“Come in!” I heard a voice say after I knocked on the front door of 1640 Valdez Street. I opened the door and, surveying the scene, became slightly nervous. The living room was packed with around fifteen other guys, most of whom were speaking loudly enough that the ensuing cacophony jarred my senses. I walked to a quiet out-of-the-way corner.
“Greg!” Brian said, writing on a clipboard. “This is your first Man of Steel, right?”
“Yes. What do I do?”
“Just hang out for a while. A lot of people who told me they would be here aren’t yet. And don’t forget to grab a t-shirt; they’re in that box over there.”
“Greg?” a large blond guy standing next to Brian said. “This is Greg that you’re gonna live with next year?”
“Yes,” Brian said. “Greg, do you know Mike Kozlovsky? He’s one of my housemates.”
“I’ve seen you around,” I said.
“Hi,” the large blond guy said, shaking my hand. “I’m Mike.”
“Nice to meet you,” I replied. I knew so many Mikes and Michaels that I would probably think of this guy as Mike Kozlovsky, not just Mike.
The Man of Steel competition had an entry fee, mostly to cover the cost of printing the t-shirts. I had seen a few older JCF students wearing Man of Steel shirts from previous years, but I did not know until recently what Man of Steel meant. I pulled an extra large size one out of the box Brian had pointed to; it was white, with a silhouette of Superman on the front. The shirt said, “To save the world, this MAN OF STEEL is faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But nothing he can do…” I turned the shirt over to see a silhouette of Jesus on the cross, and the rest of the sentence: “… can cover our sins. Isaiah 53:10-12.” I liked that. Hopefully no one would get in trouble for trademark infringement, for the unauthorized Superman references.
Eddie saw me and said, “Greg! You made it! Are you ready?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
As I mingled and talked to people over the next half hour, more guys trickled in, and over thirty young adult men packed the living room and kitchen by the time Brian called us all to attention at 10:30. “Welcome to the twelfth annual Man of Steel Competition,” Brian said. “The first event is Frisbee golf. We printed out directions, and the tees and targets are marked. Maximum score for a hole is six, so if you don’t hit the target in five throws, your score is six. You will be in groups of four for the day, and one group will leave every five minutes. The first group will be…” Brian looked down at his clipboard. “Raphael, Lars, John, and Todd.”
As those four left the house with flying discs, I wandered around the room, talking to people and snacking on chips and salsa, listening for my name. “Group 2: Eddie, Shawn, Mike Kozlovsky, and Brent,” Brian announced five minutes later. Five minutes after that, Brian announced, “Group 3: Xander, Matt, Greg, and Kieran.”
I stood up and walked toward Brian. He gave the four of us a copy of the directions for the course, a pencil, and a score sheet. “Do you need an extra Frisbee?” Brian asked me, noticing that I did not have one.
“Yeah,” I said. Brian handed me an orange flying disc with the logo of the Big 5 Sporting Goods store on one side and his initials, BMB, scribbled in Sharpie on the other side.
“The first tee is right outside the house,” Brian explained. “Good luck!”
“Thanks,” I said.
Twelve years ago, some guys from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship got together for something that they called the Man of Steel Competition. It was an all-day hangout consisting of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and poker games. Whoever was the most successful at the three events was crowned the Man of Steel and given a trophy to keep for the year. Whoever finishes in last place is named the Weenie and receives an extra-small t-shirt as a humorous consolation prize. The competition had been announced at JCF over the last few weeks, and Brian and Eddie had both specifically encouraged me to come.
In my group, Xander was my year, a sophomore. I had met him in January, when he and Eddie had kindly prayed with me and invited me to hang out at their house when I was having a bad day. Matt was a junior, who lived in the same house as Eddie and Xander, right around the corner from where we were now, on Baron Court. Kieran was an athletically built freshman; I knew him to say hi to, but not well.
“Hole 1,” Kieran read aloud. “The tee is the marked spot on the sidewalk, and the target is the fire hydrant down there. A long straightaway. Got it.” Kieran threw his disc down the street, using a technique I had never seen in my informal experiences of tossing Frisbees around. His disc sailed far down the street, landing about twenty feet from the fire hydrant.
“Nice!” I said.
Matt and Xander threw their discs accurately as well, but neither one ended up as close to the target as Kieran’s. Mine curved off course to a vacant lot across the street near where some new houses were being built, less than halfway to the fire hydrant.
“Your turn,” Xander said.
“I just went,” I replied.
“You’re the farthest away, so you go first for the second toss.”
I was not aware of that rule, since this was my first time playing disc golf. I threw my disc toward the fire hydrant; it went closer to the correct direction this time, but still landed far from the target. Kieran hit the target in two tosses; Xander and Matt, three each; and I got five.
The second target was around the corner on Baron Court, a tree in the yard of the house where Eddie, Xander, and John lived with a bunch of other guys. Baron Court dead-ended into a park connected to one of Jeromeville’s greenbelts; a light pole at the edge of the park was the third target. I hit it in four throws, my best so far, although I was still far behind the others.
“Hole 4,’” I read. “‘Dogleg around large oak tree, hit bench.’ What does ‘dogleg’ mean?”
“The disc has to go around the tree and then to the right. You can’t cut straight across on that side of the tree,” Kieran explained, pointing. He stood on the tee spot and threw his disc; it curved perfectly around the tree, exactly as it was supposed to.
“I see,” I explained. I threw my disc next; it began curving to the right far too early, landing in a position where I would have to throw it even farther to make it curve to the correct side of the tree. I groaned.
“It’s okay,” Xander said. “Just do the same thing you just did from the place where it is now, and you’ll end up on the right side of the tree with a straight shot to the target.”
“That would be nice, if I could throw straight,” I said.
As the morning continued into early afternoon, I became increasingly frustrated, and the others sensed this. A dead branch lay next to the lamppost that was the eleventh hole; I picked it up and threw it angrily after having scored the worst possible score of six for the third consecutive time. “Hey,” Xander said. “Calm down. It’s just a game.”
“I’m terrible at this,” I said
“Don’t worry about it,” Kieran added. “Just have fun.”
“But I’m going to be the Weenie. If I had known that this was just another way for the popular athletic guys to humiliate me for not being good at stuff, I wouldn’t have come. I got enough of that in elementary school.”
“Dude,” Xander said. “That’s not what this is at all. We don’t want to humiliate you. It’s just for fun. Besides, being named the Weenie is kind of an honor. It’s just silly.”
“If you say so,” I said. I tried to calm down and have fun. I took a deep breath and calmly threw my disc toward the twelfth target; it traveled far in a straight line, and I finished that hole in only three throws, my best so far that day.
The eighteenth hole took us back to Brian’s house, where we turned in our scoresheet and waited for the rest of the groups to finish. I asked a few of the people ahead of us what their scores were, and all of them made me feel more discouraged about mine, so I stopped asking and talked about other things instead.
After all eight groups had returned, Brian got our attention again. “The next step is the hamburger eating contest. You have sixty seconds to eat the first hamburger, fifty-five seconds to eat the second one, fifty seconds to eat the third one, and so on. It counts as long as the whole thing is in your mouth when time runs out, and your mouth is closed. You will go four at a time, in your same groups, called in random order.”
I watched as one of the groups began eating. The hamburgers were the basic 79-cent hamburgers from McDonald’s, nothing big or fancy. I did not like pickles, but for the purpose of this competition, I could make myself eat pickles this one time. Dan Conway, a senior who lived in this house with Brian, dropped out surprisingly early; he got something stuck in his throat and could not finish his third burger, drawing a chorus of “Awwwww”s from the crowd. James made it to eight, the most of anyone in that group.
When my turn came, I stepped up to the table with Xander, Kieran, and Matt. “Go!” Brian said, starting the stopwatch. I picked up the first hamburger and began taking large bites. “Forty-five seconds,” Brian said shortly after we started, and he continued to announce the time remaining every fifteen seconds, so I stopped trying to time myself in my head. I finished the first burger in plenty of time. “Go!” Brian exclaimed when it was time to begin the second hamburger; I finished this one easily as well. The third one was a little bit closer, but I swallowed the last bit of it just before Brian gave the signal.
I noticed some people dipping their hamburgers in a glass of water, presumably to make them softer and easier to swallow. I tried this with the fourth one; it did, at least it made it easier to get it in my mouth, but it also turned it into a gooey mess that did not taste as good. I swallowed the burger in the allotted time, though.
The fifth hamburger was more difficult. The time had decreased to forty seconds, and although the burger was completely in my mouth when the time ran out, I had not swallowed all of it. This left less space in my mouth for burger number six, which I now had only thirty-five seconds to eat. I got the burger completely wet before eating it, and just before time ran out, I managed to stuff the last bite in my mouth. But I knew that I would not make it much farther in this event, with chewed hamburger piling up in my mouth faster than I could swallow it. As I took my first bite of burger number seven, I noticed that Matt had not finished his sixth. I felt a renewed sense of motivation now that I knew I would not finish last in my group. I forced myself to start swallowing what was already in my mouth, so that I had room to begin chewing burger number seven and close my lips as time expired. I now had only twenty-five seconds to eat burger number eight, and as that time quickly passed, I knew I would advance no further. I tried my best to swallow what was in my mouth and make room for burger number eight, but I just could not. Xander also dropped out after seven, and Kieran, after shoving burger number eight in his mouth, ran to the garbage can and spit it all out without even touching number nine. I did much more respectably in this event, only one burger behind the leader in my group. Around half of the people who had gone so far did not make it to seven.
As the day went on, as much as I wanted to be encouraging, I secretly felt relieved every time someone did not finish seven burgers. Less competition for me. I needed all the help I could get. My score of seven felt less respectable as the event continued, though; Brian ate nine, and two guys named Lars Ashford and Alex McCann each ate ten.
I had overheard someone earlier say that Mike Kozlovsky set the record in last year’s hamburger event with eleven. As Mike’s group began, I tried to picture how that was possible, to shove ten hamburgers in one’s mouth and still have room to fit an eleventh hamburger in only ten seconds. Twelve was considered a perfect score, because at burger number twelve, the time to eat it would be only five seconds, and with the time decreasing by five seconds for every burger, there would be no time for a thirteenth.
Mike Kozlovsky was a pretty big guy, and he ate the first eight hamburgers effortlessly. He even appeared to be swallowing everything. Burger number nine, he easily fit it in his mouth, but he had not finished swallowing when his twenty seconds was up. He dunked burger number ten in his glass of water and tore off big chunks of it, pushing them into his mouth as he attempted to swallow what was already there. I watched in amazement as he did the same for burger number eleven; I could see his cheeks puff up from all the unswallowed burger inside. The rest of his group had all stopped by then.
“Possible new record,” Brian said, looking at the stopwatch. “Go!”
Mike grabbed a burger, dunked it in the glass of water, tore it into pieces, and hurriedly shoved the pieces into his mouth. As his five seconds ran out, he just barely closed his lips.
“Perfect score!” Brian shouted as the rest of the room erupted into applause Mike, his mouth still full, turned to the crowd and raised both arms in victory. Then, he stood next to the garbage can, bringing his hand to his mouth and pulling out a wad of chewed beef, bread, pickles, and onions the size of a softball. Mike tossed the wad into the garbage.
“Ew!” several in the crowd shouted.
My score of seven was somewhere in the middle for the hamburger event; hopefully that would be enough to keep me out of contention for the Weenie. Several had eaten less than seven hamburgers, but I was not sure if any of those people were as bad at disc golf as I was. One more event remained, poker.
I knew some of the common traditional variations, like draw poker and stud poker. I knew how to rank the hands. And that put me in an unfortunate position, because it left me thinking I knew how to play poker when I actually did not. To me, at the time, the way to succeed in poker was to have the good luck to draw a good hand; I knew little of the strategy surrounding bluffing and knowing when to bet or fold.
The rules were simple. We each got 100 pennies to use for betting, and we would play in our same groups of four for one hour. We took turns dealing, and the dealer chose the type of poker as well as any wild cards or special rules. If you ran out of coins before the hour was up, you were out, and the object was to finish with as many coins as possible.
We started with a few games of simple draw poker. I had some good hands, some bad hands, and one hand where I actually won with three of a kind, so I had about the same number of coins I started with when it came around to Kieran’s second turn to deal.
“Guts,” Kieran said. “Do you guys know how to play Guts?”
“I don’t,” I said.
“You ante one chip and get two cards. A pair beats no pair, and other than that it’s just the highest cards, like poker. If you want to stay in, you hold a chip, make a fist, and we all show at the same time if we’re in. Highest hand takes the pot, and anyone who stayed in and lost has to put in as many chips as there were in the pot, so it keeps getting bigger. If only one person stays in, they take the pot and the round is over. I’ll explain it as we go along too.”
I did not like this game. I did not have guts. But it was Kieran’s turn to pick the game, so I had no say in this. My first hand was a three and a five, so I dropped out. All the others stayed in; Kieran won, so he took the four coins from the pot, and Xander and Matt each had to put four more coins in the pot. My next hand was an ace and queen. This was a much better hand; the only things that beat this were ace-king or a pair. Although it was far from a guaranteed win, I decided to stay in. Kieran was the only other one who stayed in, and he had a pair of sixes; he took the eight coins in the pot, and I had to pay eight coins to make the new pot. My next hand was a four and seven; I was out, and Kieran was the only one to stay in, so he took my eight coins, and the game was over. I was the next dealer, and I chose to go back to draw poker. Guts was not my kind of game, especially in a high-stakes situation like this.
Over the course of the hour, I gradually lost money as I played conservatively. I had a few wins, and a few major losses. In one round of seven-card stud, I was dealt two queens in the hole, and after I got another queen on the second face-up card, I placed a large bet on the final round, struggling to keep a poker face. Xander, who had two aces showing, stayed in. He ended up having a third ace in the hole, but I finished with a full house and took the pot.
With about ten minutes to go, I had sixty-eight coins, and Kieran called Guts for the game. I dropped out on the first deal and lost on the second; no one else had dropped out, so the pot was now twenty-four coins. My next hand was two eights. This was a pretty good hand; the only things that could beat it would be a higher pair. I tried using what I had learned in Dr. Thomas’ combinatorics class to figure out my chances of winning, but I could not complete the calculation in time. I decided I was in; Matt and Kieran stayed in as well. We showed our hands; Matt had a king and queen, but Kieran had two jacks. Kieran took the pot, and Matt and I each had to put another twenty-four coins in.
In the next deal, I got a pair of queens. I felt pretty confident about my chances. Xander and Kieran stayed in as well; Xander had an ace and nine, but Kieran had a pair of kings. Kieran took the forty-eight coins in the pot, and Xander and I each had to put forty-eight coins in the pot. “I’m out of coins,” I said. “I lost.” I put all of my remaining coins in the pot and watched the other three continue playing.
When the hour was finished, I dejectedly told Brian that I had no money left. I also handed him the disc he had loaned me, but he told me to keep it. “It wasn’t very expensive.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I walked over to the couch and sat. Eddie saw me a few minutes later and asked, “How’d you do, Greg?”
“Not very well. I ate seven burgers, but I did terribly in the other two events. I really hope I’m not the Weenie. I spent enough time in elementary school being made fun of for not being good at things.”
“This is supposed to be fun. Don’t get discouraged. We won’t make fun of you.”
“I know. I’m just competitive. But it was fun. And hopefully I’ll do better next year.”
“I’m going to help count scores,” Eddie said. “But don’t feel bad.”
It took a while for Brian and Eddie to evaluate everyone’s scores. No one explained how exactly the scores for the three events were combined to choose a Man of Steel and a Weenie. I knew I was not going to win; at this point, I was just hoping not to be the Weenie.
Brian emerged from the back of the house and got everyone’s attention again. “Gentlemen, the 1996 Weenie is Dan Conway!” Brian gave Dan his Weenie prize, an extra-small T-shirt. “Next,” Brian continued, “the runner up… Alex McCann!” Alex stood up, and everyone applauded. Brian held up a small trophy and said, “And the winner of the 12th annual Man of Steel Competition, your 1996 Man of Steel… Mike Kozlovsky!”
I applauded, along with everyone else. I was not particularly surprised by this. Mike’s first ever perfect score in the hamburger eating event was certainly impressive.
I hung out for about another hour, talking to people, and I joined in another game of poker just for fun. Eddie actually told me years later that Dan and I had tied for Weenie, but that he and Brian decided to give it to Dan. Dan would get a good laugh out of it, and Eddie did not want to humiliate me, since I was new to the group and participating in my first Man of Steel.
Now that I knew what to expect, I would go into future Man of Steel competitions a bit more relaxed. I was doing this to have fun with friends. I would have no expectation of ever being in contention of winning this competition, because I was terrible at disc golf, my understanding of poker would only help me if I drew a few lucky hands, and while I was respectable at eating, I was nowhere near on par with Mike Kozlovsky or Alex. This was the first of four Man of Steel competitions I would participate in during the years I lived in Jeromeville, and after having been through this first one, going into future competitions with no expectation of winning made them more enjoyable. And, who knows… I just might surprise myself someday.