Competitive Eater George Chiger’s Road to Coney Island Shares an Unexpected Side Street with the NFL

The first time Ron Heller attended a food challenge event to watch his younger cousin George Chiger compete, he didn’t know what to do with himself. 

“My first reaction was to do a one-man wave and cheer,” laughed Heller. “But George was so focused it was almost like I didn’t want to disturb him. I just remember finding that odd. I mean I’m here at what I consider a very competitive sporting event and I was afraid to cheer. So finally I blurted out ‘C’mon George!’ I just couldn’t hold it in.”

The 12-year NFL veteran offensive lineman felt bad for his perceived faux paus. 

“When it was over, I apologized for not being the greatest fan in the world because I had no idea what to do,” Heller admitted.

The reality is that Heller, like most people, was unprepared for the crazy, misunderstood world of competitive eating.

Millions tune in every year on the Fourth of July to the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. But it’s more for titillation, entertainment and downright morbid curiosity than for the love of the sport.

In fact, sport is not a word often associated with what professional eaters do. 

“I’m not going to lie, I thought this is really neat, but it’s a novelty – a gimmick,” explained the former NFL player and coach. “I’ve never been exposed to competitive eating until several years ago when George first went to Coney Island. My first thought was ‘this is so odd’.”

In one quote, Heller summed up a competitive eater’s most difficult obstacle. 

Just watching Nathan’s is like skipping an entire NFL season and only tuning into the Super Bowl to watch Tom Brady defeat a team by three touchdowns. Of course it’s fun to watch but there is no ethos – you get no sense of the world these eaters live and compete in. (And yes, Joey Chestnut is the Tom Brady of the eating world, for those wondering.)

Because behind every Chestnut is a Chiger, grinding out 10-15 eating competitions and challenges every year in hopes of rising in the rankings and claiming various food championship titles as his own, all while living a whole other normal life. 

“Joey’s been at the top for years but I’m battling the other 14 top-ranked eaters, to get ahead of them and finish in the top-10 or top-5 – that’s my goal in every competition that I’m in,” said No. 15 ranked Chiger.

If you ask him if competitive eating is a sport, of course he answers yes faster than a reversal of fortune.

“People are surprised to hear we even train,” remarked Chiger. “We do. We have hot dog season, we train three months out of the year, once or twice a week. We try to increase our numbers, our capacity, work on our technique, work on our speed. Hearing that brings people around – understanding that it is a sport, that we are putting time and effort in.”

But what about his cousin, Heller, who played the game of football for more than a decade at the absolute highest level?

“I’ve watched what he goes through before a competition but I still didn’t grasp that this is a game day for him,” admitted Heller. “But then I watched his eyes glass over and it got me all jacked up because it did remind me of the night before a football game.”

Once upon a time, it was the No. 1 ranked eater in Pennsylvania who was watching Heller on game day, even begging him to come to his class for show and tell. But now it’s the elder cousin who looks on with pride.

Chiger (l) and Heller (r) are cousins who know big appetites, though for entirely different reasons. (Courtesy of George Chiger)

Heller remembered dialing up Mike Golic Sr., the former ESPN personality who was a college roommate and former teammate with the Philadelphia Eagles. After realizing Golic’s son and current ESPNer Mike Jr. was broadcasting the Hot Dog Eating Contest, Heller had to call his old friend. “I left him a message saying that I heard his son and that he did really well, and Mike called me back and asked which one was my cousin and I said George Chiger and Mike said ‘Oh yeah, my son said he was the best!’ It was a cool moment where I was proud to say I knew George.”

Being a fan might be foreign to the O-lineman but food certainly isn’t. Heller may not be ranked internationally, and his cousin has suggested he not try, but he did put up a solid showing in the one eating challenged he entered. 

“It was a hot pepper contest, a sort of sidebar during the chili contest I was cooking in and you had like 10-15 minutes to eat each pepper and then it’s the next round, next pepper. I took like fifth out of 10 people. And then I had a headache for two days.”

They may not eat on the same level, but the cousins share a very similar appreciation for food. Heller’s wife even sent him to BBQ school with Myron Mixon where he learned about competition barbeque and decided to become a judge. He joined the Kansas City Barbeque Society, took a course and became certified. His team, Smokestack BBQ, which usually scores best in beef brisket, is a past champion of the Montana BBQ Cookoff.

From NFL player to NFL coach to certified barbeque judge – Heller’s resume makes him the perfect person to answer competitive eating’s most polarizing question: is it a sport?

“Oh absolutely,” Heller answered vehemently. “There’s training, there’s technique and there’s competition.”

Tune in today at noon on ESPN to watch Chiger for his final stop on the #RoadToConey. And check out Chiger’s interview on the latest Sideline Sass Podcast episode.

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