Requiem for Chili Dawg

ON THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 10, 2004, an electrician named Fino Cachola was at a grocery store in Bala Cynwyd. Fino, a.k.a. “Chili Dawg,” age 36, from Sicklerville, New Jersey, along with his neighbor Jim Flanagan and two other buddies, drove to the 24-hour ShopRite in Bala Cynwyd at 4 a.m., and bought a loaf of Stroehmann’s white bread (24 slices), a pound of cheese, a pound of chili, and a tub of real butter. The clerk told Fino his purchases didn’t look very healthy. He didn’t know Fino was planning to eat it all within a 10-minute time span.

Fino, of course, was trying out that morning for Wing Bowl 13, WIP’s annual chicken-wing bacchanal, set to take place seven weeks later. Fino and his entourage killed time until 6:30, when they walked into the lobby of 2 Bala Plaza and took the elevator to WIP’s studio on the seventh floor. Fino wore a shirt that read BULLDOG TOUGH/AMERICA’S UNION/IBEW 351. A large man with stocky arms, a bulging stomach, a dirty mustache, a thin layer of close-shaved hair, and a tattoo across the small of his back that said FINO in Gothic letters, Chili Dawg was immediately told to wait. When I got to the studio around 7:30, he was still waiting.

“That’s disrespectful,” Fino said. “This is my sixth year, man, and I gotta wait around.”

“No respect,” said Fino’s buddy, tossing a football absentmindedly. “The Dawg gets no respect.”

Fino’s friends busied themselves making grilled chili-and-cheese sandwiches, and waited. They had already waited through the successful stunt of Tim “Eater X” Janus (five pounds of cottage cheese in two minutes and 20 seconds) and a stunt by a 340-pounder named Dennis, who requested the removal of one ingredient from each of the five Big Macs he then ate in nine minutes and 40 seconds, and that ingredient was lettuce. Fino and crew waited through on-air phone calls from U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (who said he called because he had “a little free time” before his upcoming trip to Iraq, where he would be handing out Eagles memorabilia to Pennsylvania troops), Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas, and U.S. Senator Jon Corzine, who was trolling for gubernatorial votes, and whom morning show host Angelo Cataldi saw fit to endorse. (“By the way,” said Corzine, “that Hugh Douglas guy, does he vote in New Jersey? He sounds like a class act.”) Fino and crew had waited through in-studio appearances from the Philadelphia Soul cheerleaders and a 20-year-old University of Delaware student, “Model Molly,” who wanted to be a Wingette. (Said Cataldi, “Oh my God, she reeks of class and sex and perfection. … If that’s a hooker … I’d pay five grand.”)

Finally, a little after 8 a.m., Cataldi, who’d made no secret of the fact he wanted new blood in this year’s competition, called Fino into the recording booth, and at 8:19, Cataldi went live. He said that Fino was trying out for his seventh Wing Bowl. (It was either his sixth or his seventh.) “And it is no secret to me that you are exactly the kind of eater I am getting rid of this year, ’cause you are a loo-zzzahhh. Arright?”

“He’s one of the best eaters we’ve always had,” said sidekick Rhea Hughes.

“One of the best loo-zzzeers we’ve ever had,” said Cataldi. “That’s correct. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. However. The story that brings you here today is a fascinating one, because, well, you’re fresh out of the hospital, is that correct, Chili Dawg? Tell the people.”

“About two weeks ago,” said Fino, “I was in there for about a week with pneumonia. And just last week I went to the doctor for a nose alignment, so they stuck these two sticks up my nose and cleaned out everything. So. It’s going to get probably pretty bloody in here.”

“Arright … ”

“I have no control.”

“The nose area’s still healing, so you could open up some wounds,” said Cataldi.

“Right, exactly.”

“And blood could flow.”

“Right, exactly.”

“Well, all right,” said Cataldi, “I’m tellin’ ya right now. You’re gonna have to drink all the blood you shed.”

Fino responded by removing his dental prosthetic — without it, he believed, he could eat quicker — and ripping into his sandwiches. He needed to eat 12. “Oh dear,” said Cataldi. “This is not — ladies and gentlemen, a grilled cheese is gone. … Already you can see … that there’s some inflammation in his nostrils.”

“Aw, there’s some blood dripping,” said Morning Show co-host Keith Jones, disgusted.

Said Cataldi, “There will probably be rivulets of blood down his — and fortunately, Al, he’s worn a white shirt today, so it will show up beautifully.”

“I don’t know how he can breathe,” said co-host Al Morganti.

“He can’t.”

Chili Dawg approached the one-minute mark.

“All I can say,” said Cataldi, “is he’s ignorant. That’s an ignorant man.”

In retrospect, the deejays look like monsters, but at the time — to be fair — it just seemed like they were exaggerating for effect. Fino’s breathing was labored, and he was an obviously unhealthy guy, but no more unhealthy than any other overweight Wing Bowl wannabe. His shirt was soaked, but from sweat and mucus, not blood.

Cataldi cut to commercial. Fino kept stuffing chili-and-cheese sandwiches.

Ads aired for the Select Comfort Sleep Number Bed, Ford cars, the U.S. Postal Service, and the AmEx business gold card. Cataldi came back on the air at 8:28, at which point Fino peeled off his tank top to expose the hairy chest beneath. His nose made a noise like a vacuum cleaner trying to suck milk. Fino finished his 12th sandwich with a time of seven minutes, 19 seconds. Everyone applauded. He was in Wing Bowl 13. Still chewing, Fino mumbled, “I’d like to say hi to my wife, beautiful wife, and my two beautiful kids, Shane and Devon.”

“Boy,” said Cataldi, “they could not be prouder. … Yes, that’s really nice. … Now leave.”

JOELLE CACHOLA, PRONOUNCED “CATCH-OLA,” HAS THE LOOK OF A PIXIE — short dark hair, petite build — and the voice of a tough chick. As she sits on the navy couch in her family room, talking about her husband Fino, her eyes sometimes glint with fluid, like she’s going to cry. She doesn’t, though. Joelle plays with the frayed ends of the hole in her jeans, and her son, Shane, plays with a teddy bear clad in a Yankees jersey. There are two Cachola children. Fino and Joelle rescued them from New Jersey’s dysfunctional foster system. Shane is three, and in the process of being adopted as a Cachola. Devon is six, and officially adopted. They are the Shane and Devon to whom Fino gave his shout-out on December 10th — the day he qualified for Wing Bowl 13, and the day when Angelo Cataldi predicted he would lose, once again, at Wing Bowl 13 on February 4th.

In that sense, Cataldi was right about Fino: In Wing Bowl terms, he was a loser. He never finished higher than third. Year after year, Fino would start training in November. He’d order the t-shirts, he’d invite his buddies to tag along on his stunt, and on the day of Wing Bowl, he’d lose. Then, after the contest, he’d come home, stick his fingers down his throat, throw up, drive to the bar for a couple of beers with friends, and sleep the rest of the day. “It would hurt comin’ out this way and that way,” Joelle laughs. “Well, I don’t know how these people who are professionals say they get enjoyment out of it, because you don’t. He’d just be like, ‘Oh, my stomach hurts,’ and it would be hard as a rock.” When it became clear Fino would never win, he took Joelle to Aruba anyway. Twice. “He just loved to go to Aruba and drink and not have to worry,” says Joelle.

Joelle worried. Fino’s health was already sub-optimal. He was overweight, and suffered from sleep apnea; he wore a special mask at night, connected to an oxygen machine. Joelle wondered what Wing Bowl was doing to his system, and made him promise, after 2004’s Wing Bowl 12, to lose weight. In November 2004, when Fino was 36 years old, he started coughing buckets of mucus. He ran a fever. He started hallucinating. Fino wanted to stay home, but Joelle and others persuaded him to check into a hospital, where doctors stuck him with an IV of antibiotics to kill what they thought was pneumonia. They also diagnosed him with high blood pressure, an enlarged heart, and borderline diabetes, which ran in his family. After a week in the hospital, Fino came home with a shiny new pack of afflictions. Wing Bowl 13 was discussed.

“I told him no,” says Joelle. “I said, ‘You can’t do this to your body. You gotta.’ And he said, ‘I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna.’ And then the next thing you know, he was telling me, ‘Put the radio on, I’m going to do my stunt.’ I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m going to eat grilled cheese.’ I’m like, ‘Feeeee-nooo,’ and then I figured, well, if he wants to do it, let him do it. He doesn’t ask for much.”

A couple days after the stunt, Fino woke up with chest pain and drove himself to the hospital. Doctors gave him an EKG, said he was fine, and sent him home. He wasn’t fine. “He was always blowin’ up blood,” says Joelle. “Blood, blood, blood, blood. I try not to question it now, because I can’t do anything about it.” Fino returned to work, but when he came home from his shift, he’d tumble right into bed, weirdly exhausted. On Christmas night, Fino’s pain sharpened. He told Joelle, “My throat is just killin’ me so bad.” Joelle said, “What do you want me to do?” Fino said, “I don’t know, but the pain was never like this.” When Joelle woke up the next morning, Fino’s sleep mask was in pieces at his side. Rigor mortis had already set in around the mouth.

Joelle is a dialysis technician. Fino worked the swing shift as a union electrician in South Jersey, wiring utility lights on Route 73. Joelle received a onetime death benefit of $10,000 from the union, plus Fino’s pension, which was small, since Fino was just 36 when he died. The couple had no life insurance. “Now my eyes are wide open,” says Joelle. “Who thinks about life insurance when you’re 36?”

Blood, blood, blood, blood.

I am waiting for Joelle to get angry. I’m angry — but at whom? At Fino, for being so reckless with his health? At WIP, for egging him on? It’s hard to be angry at Fino, because Wing Bowl made him so happy, and it’s hard to be angry at WIP, because the radio station’s employees were only doing their job, which was to market the station on the cheap, using only WIP’s embarrassingly paltry “promotions budget,” their own creativity, and their knowledge of Philly myth and lore — and WIP had done this so brilliantly that Wing Bowl had become the envy of every sports radio station in the country. When WIP people speak of Wing Bowl, they convey an obvious, and justifiable, pride.

So I wait for a cue from Joelle.

Joelle says the coroner told her “it could have been a heart attack” or an enlarged heart that killed Fino; her doctor friends said that Fino’s pneumonia might really have been misdiagnosed congestive heart failure. Joelle declined an autopsy: “It wasn’t going to bring him back.”

I ask her: Does she think eating had anything do to with Fino’s death?

Joelle pauses and sucks in a breath. “I think competitive eating’s not healthy. It can’t be. You’re shocking your body so bad just consuming so much in that short period of time. There’s no way it could be healthy.”

Is she angry at WIP?

“See,” she says, “he didn’t do it for a living, where these other people do. He did it one time a year. And that made him happy. Like I said, that was his 15 minutes of fame.” I wish I knew Joelle well enough to interpret the look on her face when she says this.

The next time I talk to Joelle, a year from now, she won’t be so hard to read.

She will have found her anger. She’ll tell me about the memorial fund she set up in Fino’s name to help pay for her kids’ future college tuition. Cataldi will have plugged the fund on his website and on the air. But the people who’ll actually donate to the fund are Fino’s union brothers in Local 351 — not Cataldi himself. (“The multimillionaire,” Joelle will say, mordantly.) After Wing Bowl 13, Joelle won’t hear from WIP again. “Nothing ever came of it,” she’ll say. “WIP ended up doing nothing.” (Cataldi’s partial response: “I would have loved to help the Cachola family more financially, but I cannot control where people choose to donate their money. Mrs. Cachola never heard any further from us because there was not much more we could have done for her. We are a radio show, not a social services agency.”)

But that’s all still to come.

As of today, it’s too soon for Joelle to have been let down. Cataldi has contacted her. He wants to honor Fino during Wing Bowl 13. There will be a highlight reel of Fino’s Wing Bowl appearances, and a moment of silence.

On my way out, she points me to a newspaper on the kitchen counter. It is the December 27th issue of the Cherry Hill Courier Post. It includes a 99-word item about Fino’s passing on page 7B. The story does not mention Fino’s wife, children or occupation, but it does include a nice plug for Wing Bowl 13, “scheduled for Feb. 4 at the Wachovia Center.”

From Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, by Jason Fagone. Copyright © 2006 by Jason Fagone. Published by Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc.