JUDGING KEN

Ken Hoffman steps down as judge at Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

This Thursday, July 4, for the first time in more than a decade, I won't spend Independence Day counting hot dogs in Coney Island. Yes, that was the back of my head you saw on ESPN, watching eagle-eyed as the greatest gastro-competitors in the world inhaled hot dog after hot dog after hot dog — literally ad nauseam.

All for the honor of hoisting the prestigious Mustard Yellow Belt, signifying dominance in the sport of speed eating. And yes, competitive eating is a sport. If you don't think so, tell that to the 40,000 fans who gather at the corner of Surf and Stillwell in Coney Island and one million viewers on ESPN each year.

My tenure as judge at the Super Bowl of Competitive Eating started in 2007. I watched the July 4 contest on TV and on a lark emailed George Shea, president of Major League Eating. He's also the hilarious, over-the-top emcee at the hot dog contest. I asked, can I be a judge next year?

Ken Hoffman, hot dog judge

He said yes, and in 2008, I arrived at 10 am in Coney Island to check in at the judges tent. I was given a black and white referee's shirt and Nathan's baseball cap, with my assignment on a piece of tape under the cap's brim. For several years, I was assigned lowly ranked eaters at the far end of the table, eaters who had no chance of challenging the legendary Joey "Jaws" Chestnut and his strongest challengers like Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi, Tim "Eater X" Janus, and Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti.

It was Japanese champion Kobayashi who brought the "Solomon Method" of speed-eating hot dogs to America in 2002. He broke the hot dog in two, put both pieces in his mouth at the same time, and plunged the whole thing down his throat with a sopping wet bun. Disgusting yet pure genius!

Over the course of 11 years, I've had quite a few wild experiences at the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.

In 2009, after being banned from the contest in a contractual dispute with the governing body, Major League Eating, Kobayashi showed up at the contest to challenge Chestnut … Clubber Lang-style. It was a pre-arranged publicity stunt, but somebody forgot to tell the New York Police. They arrested Kobayashi, and while "Koby" swung his legs trying to escape a cop's clutches, he clobbered my son, who was attending his first Coney Island contest. Lucky kid. He couldn't wait to tell his friends. "Did you see me on TV?"

As I proved my mettle as a judge, I was assigned better eaters who were positioned near the center of the long table. That's where Chestnut and the other betting favorites stood, easier for ESPN to capture the action.

My big break came in 2015, when I was assigned to count hot dogs for rookie eating sensation Matt "Megatoad" Stonie. In what is now considered the greatest upset in sports history, Stonie captured the title with 62 hot dogs, besting Chestnut by two franks. Naturally the world of competitive eating was stunned. Chestnut was the eight-time defending champion and deemed unbeatable.

As veteran eater Crazy Legs Conti once told me, "Maybe you can beat Joey in a chicken wing contest in June, but nobody beats Joey eating hot dogs on July 4." Conti is best known for being buried alive under 70 cubic feet of popcorn and eating his way to survival. When not competing in eating contests, Conti is a window washer, bouncer, screenwriter, and nude model.

After I turned in the paperwork that certified Stonie as the new champ, I was approached by a field producer for CNN. Would I do an interview in front of the stage? I said no, I'm a little covered with wet hot dog chunks and soggy bun bits (competitive eaters are such Messy Marvins), can we do this a little later?

Hoffman on CNN

At 4 pm, I was on the fifth floor of Time Warner Center, in the makeup room for my appearance on CNN International. The makeup woman said she had recently dabbed powder on former President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's noses. And now me.

I was placed in a tiny studio, just a chair for me, and a camera with a small monitor under the lens. I could see anchor Jonathan Mann doing the news from London. Then it was my turn. He asked me, "How does somebody eat 62 hot dogs in only 10 minutes?" When I answered, in gross detail, I could see a look on his face that said, "Sorry I asked." My 90 seconds of processed meat fame aired around the world that night and all the next day.

After Stonie's victory, I was on my way. The next three years, I counted the hot dogs for Chestnut, winner, winner, winner, and Miki Sudo, winner, winner, winner. Nobody in the history of competitive eating judging will ever top my 7-peat, plus I did it on the grandest stage of them all, July 4 in Coney Island. I also counted gyros and matzoh balls for Chestnut in eating contests in Houston. I should be in the Major League Eating Hall of Fame! Is there one?

Continue on CultureMap to read about the "Great Hot Dog Scandal of 2018."


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Watt shocked fans with a surprise Twitter announcement. Composite image by Jack Brame.

We're not sure when Houston will erect its own Mt. Rushmore for sports legends, but we're quite certain that J.J. Watt, who announced his retirement on Tuesday, December 27, and his chiseled countenance will one day jut from the rocky sculpture.

A no-brainer for the NFL Hall of Fame and arguably the greatest player to ever don a Houston Texans uniform (the other being the quiet great Andre Johnson), Watt broke the news on social media, where he posted heartwarming photos of he, wife Kealia, son Koa, and his family.

He stunned the football world — and fans — with this simple message and those family photos taken after his current team the Arizona Cardinals lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Koa’s first ever NFL game. My last ever NFL home game. My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude. It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure.

For many in Houston, it's still a bit surreal to see Justin James Watt — the NFL superstar drafted in the first round in 2011 by the Texans — in Arizona. (A pick that put this publication on the national map for all the wrong reasons with an embarrassing hot take).

After an understandable but still bittersweet release in February 2021, Watt made headlines by signing with the Cardinals, a move many applauded, given the Texans' downward trajectory.

Renowned for his relentless motor, Navy SEAL-type work ethic, team-first approach, and straight-up bulldozing and game wrecking, Watt quickly became a one-man nightmare for opposing coaches and players. Even Hollywood jumped on the WattWagon, with Arnold Schwarzenegger calling Watt a future action star and offering some motivation after a big playoff loss.

His Pick 6 play during the Texans' first-ever playoff game, where he batted down a pass from Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and rumbled in for a touchdown, not only served as a terrifying calling card for the rookie, but would later inspire one his many nicknames: "J.J. Swat."

He would soon become one of only three players in NFL history to win at least three AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards, in 2012, 2014, and 2015. In 2014, he made such a splash that he came in second overall for NFL MVP, a rare feat for even the best defensive players.

His stats are nothing short of Hall of Fame-ready. He leads the NFL in tackles for loss (172), quarterback hits (281), multi-sack games (26) and sack yards (713.5), while ranking second in sacks (101.0). In 2020, Watt, who led the NFL in sacks twice (2012 and 2015), became the fourth-fastest player in NFL history to total 100.0 sacks, doing so in just his 120th career game, per team stats.

As the NFL Network notes, Watt will retire as only of three players in NFL history to win Defensive Player of the Year three times. Add to that his five first-team All-Pro honors, five Pro Bowl trips, and his status as a two-time NFL sack leader (his 74.5 sacks over that span of time are the second-most since 1982.)

But for all his numbers, perhaps the most significant for No. 99 is $41.6 million: the amount he raised in 2017 for Hurricane Harvey relief — the largest crowd-sourced fundraiser in history. What started as a simple ask for help after the storm became a runaway, feel-good charitable moment across the country — a testament to Watt's superstar power and his ability to influence the public and raise awareness.

One part single-man football army, one part Captain America, Watt evolved into the epitome of the athlete doing it right — on the field and off (even his "Dream Big. Work Hard." Twitter bio is a simple lesson for young athletes everywhere), deftly navigating the intersection of sports and pop culture. Flashing his boyish grin and monstrous biceps, he was a natural fixture on local and national TV commercials, and a viral sensation with ominous warnings to opponents, like this scary "ya mess with me..." declaration in 2014.

Not since Earl Campbell has Houston seen an NFL player put his team and city on his broad shoulders. At six-foot-four and 280 pounds, Watt is a literal and figurative Houston giant, one who cemented all-time hero status with deeds over words, giving over taking, and always being gracious to those across the world who adored him.

The 33-year-old husband, father, and sports powerhouse may be calling it a career in Arizona, but he'll always be a Houstonian — and one of the greatest pro athletes to ever call the city home. Here's hoping if baby Koa Watt elects a career in pro football, he gets a call from Houston on draft night.

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