My first time at Wing Bowl: A true story

I’m sure I’m not alone in possessing an urge to avoid situations that involve large crowds, early wake-up calls, and Buffalo wings. We can’t all be sovereign saints of party times. There are some people who embrace that lifestyle and some who simply do not.

So that’s why, for every year I’ve been cognizant of its existence and eligible to enjoy such an occasion, I’ve managed to avoid WIP's annual Wing Bowl and all its affiliated merrymaking.

Until this year.

Perhaps it was a need to see firsthand what I’d been missing. Maybe it was all the “What? You’ve seriously never been to Wing Bowl?”s I’ve gotten throughout my years as a young person in the Philadelphia area (read: all of the years). Or possibly it was a genuine curiosity to venture out of my comfort zone (see first paragraph). Despite what my gut told me, my mission for Friday, Jan. 30 was to embrace the unknown and take on one of Philly’s most bacchanal events.

As soon as I agreed to take on this feat, I hit Google hard. “Wing Bowl tips,” “What should I wear to Wing Bowl?” and “Wing Bowl horror stories” were all included in my recent search history.

I wanted to be ready. I’m the type of person who will examine a building on Google Maps’ street view before I visit for the first time just to get a feel of the layout. If I was going to be a newbie, I wanted to at least appear like I wasn’t. (Though I don’t think that goal was achieved.)

In preparation for the day, I packed a bag containing a sweater (would I be cold?), a small assortment of granola bars (came in handy), a water bottle (have to stay hydrated), chap stick (nothing worse than dry lips), a pack of gum (did not use), and an arsenal of a portable iPhone charger, microphone, notebook, pen and audio recorder (the basics).

As far as conceptual preparedness goes, I had it in the bag — literally and figuratively. The bases were covered in terms of items I needed, facts, figures and statistics of the event — both visual and stated evidence of what I was to encounter — and an internal monologue of reassurance that I wouldn’t be mistaken for a chicken wing and eaten alive. All there was left to do was set my alarm for an excruciating 3:30 a.m. and do the thing.

The 24 oz. Wawa coffee hit me in the part of my soul where I really needed it, and suddenly I was inspired to be not only the best first-time Wing Bowl attendee, but also to take in all the event had to offer me. I wanted to hang with the best of them, cheer on the competitors, and maybe even dance a little bit.

Though, in between the waves of my caffeine high came creeping thoughts of discomfort, albeit fleeting ones. Of course the rumors of the treatment of women at Wing Bowl crossed my mind. But despite what I’d been warned, I earnestly did not expect to be verbally harassed by inebriated men. “Be careful,” they said. “Best of luck,” they said.

Maybe I’m naïve and give a little too much credit in general, but I felt comfortable being a young woman, essentially unaware of the situation I was putting myself into, spending time at this event. Save for the “Hey mami!” I received immediately upon setting foot in the Wells Fargo Center parking lot, nary a male bothered me. No one catcalled me, no one touched me, no one asked to see any part of my body. And I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t want to believe that sort of thing could occur, though I’d heard that it most definitely does.

A woman from winner Patrick Bertoletti’s entourage told me after the competition that she was shocked at the tameness of Wing Bowl 2015. Prior to this year, she vowed she’d never return, but when Bertoletti asked her to join his crew, she decided to make another go of it. However, this year she claimed not a single man asked inappropriate requests or made unwanted come-ons.

Again — and I hate to consider this an influencing factor in whether a person would decide to make a crude comment, but alas — both this woman and myself were dressed modestly. I don’t want to assume this was cause for us avoiding any harassment, but it couldn’t hurt.

As far as ensemble choices were concerned, though, I was almost at a loss. Regardless of temperature or weather conditions, my aversion to pants almost always prevails and most days you’ll see me in a dress or skirt. So I became staunch in my “I will not let Wing Bowl change me!” mindset and very seriously considered a frock with an adorned Peter Pan collar. After taking into consideration the advice from experienced Wing Bowlers, I opted with jeans, a T-shirt with Will Smith’s family on it with the words “The Smiths” printed above their gleeful smiling faces and sneakers. The shirt got me a few laughs — a win in my book.

Back to the parking lot. Upon first glance, it appeared no different than a tailgate for any other sporting event: People grilling, playing lawn games, enjoying a few drinks. Except this was 5 a.m. And I’m sure some of these people hadn’t been to sleep from the night prior. The dedication displayed from the crowd was almost admirable.

While everyone looked like they were enjoying themselves on some base level, it was my mission to find the ones that looked like they were having the most fun. They happened to be wielding hammers and huddled around a tree stump.

Stump — as I later found out — is a highly perplexing drinking game consisting of a 360-degree hammer toss, the striking of an adversary’s nail (each player has their own set in the stump), and beer.

I’d never heard of the game before and as it turns out, I was not good. The group of young gentlemen players whose semicircle of hammering I forced my way into was kind enough to let me join in on a few revolutions of the competition, in which I promptly cut myself on the hammer, missed any and all nails I was attempting to hit, and thereby decided all that home-improvement tools should be banned from tailgate situations.

Stump left me on an adrenaline high and from there I was on a lawn game kick. Next up: cornhole.

Except not so much — my requests for play were turned down from tailgaters wary of a caffeine-crazed gal followed by a dude with camera in tow.

But greener pastures awaited. Perhaps the smartest of all the tailgaters, a group of middle-aged men, had brought a few heating lamps and were sitting comfortably in the back of an SUV. They’d been to Wing Bowl before and knew what to expect and I was grateful for their borrowed warmth.

I felt I’d accomplished all there was to see in the parking lot. It was time to head indoors. 

Upon entering the Wells Fargo Center, a palpable energy was evident. It could only be compared to the essence of the gym on a Saturday afternoon: packed, smelling of slight perspiration, beer and chicken wings, and containing the veiled notion that none of this was actually athletic.

The edible aspect of the competition — the wings themselves — looked a lot like dog food: Moist, mutated, and not at all something I’d want to eat 400 of. They had a hands-on staff devoted to them consisting of the brave souls who were loosening the meat from the bone, making it less of a hazard when eaters would steamroll their way through plates and plates of them. 

It was easy to get distracted. The crowd was a motley grouping of mostly men of all ages, dressed in sports paraphernalia, green men bodysuits, and costumes.

The female population on the other hand, objectified by the kiss cam showing exclusively girl-on-girl couplings, was mainly comprised of scantily clad Wingettes, chicks in tutus, tape, beads and the like, some donning what can only be described as a butt holster, baring it all for the name of the game.

Not only were these women paraded and touted like show dogs during the competitors' procession, but they also were subjected to the harsh comments (and fierce Mardi Gras bead — and even hot dog! — throws) from spectators and frigid temperatures in the stadium.

Now the beads – I managed to procure a handful of them from one of the five designated confetti-dispensing men and promptly approached the Plexiglas that separated the crowd and myself to see if I could get the attention of a few spectators. Easy enough. They very much wanted some beads. I chucked — not very athletically, might I add — each string of plastic spheres over the divider to some very excited Wing Bowlers.

Which was when I was approached by a former Wingette. Her name was Niki and she warned me of the horrors of having Mardi Gras beads thrown back. Maybe the dudes sense her presence and protection over my unknowing behavior or maybe they just really wanted those beads, but no such action occurred.

I really began to feel at home at Wing Bowl when a pair of middle-aged gents, Rob, a lawyer, and Gary, the guy responsible for decorating the winner’s crown for the past 17 years, filled me in on their expertise. Namely, I wanted to know if they were ever concerned that a person could be mistaken for a wing and accidentally eaten. They didn’t exactly answer my question and noted that if an eater vomits, they’re disqualified.

Then the conversation turned to the crown, the glorious headpiece, handcrafted by Gary, ever so gingerly, ever so lovingly. He nonchalantly mentioned that it was within our reach, in a cardboard box just behind where we were standing. Naturally, I wanted to see it.

He revealed a crown adorned with miniature rubber chickens, topped with a decal of this year’s Wing Bowl logo. A real stunner. And I wanted to wear it.

That request, however, was denied.

It’s OK, though. To recover from the rejection, I whipped a chicken. A clarification: I lightly whipped a dude dressed in a chicken costume with his own whip.

Onto the next order of business: The entourage parade, the ceremonial procession of all the competitors and their posses. From human-sized cages on wheels and golf carts adorned with stuffed breasts to a pig-masked eater wearing the now-infamous Chris Christie sweater, each of the 20-some hopefuls had their own shtick. Though one constant remained: the women.

Tape, fishnets, leather, straps, heels, chaps — it was all there. Or not there, I should say.

“Who are you wearing?” I asked of a few.

The only definitive answer I got was “The Candy Store,” which sounds like an establishment that probably does not offer candy at all.

Fashions that were on-point: an extremely large-statured bodyguard wearing an intricately embroidered leather jacket (which he allowed me to touch), and performer Will of God’s personalized Eagles jersey.

Will then graciously taught me the “Wing-a-Bowl Shake” which looked a lot like a glorious wave-like motion of the arms with a gentle body sway when he did it and more like a dog trying to swim when I did it.

I also accidentally touched a Wingette’s butt. To be fair, she was hoisted upon the aforementioned bodyguard’s shoulders which made it difficult to get her attention. I still felt like I was a part of the problem at Wing Bowl, however toned-down the veterans claimed it was.

And that’s when Wing Bowl 22 winner Molly Schuyler rolled out, leather booty shorts, bedazzled bra, black vest and all, on a giant purple motorcycle. Instead of using actual words when I asked her if she was hungry and ready to go, she gave me a thumbs up, batted her jewel-encrusted false eyelashes, and stuck her tongue out.

“I’m still on West Coast time,” she claimed.

The last in the parade of joy was this year’s celebrity du jour pro wrestler Mick Foley, who waved majestically like a pageant queen. (As you’ve probably heard by now, Foley was disqualified for stashing uneaten wings in a fanny pack during the first round.)

After the rowdy and spirited national anthem, it was time for breakfast. I glared in horror and amazement as the men and sole woman shoveled the seasoned meat into their mouths, a spectacle for those from the highest of nosebleed seats to the Wingettes on the stage.

There wasn’t much to do but watch. It was kind of like a car crash in that way. All of it was awful and gut-wrenching, yet you couldn’t look away. I wasn’t eating anything, yet I felt the pain and the anguish and oncoming indigestion.

Wing after wing after wing, they were sucked down by the competitors, who left only sloppily discarded bones on a Styrofoam plate. Hundreds of them. Per person.

And just like that it was over.

The confetti came down, the winner was crowned (by the very guy who’d shown me the coveted item only a few hours prior), and attendees began to either storm the gates behind the press area or file out of the arena.

Winner Patrick Bertoletti’s friends were some of the few who broke into the press area. They propositioned me for a few excited selfies — which I gladly accepted — and continued on a manic, sort of pacing rampage, an honest obliterated excitement for their friend.

When I got face time with Bertoletti, a sense of nervousness fell over me. This dude just ate an obscene amount of wings and I was intimidated.

“Did you throw up yet?” I pondered.

He hadn’t.

He looked a hot mess, with reason. He could barely stand, seemed in a daze and likely couldn’t wait to vomit.

By 9:45 a.m. it was over. Just as quickly as it all happened, it all ended.

I gazed around at the full stadium of willing and enthused spectators and something hit me: No one is making them do this. No one forced them to wake up before the sun (or for some, not even hit the sheets the night before), no one ordered them to file into a sports arena to watch grown adults eat hundreds of wings, no one promised them anything if they cheered, wore ridiculous costumes, banged on Plexiglas, flashed unassuming pedestrians and drivers along Broad Street. But alas, for the past 23 years, this is what had occurred.

That said, it’s an experience I’m glad to have witnessed. Pushing ourselves to do things that are somewhat out of our comfort zones helps make us more well-rounded people, right? Is that what I was doing? Or just partaking in a bit of revelry?

Either way, I had my one-and-done deal and will be closing the book on Wing Bowl and all its loud, drunken, multi-stimulatory greatness — if that’s what you want to call it.

But you never know. I’ve been one to go back on my word before.