Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: Ed "Cookie" Jarvis, a 46-year-old real estate agent, married father of two, cancer survivor, and retired competitive eater.
Jarvis became a competitive eater in 2001, when he checked in at 6-foot-6, 365 pounds. He retired in 2006, when his weight reached 525 pounds. (He did participate in one final, unsanctioned contest in October 2010.)
Over the course of his career, Jarvis won 33 titles and still holds nine world records, including marks for dumplings (91 in eight minutes), French fries (4.46 pounds in six minutes), chicken wings (2 pounds, 2½ ounces in five minutes), grapes (8 pounds, 15 ounces in 10 minutes), chicken-fried steak (6 steaks in 12 minutes), and—a specialty—kosher ice cream (1 gallon, 9 ounces in 12 minutes), for which he developed a special technique to avoid brain freeze. His best finish in the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest came in 2003, when he set an American record of 30½ hot dogs in 10 minutes, good for second place behind the great Takeru Kobayashi.
Jarvis, whose nickname comes from the Cookie Crisp cereal wizard, now weighs 285 pounds. You can reach him at his website, hugeeaters.com.
When I was a kid, I wanted to play football. My mother wouldn't allow me to play football. She was a very strong Italian woman and said: "No football. Too dangerous."
I had a coach who would call all the time, because I was like 385 and 6-foot-6. Probably the biggest guy on the football team was about 200 pounds. I was a big kid, and I always just enjoyed everything I did. I was very determined when I put my mind to something. If I had put my mind to football at that time, I'm sure I would have done well.
It wasn't just that I was big; I was very aggressive, meaning I didn't let anybody stop me.
As a professional sports person, you have to be pretty determined, and everything I do, if I'm in, I'm in. Even with the real estate, I go hard or go home [laughs].
I call it tunnel vision. Or rhino-titis. Because rhinos can't go backward; they can only go forward. And basically that's my mentality: I can't go backward. I have to go forward. I have to find a way around the obstacle. Even when I got cancer a bunch of years ago, thyroid cancer, I was so disgusted for about 10 minutes, and then I'm like, "What do we do to get rid of it?" Because at the end of the day, it had to go before I went. I wasn't letting it beat me.
I saw a matzo ball competition on TV, and me and my wife were watching, my wife being Jewish and me being Catholic, and we were laughing. I was going: "Man, I've been eating all this time for free. I could have been making money at this."
I said, "Oh my god, this is something I could've been doing for years." And when I heard there was a Nathan's contest, I'm like: "How did I miss that? I've never seen this." I guess at that time it wasn't overly popular or publicized.
I always ate really quick, extremely quick. Everybody used to always laugh at me. They'd go: "You're done already, Jarvis? You're done already?" And I'm like, "What do you mean?" That was my normal pace. It wasn't like I had to, you know, practice to get fast. And then as I got into the competitions I realized I could actually train myself to get faster. And I watched other people eat on tape, kind of like football players watching each other. And I said: "Geez, what's this guy doing? What's this guy doing? How's Kobayashi doing that?" And basically I trained myself based on watching the tapes.
I was going to buffets before other guys even thought it, and I was eating 12 to 16 pounds of lunch at every sitting, practicing.
The first one was all technique. I was eating half-pound matzo balls whole. They looked like they were as big as a damn baseball. And I'm like, "Hm, no technique." I'd never watched anybody because that show was on and it was off, and I didn't really see how they ate them. I ate nine of them in two minutes, 50 seconds. At that time the world record was 13 in five minutes, 25 seconds. I said, "Ah, nine really wasn't that bad."
I knew that I had the ability. I tied the guy who was one of the top guys in the Nathan's competition, and I beat the previous champ and tied the world record at the finals of that matzo ball competition. And I said, "Well, if this is my competition, then all I can do is get better from here."
I practiced every food I used. If I decided I was eating matzo balls, I went and bought 15 of them.
A lot of people get cold when they're eating ice cream, but as a heavier guy I didn't really get cold.
When people put the spoon in your mouth, typically the spoon faces up, meaning the ice cream is touching the top of your mouth, and I realized right away that if you turn the spoon upside down, the top of your mouth doesn't get cold because the spoon hits your mouth and not the ice cream.
You know who hated me was the buffets [laughs]. I'd come in and eat 300 chicken wings, and they didn't like that.
In the years I was in Nathan's, you picked up nothing, a box of hot dogs. In fact, you didn't even get that. The year I got out they put prize money in place. And again, that was something that I had told them from day one: You're going to get better numbers the more money you put up.
The years that I was in, Kobayashi was paid to show up. It wasn't prize money. He just got paid to show up. They paid for his airfare, and they paid him a per diem kind of thing. After that it became something where I think people like Joey [Chestnut] made demands. They were like, "Well, we want X amount of dollars and our airfare," or whatever. And at that point it became too political for me, and I decided to get out.
I think my best year I picked up a little over $30,000.
As my kids got a little older, it was tougher because I was sometimes traveling on weekends, and then I wouldn't be home. Plus, you know, I gained some weight, and they were getting a little concerned about my health. And they were like, "Well, this is really not good." So I would lose like 75 pounds and then I'd get back to a semi-normal weight, and then I'd blow right back up when I competed again.
The only problem was, the only reason it was detrimental was because I was obsessed with winning, and in order to be the best at something, you have to be a little obsessed.
Like Eric Booker is a big guy, OK, and he would go to contests, and he would eat for pleasure. And he could have been winning Nathan's for years, but he would show up and he'd be like, "Oh yeah, I'll eat a bunch of hot dogs and whatever, and I'll come in fourth." In the meantime, he could've crushed everybody because he was really a good eater. The problem was he had nobody to push him along. He was going to have fun. "Oh, this is a great time. I'm going there and I'm having a good time." I wasn't going to have a great time.
I can't drive 55, basically.
Nothing in moderation. If I can't beat 'em, I'll eat 'em.
If I wanted to eat tomorrow, I could probably eat more now than I ate then. But, at this point in my life, I realize that my passion has changed. I had to find a different challenge. And that challenge is losing the weight, getting healthy, and making other people understand that you can be better at something else, and be just as good without the recognition. But you have to do it for yourself. Not for everybody else.
My energy and my focus is, when I get to 270, to tighten it all up. And then once I tighten it all up and make it look right, then I'm going in, actually on the 11th this coming month, I'm getting tumor number 11 taken out. Because I had five tumors when I was younger. They were all non-cancerous. Then I had thyroid cancer.
The problem with losing weight is, you really have to get a tummy tuck. If you don't get a tummy tuck, it's like having an old pair of pants. Typically you end up back in them. You see those guys on The Biggest Loser. Have you ever seen them once publicize the fact that they get tummy tucks? They don't publicize it, but they all get them.
I'm not saying I'm not promoting professional eating, because there's something for everybody. Everybody has a different passion. Is it good to do on an everyday basis? No, but most contests aren't on an everyday basis. I was doing one contest a month. At some point I was doing like four contests a month, plus practice and whatever. That was a little hazardous, because it was a lot of contests. You know, professional baseball players play every day sometimes.
I think there was a later one actually. I did a chicken wing contest, which wasn't a sanctioned contest. I want to say it was a few years ago. I ate 53 chicken wings in three minutes.
They said, "Would you do this contest for us and do a little promotion for this bar?" The guy said, "You know, we're going to have some newspaper coverage." I said, "Oh man, that would be interesting." I was kind of missing the media. That was a very nice part of my life. I had a lot of fun with it. I had a lot of fun with the media. I enjoyed talking to them. You can make hundreds of thousands of dollars selling real estate, and never even get a phone call from the media. But if you're a professional speed-eater you're on Jay Leno, front page of the Wall Street Journal, you're in Playboy.
I always had a goal from day one. One of my goals was to get on Jay Leno. Shortly after, I was on there. In fact, I think I made Playboy right about the same time, which—that wasn't a goal [laughs].
My goal was to put competitive eating on the map. Even though there were guys there before me, I feel like one of the pioneers of the sport. People at that time weren't considering competitive eating a sport at all. It wasn't on ESPN or anything.
Honestly, I had accomplished just about every goal I wanted. The only goal that I was short on was being number one in the world. I had nobody else to prove anything to at that point, winning 33 titles. What purpose would I have to kill myself for anybody? And when I woke up one morning, and I couldn't tie my shoe because I was too big, I said: "You know what? Time for a lifestyle change."
Rob Trucks's latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album, for Continuum's highly acclaimed 33 1/3 series. His other work for Deadspin includes interviews with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and the late Dave Duerson, and an oral history of Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton's time in Tuscaloosa. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk. Theme music and video courtesy Steve Wynn.