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An appetite for a double life

Most men are hung up on some kind of sport. The MLB, the NHL, the NFL, the PGA; there are too many to name. Not often are the three letters "M," "L" and "E" mentioned together in the world of sports fans. Is Major League Eating a sport?

OK, so it may not technically be a sport, but the men involved in it consider it one. Enter Jim Reeves, Buffalo native, teacher at Gowanda, father of three, your typical family man. Walking down the hallway at school, he seems like any other teacher. Behind the mask he wears springs forth an eating machine that holds the world record for the most watermelon eaten in 15 minutes.

Reeves participates in several eating contests a year. His involvement in eating competitions has taken him to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Ohio and many more places. Most recently, he competed in the annual U.S. Buffalo Wing Eating Championship at Coca-Cola Field in downtown Buffalo, where he placed eighth on Sept. 5, and then came in fifth the next day.

But, Reeves has not been doing this all of his life. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing that turned into a real hobby.

"When they were having the first [Buffalo Wing] Festival six year ago, [my brother-in-law] was in town, and I knew that the festival was that weekend," said Reeves, looking back on how it all started. "[My brother-in-law] said, 'Hey! There's a chicken wing-eating contest! You should be in that!' "

"I walked up to George Shea [chairman of Major League Eating] and said, 'Hey, can local guys get in on this contest?' and he said, 'Well, can you eat?' and I said, 'Sure,' " Reeves said.

"I've always been a competitive person," he said. "I realized after that very first contest that this is competitive like any other sport. I never had any longing to be a pro-eater; it was an accident."

Reeves' days of being an amateur competitive eater are long gone. His performance in Brookeville, Ohio, at a watermelon-eating contest was where he found his claim to fame. At that contest, Reeves set the world record for the most watermelon eaten (13.22 pounds) in 15 minutes.

"That is still the existing record," he said.

"I was a $2,000 'Jeopardy!' question, and all three people got it wrong," he said with a smile. Unfortunately, he was not home to view this particular episode of the popular game show. "By the time I got home that night, there were four or five messages on the answering machine saying, 'Hey! Was that your husband's name?' " He added, "The messages were all from my wife's friends."

Though he only holds one world record, Reeves also is recognized as being a pork rind-eating champion. Looking back on that particular contest, he said: "After about 2 minutes, my mouth was bleeding and I didn't eat solid foods for two days after that."

"If it was easy, everyone would do it," he said. "The pork rind one was the first one where I got a big fake check."

Right after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Reeves participated in a contest. "Prize money by both myself and other eaters was donated to support relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina," said Reeves.

Competitive eaters try and give something back because many feel that competitive eating is not economical.

"It's not uncommon to think that the sport is wasteful," said Reeves. "The IFOCE [International Federation of Competitive Eating] supports charities. We do raise a tremendous amount of money that generally goes to food banks."

Let's not forget that eating competitively is not all Reeves does. He is also a father of three and teacher of computer science and technology integration at Gowanda High School.

"My wife and kids enjoy going to [food-eating] contests," he said. "It's a good excuse to take my family to places where I would otherwise never go. We use these as mini-vacations."

His mother, on the other hand, was not too thrilled in the beginning. "[She] was concerned with it initially because I've always done goofy things," Reeves said. Now, however, she joins his family in supporting him.

"I don't have a schtick to get noticed specifically for that reason," said Reeves, talking about how important it is to him that he remains almost inconspicuous. "I tend to keep a low profile and don't seek cameras for the sake of my family."

Reeves (known as "Buffalo Jim Reeves" in the world of eating competitions) has joined those who are considered the elite in the competitive eating world. He meets and competes against great names such as Sonya Thomas, Takeru Kobayashi and Bob Shoudt.

"Sonya Thomas has probably beaten me 10 or 15 times," said Reeves with a laugh, referring to the 105-pound champion who stood next to him during this year's U.S. Buffalo Wing Eating Championship. Despite her tiny size, Sonya tends to beat many of the big men.

"The people that are successful are the ones that are healthy and keep their weight down. Seven out of 10 eaters of the world are under 150 pounds," said Reeves.

Reeves has a few more contests to take part in before he's back in the "off-season." During that time, he watches what he eats, exercises and runs.

He seems like your everyday normal guy, but can Reeves eat! He's philosophical, smart and just happens to be able to eat up to 138 chicken wings (his personal best) in a limited amount of time. His appetite for competition makes him a natural in this sport.

"No matter how much you like a food, after a minute, it doesn't taste good," said Reeves.

When asked when he was planning on retiring from keeping up his double life, Reeves said, "Until it stops being fun or until my daughters ask me to."

Emily Steves is a junior at Gowanda High School.

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