
Bickel toys around with the 175th wing; Gemmel is right next to him, talking close in his ear as he chews. After one final swallow, Bickel throws his arms above his head. He's done.
"My stomach hurts," is about all he can get out afterward.
A week after succumbing to chicken wings, in a strip-mall Starbucks not far from Cleats, Beefcakes Bickel is noticeably bummed. He's recapping the past glories, the big wins, and the belt busters. As he talks, he seems to taste it again — not the dripping grease, the caked salt, or the plastic cheese, but that feeling he used to get steamrolling records and challenges.
"Some of these competitive eaters, they almost get a pleasure or high off doing this," he says, massaging his sore jaw as he talks. "I don't enjoy it. That's not why I did it."
Bickel admits that he wants to keep training for Coney Island, but he's at a crossroads, wondering now whether he misread the series of events that spelled out the end of his career.
"If God wants me to just work at Panera, just be a normal person and humble down and forget eating, I'll do that in a heartbeat. But if he wants me to bring a championship to the city, I'll do it, and I'll do it harder than anyone can imagine. I just don't know what He wants me to do right now."
Bickel pauses for a moment. "I want to keep eating. I just don't know ..."
The crisis would prove short-lived, as the jagged course of Beefcakes Bickel's life took another 180-degree turn only days later. The Panara job was chucked; he went back to full-time training, prepping for the Nathan's regional qualifying matches that loom in late spring.
In the meantime, he's taking his talents south, briefly: Bickel's been invited by Ohio State University to take on an omelet that not even the school's football players can get down.
One reason he returned to eating, he admits, is to silence the haters. Bickel holds strong to the idea that a Clevelander's win at Coney Island could give the entire city a needed shot of confidence. So far, not everybody's buying it.
"Almost every time I turn around, someone's talking smack," he says. "People are calling into the radio, saying that I'm annoying and too intense about eating."
But like any great champion, Bickel rises up to the negative attention.
In fact, he says, "I feed off it."