Keith Solomon and his friends at the University of Maryland took down entire pizzas, dozens of chicken wings and pounds of fries. The competitions they had during their freshman year were simply about using dining hall points that were about to expire.
Two years later, Solomon and company have founded the nation’s first collegiate competitive eating club team.
“We were kind of surprised that we were the first,” said Solomon, a 20-year-old environmental engineering major and club president.
Now the challenge is for them to find others to compete against. The Maryland club, which started out as bragging rights, is trying to get its rivals at Duke to form a team. And students at several schools have contacted the club with an interest in starting a chapter of their own.
“Our hope is that this will culminate in a national championship in May," said Solomon, whose eating nickname is King. "That would be pretty sweet if we could get that done."
In the meantime, King and his court are gaining in numbers and working on strategy. The club boasts 30 members, and they take turns meeting at different people’s houses.
“We’ve done time trials with pizza and sandwiches," Soloman said. "Just to get an idea of who’s good with what. My specialty is Jell-o, but I’m not the best eater on the team.”
That distinction belongs to Phil “The Fury” Fiore.
He is not from the original group that gorged at the dining hall. Fiore had been honing his competitive eating chops long before the club became official in November.
“I’ve been eating competitively for a few years against friends and in some local competitions," said Fiore, a sophomore marketing major. "It’s like a pick-up sport. When I heard about the competitive eating team, it was an easy fit."
Fiore’s credentials include a victory at the 2009 Whiz Bowl, where he took down 8.5 cheese steaks in 15 minutes at the Saphire Café in Bethesda. He has also battled with professional competitive eaters at a dumpling contest in New York City, where he finished in the top 10.
Fiore is serious about his eating, but most of the club members just do it for fun.
“I personally am not looking to go professional, but I know at least one or two people would like to do this in the future,” Solomon said. “I guess you can kind of look at it as a farm team.”
Pat “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, ranked No. 2 in the world by Major League Eating, loves the idea of a collegiate competitive eating club.
“I’m jealous, actually,” he said. “It’s a smart thing for them to do. And I think it’ll bring more interest and exposure to competitive eating, which is good for the sport.”
Bertoletti attended culinary school and said he would’ve jumped at the chance to join a similar club had it been around. His advice to the team is to be safe. MLE rules call for a paramedic to be on-hand for all events, and he doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt. After that, “Deep Dish” said, simply have fun.
“They’ll probably go to buffets, but they should check out the restaurant challenges in the area, and check out MLE when we’re in Maryland,” Bertoletti said. “I would definitely like to meet those guys.”
Fiore would enjoy that. He has his sights set on the big leagues.
“I’m going to be the MVP of this team,” he said, half-joking. “We’ll have to see if any pro clubs want to pick me up. There should be a competitive eating draft. I’d go in the first round.”
But for now, the Maryland team simply needs competition.
“My school has a Quidditch team,” Fiore said, referring to the fictional sport in the Harry Potter books. “If a Quidditch team can go national, why can’t competitive eating?”