Chewing through competition

Jonathan Pitts, Baltimore Sun

He seemed a normal lad growing up in central New Jersey – quiet, studious, a bit of an appetite perhaps, but no predilection for superhuman feats.

Then he saw the TV show that changed his life.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” says Brian “Eatin'” Keaton.

He was watching the hot-dog-eating competition at Nathan’s Famous Coney Island on the Fourth of July seven years ago. That was when Takeru Kobayashi, a slender Japanese native, shot to fame by gorging himself on 50 hot dogs to win the contest. He went on to win the title five more years before finishing second last year to another world-record eater, Joey Chestnut of California.

“I was so impressed,” Keaton says. “I was inspired.”

A junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, Keaton can’t quite say what it was – the cheers of the crowd, Kobayashi’s unyielding gluttony or the fact that the 110-pounder was so small compared to the size of his achievement. But the Middletown, N.J., native knew the sport of competitive eating was to his own taste.

Now, after three years of his own on the feed-bag trail, Keaton, 21, finds himself on the brink of eating eminence. He’ll fly to San Diego this weekend to take on the likes of Christian “Muscox” McCarthy and Casey “Powerhouse” Poehlmann, competitors from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and other gurus of the groaning board in a no-holds-barred pig-out for the first-ever title of Collegiate Nationals Eating Champion.

Keaton is seeded fourth for the contest, a joint production of the¬†CBS¬†College Sports Network and the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, which will be televised coast to coast in May. “I might be a long shot,” Keaton says, “but I do have a shot.”

As he trains for the biggest eat-off of his life, Keaton is part of an international wave of interest in competitive eating that began around the time the 5-foot-8-inch Kobayashi first stepped up to that Coney Island picnic table in 2001, loosened his belt and astonished the public by doubling the record for the 84-year-old contest, then a mere 25 hot dogs.

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