'El Wingador' is through with competitive eating but not with big dreams

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Bill Simmons, known as "El Wingador," plans to move on to other food-related endeavors after his retirement from the wide world of competitive eating. These include a possible reality-TV show. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

After more than a decade as one of the Philadelphia area's best-known eaters, Bill Simmons has cleaned the barbecue sauce from his chubby fingers and stopped stuffing his face, at least competitively.

"It was just time, time to move on to something else," said Simmons, better known as El Wingador, five-time champion of Wing Bowl, that spectacle of gustatory excess held annually at the Wells Fargo Center.

At the suggestion of his friend Kevin "Heavy Keavy" O'Donnell, a Wing Bowl champ who was retiring from competition, the Woodbury Heights resident took up the cudgel in 1999. Emptying plates of wings at an astounding rate, he won that year's edition of the Mardi-Gras-like event sponsored by sports-talk radio station WIP, and four others over six years.

The 6-foot-5 Simmons - who weighs 330 pounds - retired once before, soon after his most recent win, in 2005. After a few food-related ventures that did not pan out, he came back to Wing Bowl in 2011 and lost by a single wing.

With Japanese eating phenomenon Takeru Kobayashi coming to Wing Bowl for the first time this year, Simmons felt compelled to give it one last try. He ate 251 wings, but the 128-pound Kobayashi set a record with 337.

Simmons, who placed third, says his retirement is for real this time, despite the love he has always received from fans and the WIP staff.

"Bill is a completely genuine person," said Rhea Hughes, of the station's morning broadcast team. "Tough competitor, nice guy. . . . He is responsible for making Wing Bowl the event it is."

The former truck driver, now 50, says he earns a living doing this and that, mostly thanks to the fame - such as it is - he has earned from Wing Bowl. He has sold a home-recipe barbecue sauce; has licensed El Wingador wings through Rastelli Foods, a distributor in Swedesboro; and has appeared in KFC commercials.

At a shoot two years ago, the director of the commercials - Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris (Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) - became fascinated with Simmons and his El Wingador persona. This year, the New York Times asked Morris to create some short works for its website. He took a long interview he did with Simmons and turned it into a nine-minute video (http://tinyurl.com/wingador).

"I just liked his stories, and he was such an expressive figure. So I asked him, after the commercials, if I could interview him for a bit," said Morris, who kept the footage on the shelf until the Times came to him.

"It is really one of the best things I think I have done, the level of the compulsion it takes to be a competitive eater. It is much broader than eating though. Bill - El Wingador - is all of us, trying to do something, anything, better than anyone else," Morris said.

Simmons is trying again to use his oddball fame to chase a few dreams. El Wingador Specialty Sauce, already in some local ShopRite stores, will soon be carried in about 60 Acmes. The timing is right because, according to a spokesman for the grocery chain, Acme wants to stock more locally produced products.

"You aren't going to get rich on sauce," Simmons said, "but this is my special recipe, with no oil and no butter, and [with] pureed vegetables. It's great, as you may imagine, on wings."

Though an earlier restaurant died hard - The Inquirer reported in May 2007 that El Wingador's To-Go at Fourth Street and Girard Avenue went "dark after only four months" - Simmons says he has backers who want to start a chain of local El Wingador Challenge Grills. The menu would be mostly wings, turkey, and chicken.

The gimmick would be that each week there would be an eating challenge, with winners going to a monthly contest, and those winners having an "eat-off" at the end of the year. Simmons said his investors have their eyes on a South Philly location first. Wing Bowl is a South Philadelphia event, after all.

If he gets really lucky, Simmons said, he also could be the next Jersey reality-show star. Publisher Chris Ognibene and production company owner Jon Craig, out of Wenonah, were pitching a reality show based on limousine drivers and, for the pilot, they asked a while back if Simmons would ride to last month's Wing Bowl in a limo.

"Then he starts talking and we realize he is a charismatic individual," Ognibene said.

The duo is shopping a reality-show premise in which Simmons would find aspiring competitive eaters from around the country, put them in a house, as on MTV's Real World, and coach them.

"Reality show, that would be great. But that's a lottery almost," said Simmons, whose wife, Debbie, and he affectionately call their 5-year-old son, Sean, "El Wingadog" and 13-year-old daughter, Felicia, "El Wingadorable."

"I'm a lucky guy. I'm getting to live my dreams at age 50, coming from out of nowhere," says Simmons, who talks in the Morris film about having an eating disorder that keeps him from ever feeling full. (Even as a stringy football player at Gateway High School, he says, he could eat as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted.)

Morris says Simmons' story is that of the human condition writ large.

"There is something extraordinary, and yet ordinary, about El Wingador," he said. "He is almost puzzled by his obsession, and yet entranced by it. It is insanity and sanity. I really liked this film: 'El Wingador' is about, well, everything."