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This was a very bad idea

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The Weekly‘s Guy Bertuzzi (first row, second from left) and Bruce Spotleson (first row, third from left) struggle during Steve Martorano’s second annual meatball-eating contest at The Rio on Nov. 7, 2010.
Photo: TVT
Guy Bertuzzi

Every once in a while, I do something stupid.

It wasn’t so long ago that I danced on the bar at Hennessey’s to raise money for Haiti. Of course, I couldn’t just dance on the bar. I did it wearing a small pink tank top with the Pretty Kitty Brazilian waxing salon logo on it. Given that I am 260 pounds, this was somewhat like putting a Barbie T-shirt on a gorilla.

Everyone has that friend that they can convince to do anything. I am that person. And about a month ago it happened again. Paula in our marketing department emails me about a meatball-eating contest. Paula knows I am a fan of good meatballs, and she knows about my crush on chef Carla Pellegrino of Rao’s, who makes the best meatballs in town. But I don’t think anything of it until I hear Las Vegas Weekly publisher Bruce Spotleson boasting he can eat more meatballs than me. So I do what any man would do: I challenge him.

That is my first mistake. My second is telling my dad in Florida. He asks if I am an idiot and whether I know there would be obvious health risks involved. "These people train for days, and take it pretty seriously,” he tells me before I chase him off the phone. “You can die." I may be 33 years old, but my dad telling me I cannot do something only fuels the fire more.

Word soon gets around the office that Bruce and I are participating in this contest, and everyone wants to watch. Suddenly, I’m getting psyched. The previous week, the Weekly had published an interview with Joey Chestnut, in which he said he drinks a bottle of Everclear after every contest to calm his muscles. Recalling that I drank a bottle of Everclear once at Woodstock ’94 and survived, I begin to feel this might be my kind of contest. I even start counting my meatballs before they’ve been swallowed. I figure I can average four a minute. I’ll probably even place in the money.

The event is scheduled for Sunday. On Friday, I go to see a friend’s band Downtown. I get down to Fremont and guzzle about six beers, three shots of Jameson and four shots of Patron. Dancing at the Griffin and drinking at Hennessey's is not the way to prepare for a meatball-eating contest. The experts say to eat lettuce and drink lots of water. I should have listened to them, I think, as I arrive home at 2 a.m.

But my confidence is unshaken. I’ve even started to think I can take Joey Chestnut himself without too much trouble. Until, that is, my wife shows me his interview on a recent morning show. There on the screen, Joey Chestnut downs eight meatballs in 30 seconds. It’s the first time I ever break a sweat watching TV, but a funny thing happens next: I start to get hungry.

It’s my daughter’s birthday party that weekend as well, so I order 12 pizzas from Pizza Hut. My wife says it’s too many, and after we debate a while, I still order the 12. But when only 20 people show, we have eight pizzas left over. Because I don’t like losing an argument with my wife, I go ahead and eat two large pepperoni pizzas myself. Then we have six pizzas left, and I have to use the bathroom.

Flash forward to the Sunday morning of the competition. At this point I am ready to admit that a meatball eating contest is the dumbest idea ever. My wife lets me know that, actually, I have had many dumb ideas, and this may not have been the worst. But I pack up the kids, nanny and wife in the car and proceed to Martorano's at the Rio, all the while getting peppered with emails from people asking if I am still going. Regretfully, I am.

When we get to the Rio the guy running things asks me to sign a waiver absolving them of any liability. I’m reminded of my dad‘s warning. I am no longer thinking I can win this thing. Instead, I’m thinking I may choke and die.

They bring all of the competitors into Martorano's, and Joey Chestnut walks in, a celebrity in the world of eating. We meet a woman who looks to be 80 pounds soaking wet, and Bruce and I agree we can’t possibly lose a meatball-eating contest to her. At least we’ll beat someone.

When it’s time for the competition, showgirls walk us one by one down the stairs while they announce our names. I even get my own theme song, which I don’t remember now, because I was too busy not falling down the stairs. The announcer jokes that I just came for a free lunch.

Our seats are dead-center front row. I realize that when they show this on local news and ESPN I will be in every shot, and I begin to think I am going to throw up before I even pick up my fork. Ron Koch is setting next to me; he brought his own water. I ask him for advice and he tells me "Don't look away from your dish.” So I look down at my plates of meatballs and see the largest basil leaf known to man. I will certainly choke to death.

Holly Madison begins the countdown. Three ... two ... one ... and we’re off! I down three or four meatballs in about two minutes. Bruce has only had two so far, so I am solid. But when I get to the fifth meatball, I can put only half of it in my mouth, and that's when the sweats start, oh, and the gag reflex. Bruce throws some water on his hands, splashes his face, stands up and beats his chest. More time to beat him, I think. Then I realize it’s all about to come back up.

Throwing up in public is a big fear of mine, right up there with being buried alive. I set two goals at this time: Stay one meatball ahead of Bruce, and don't throw up! For the remainder of the contest I focus intensely on not puking ... and on hoping the damn thing will end.

Finally, it does. Bruce finishes with 10 meatballs, I have eaten 11. Neither of us has come close to that freakishly small woman who ate 35 meatballs. For the next week of my life, I’m an F-list celebrity. I get calls from Vegas and the East Coast asking if that was me they saw on TV for the meatball contest. I proudly admit that it was and finally post on Facebook the details of the contest. Clients and friends either praise me or rip me depending on how they feel about meatballs and near-gagging. But it’s my brother’s comment that sums it up best: I always wondered what idiots actually joined those competitions, he says. So thanks for answering that for me!

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