When the air horn goes off, Geoffrey Esper relies on muscle memory.
His hands, his teeth and his esophagus fall into a familiar rhythm as the clock counts down from 10 minutes.
Like a pencil into an electric sharpener, his left hand pushes the hot dogs and the buns into his face as his teeth grind the cookout staple into nothing. His right hand prepares the next one, soaking the bun to make it go down easier. Most competitors use water, but Esper likes fruit punch, making both hands, his clean-shaven chin and his shirt bright red by the time he’s done.
Bite. Bite. Bite. Swallow.
“I”m pretty much on auto-pilot,” Esper said. “Grab the hot dogs, dunk my bun, repeat, repeat.”
Esper is a single 46-year-old electronics teacher at Bay Path Vocational High School and the No. 2 ranked participant in Major League Eating, the competitive eating circuit that holds consumption contests all over the country.
The biggest of those happens Sunday at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating contest on Coney Island. The annual event broadcast on ESPN has made Joey Chestnut, ranked No. 1 in MLE, one of the most recognizable American sportsmen.
Many MLE regulars, including Esper, skipped the scaled-down contest last year due to COVID concerns. While the 2021 event still has added precautions, it’s pretty close to back to normal.
Esper said his Bay Path students know about his competitive eating, but have shown little interest in it. But within the circuit, he’s become pretty well known. He’s easy to pick out because of the Red Sox hat that’s become his trademark. It often earns him jeers from the Yankee-fan locals at Coney Island who don’t want to see some Fenway Frank aficionado succeed at their contest.
But truthfully, Esper isn’t a big Red Sox supporter or even much of a baseball fan. The former powerlifter, who prefers individual to team sports and competing to watching, just likes the hat.
“I used to wear a Duke hat. I like blue. But they were hard to get around here so I switched to Red Sox hats,” Esper said Tuesday. “Everyone thinks I’m a huge Red Sox fan. I just like the hat and they’re easy to get.”
That’s not the only misconception he regularly clarifies. He doesn’t starve himself before the event. He has breakfast in his hotel around 7 or 7:30 a.m. then just liquids before things kick off at noon.
“If I don’t have breakfast, I’m junk,” Esper said.
People are often fascinated by what the food does to him afterward. If they’re hoping for an explosive gross-out story, they’re disappointed.
“It’s the same feeling you have when you overeat Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. “You sit in front of the TV, you lay back and you don’t want to move. It’s that same feeling.”
He’s hoping to have the feeling with some prize money in hand. At Nathan’s “weigh-in” Saturday, Esper and Chestnut, the No. 2 and 1 ranked participants respectively, faced each other with hot dogs in hand like boxers to promote the event.
Realistically for Esper or anyone else to win, Chestnut has to falter. There’s no tactic that exists to push someone who can eat 50 hot dogs to the well over 70 necessary to beat Chestnut. It’s impossible to catch up.
“I know Joey Chestnut is going to eat 70-plus hot dogs and I’m not going to be able to beat him. I’m looking for second place. I’m thinking about the next two or three guys and what they’re going to do,” said Esper, who’ll try to beat his personal record of 51. “There’s no way I’m going to eat 70 hot dogs. My practices just aren’t close to that. Personal best is what everyone tries to get. Anything more than that I’ll be happy with.”
While hot dogs are the fame food, MLE sponsors eating events in everything from Halloween candy to Indian tacos to White Hut “cheeseburgs” at the Big E. In almost anything else, Esper can more than hold his own with Chestnut. In fact, he holds records in 11 competitive eating events. If it’s pizza, pretzels, mini donuts or really anything but frankfurters, Esper can go bite for bite with Chestnut.
The Oxford native actually dominated against Chestnut in a mixed food event earlier this year. Unlike most events which measure total food finished at the end of a set time period, the Draft Kings Big Game Snackdown in Tampa Bay provides the same amount of food to each competitor, who race to see who can finish it first. On Feb. 7, Esper consumed a whole pepperoni pizza, 32 ounces of chili, 25 pigs in a blanket, 100 cheese balls, 32 ounces of 8-layer dip, 25 boneless wings, a 12-inch sub and 25 jalapeño poppers in 5:43 (watch video here), almost two minutes faster than Chestnut (7:32).
But when it comes to encased processed meat on a bun, Chestnut is the undisputed top dog. So Esper is hoping a strong showing will springboard him into the summer events. After a year of trying to stay competition-ready with few events to enter, he’s eager to eat.
“I like the challenge. It’s 10 minutes. I like competing against other people,” he said. “I missed it a lot. I really like the contests. I would do one every weekend I could.”
What can Geoffrey Esper eat in 10 minutes?
- Bratwursts —36 Brats (4.5oz) / Snowbird, Utah / 10 Minutes / Aug. 24, 2019
- Pork Roll Sandwiches — 4oz 50 4oz Pork Roll Sandwiches / Trenton, New Jersey / 10 Minutes / September 29, 2018
- 10-inch Pizza — 83 Slices / Johns Incredible Pizza Co., Rancho Santa Margarita, California / 10 Minutes / April 22, 2018
- Tamales (2oz) — 95 2oz Market Street Tamales / Lewisville (Texas) Western Days Festival / 10 Minutes / September 28, 2019
- Chicken Wings — Hooters 281 Hooters Wings / Hooters World Wing Eating Championship, Lake Tahoe, Nevada / 10 minutes / June 19, 2019
- 9-inch Personal Pizza —19.25 Pies / Vaughan Pizzafest, Flower Mound, Texas / 10 Minutes / July 15, 2018
In eight-minute events, he holds the following records:
- Fortune Bay Indian tacos — 39 Tacos / Tower, Minnesota / 8 minutes / November 2, 2019
- Æbleskivers (Danish donuts) —107 / Tivoli Fest Elk Horn, Iowa / 8 Minutes / May 26, 2018
- Pretzels — 26 Malted Barley Pretzels / Providence, Rhode Island / 8 Minutes / June 8, 2019
- Sloppers (a chili-cheeseburger combination) —37.5 9oz sloppers / Colorado State Fair / 8 mins / September 5, 2020