Meet the 155-pound Memphis scientist in 2022 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest | Giannotto
Brett Healey was grunting, and wiggling his torso, and stuffing hot dogs and buns down his throat like he was already in Coney Island for the 4th of July. And then, about 50 seconds into this competitive eating dry run, he started choking.
“I’m going to Heimlich myself,” Healey decided, and so that’s what he did. Right there in back of the University of Memphis Law School.
He clasped his hands together and pushed them against his stomach. Out came a disgusting mix of bread and beef onto the cement. Almost as soon as it did, in went more hot dogs.
“People don’t realize the torture this is,” he said laughing about four minutes and 16 hot dogs later.
Healey, 34, will represent Memphis on the biggest stage of competitive eating Monday. He’s one of 16 male contestants at this year’s Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, and perhaps the ESPN cameras overlook this strange story of persistence and community as it comes to an end.
Healey, a research and development scientist, moved here from New Jersey more than five years ago for a job, just as this hobby of his began. He liked the thrill of completing a 2-pound burger challenge in less than 30 minutes at The Tiger’s Tale outside Princeton.
A couple months later, he did another restaurant challenge. And then another one. Soon, friends began tagging him on Facebook whenever they encountered a new one.
“I guess this is something I do now,” he decided. “I felt physically terrible and mentally amazing.”
So it remained as Healey arrived in Memphis and took on Bardog’s annual meatball eating contest downtown in 2017. He set a record back then, eating 40 meatballs in 13 minutes, 47 seconds. The next year, he re-set the record and did it in under 10 minutes. By then, this had turned into something Healey never envisioned.
He did a MoonPie eating contest at The Pyramid, eating 25 in 10 minutes. He ate 20 hot dogs in 10 minutes at his first Nathan’s eating contest qualifier four years ago. He ate tacos in Minnesota, a giant burrito in Memphis, and 134 donettes in six minutes in Austin, Texas.
Healey eventually signed with Major League Eating and became a professional eater. At just 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, he caught the attention of Bardog owner Aldo Dean. The restaurant became his local sponsor. This unlocked a whole new world of friends around the country and a pathway to find his place in Memphis.
“I’ve never been this good at anything in my life,” Healey said.
He calls competitive eating a sport because of the training and technique involved. He drinks gallons upon gallons of liquids to expand his stomach capacity ahead of competitions. Re-creating contest conditions ahead of time, like using cold hot dogs and stale buns, is a must. He dunks the buns in citrus-flavored water to obscure the taste. He won a pizza eating contest in April “purely on grit and jaw stamina,” he said.
“It’s not the size of the person, it’s the size of the stomach inside that counts,” Healey explained. “Some foods, you can just shove it in and swallow it and it goes down, but hot dogs are a very technical food. There’s a lot of hand, eye and mouth coordination, and rhythm.”
Triumph in the Super Bowl of competitive eating, the Nathan's hot dog eating contest that it claims began in 1916, proved particularly elusive. In several qualifiers, Healey improved his personal best only to come up short. But in 2019 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, he ate 32.5 hot dogs and earned a spot in the 2020 contest in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn.
That, of course, got canceled due to COVID-19 and Healey couldn’t attend the 2021 contest due to a family obligation. But Nathan’s elected to honor his qualification from three years ago. It gave Healey the perfect way to go out.
“Bigger picture in life is starting. If you’re not Joey Chestnut, there’s more important things than eating. I get that,” Healey said of his decision to retire from competitive eating after devouring dozens of hot dogs on national television Monday.
Chestnut, the world’s foremost competitive eater, re-set his own record by eating 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes to win last year’s contest. Healey’s swan song is not going to end in victory. The hope is to not finish last among those on stage. Healey’s goal is to eat around 30 hot dogs.
So last week he did one last practice run. He wanted to be precise for the start of the competition, before the pain usually kicks in. The thought is a competitor’s total number of hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes can be projected by doubling what they eat in the first three-and-a-half minutes.
If he vomits in New York, he’ll be disqualified. But last week, he just took a sip from his cup and shoveled hot dogs into his mouth until they were all eaten.
“I don't really like hot dogs,” Healey said when he was done. “I’m definitely going to have some salad for dinner tonight.”
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto