Wing Bowl 25: El Wingador speaks on prison, projects
Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post Published 9:13 p.m. ET Feb. 2, 2017 | Updated 1:14 p.m. ET Feb. 3, 2017
Update: Bill "El Wingador" Simmons did not win in his Wing Bowl 25 challenge against champion eater Molly Schuyler. Schuyler won the $5,000 prize for eating the most wings in a five-minute round.
Bill Simmons, best known this time of year as El Wingador, overflowed with energy explaining his projects. A tell-all book, a small catering business, and potential restaurant and reality show have his attention these days, a year and a half after his release from prison.
"You're productive and constructive when you're locked in," said Simmons, 55, a five-time Wing Bowl champion who served two years in Southern State Correctional Facility between 2013 and 2015.
His body language changed sharply at the mention of jail. He fidgeted in the round booth at Chickie's and Pete's in Glassboro. He sat still. His bright blue eyes dulled.
"I lost everything," he confessed to the Courier-Post Wednesday, hours from beginning his full pre-Wing Bowl fast.
"When I came out, I literally came out with nothing. I was literally counting change."
Friday, he could be counting every dollar of a $5,000 prize when he competes in a five-minute eat-off against reigning champion eater Molly Schuyler for the prize.
El Wingador's chicken-fried redemption could set off the sequel to Simmons' first book "Snow on the Barb Wire," released in November on Amazon.com.
"I wanted to write about why I went down the road I went down," Simmons said.
"I wanted to let people know I wasn't a bad person."
A police investigation led to Simmons' 2012 arrest in Mullica Hill.
"It was so weird being arrested and being all over the news," he said.
"I'm not the governor of New Jersey. I just eat chicken wings."
New Jersey State Police found $4,000 in cash, and 4.5 ounces of cocaine worth $8,000 in his Kia Soul wrapped in his El Wingador logo. A year later he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with the intent to distribute.
"I try to forget, but it's still kind of fresh," Simmons said.
"I remember getting surrounded, and the cops, 12 of them, with all the guns."
He called the scene "overkill." He went calmly, he said.
"They had assault weapons," Simmons remembered.
"They said they followed me to LA Fitness, and I was throwing 360 (pounds) up on the bench 10 times. They didn't know what I was capable of."
While he was surprised by the sting, he felt it coming. He was warned by phone that police were on to him.
He should have stopped, but "it was my own stupid choice to keep on going after I was warned," he admitted.
He was used to living with lots of money. He had bills to pay and kids to care for. The money from El Wingador appearances didn't cover his expenses and failed business ventures. Simmons called his finances a "runaway train."
"I was taking 'the stuff' to my friend's house. I always remembered seeing undercover cars, and I would bring it up to him," Simmons remembered.
"He had a wire on him the whole time."
Three hours before his October 2013 sentencing, he called Joe Vallee with a project pitch.
"I said, 'Bill, you're on your way to jail in three hours, and you're worried about a book?'" Vallee, the co-founder of Philly2Philly.com, remembered.
Hours after the conversation, a Gloucester County Superior Court judge sentenced Simmons to seven years in state prison. Sheriff's officers quickly whisked him away to Southern State Correctional Facility, where he says he was "tested" the first day he was there.
"He told me, 'no matter what happens to me, I want this story told,'" Vallee, the book's co-author said.
From the Cumberland County prison, Simmons sent Vallee long sheets of paper with handwritten drafts of his memoir. He scratched out his first Wing Bowl in 1999 and chronicled jail life, the fights he'd been in, the stabbings he'd seen and the time a guard asked for an autograph on his mug shot.
He handed back to the guard a greeting — "I wish this was my release form." — signed, El Wingador.
Vallee, of Woodbury, assembled half the book through the letters and during jail visits. He pieced the stories together and Simmons' writing into paragraphs.
Simmons was released in May 2015 and will remain on parole through 2018.
The projects he conceived in a Southern State cell are coming together nearly two years after his release.
Simmons is finalizing plans and securing investors of restaurants bearing the name of his champion chicken-eating persona. He is scouting locations in Delaware County, Vallee, a business partner, said.
He's signing books and giving talks about building the El Wingador brand, then losing everything — his family, too — when he was busted.
He's rebuilding his family, reconnecting with his wife Debbie after the couple divorced early into his sentence. Simmons is rekindling the sidekick status with his daughter Felicia, who's as old as her father's competitive eating career.
She was weeks old when he won his first championship in 1999. She was 13 when her dad was arrested.
"It's definitely been a roller coaster," Felicia, now 18, said.
"I definitely see him moving forward. He never quits. He will never give up on something."
Simmons credits his daughter for his strength in jail.
"If they let me out of jail when I initially got arrested I would have jumped off the Delaware Memorial Bridge," Simmons confessed.
"And then I talked to her ... I knew she was mad at me. She said, 'you know what dad, I love you. I don't care.' And then I knew I was going to rise above this."
Part of Simmons' comeback tale will unfold in WIP's live broadcast of Friday's Wing Bowl at the Wells Fargo Center.
"To come back to Wing Bowl is pretty cool. I never thought they'd ask me to eat again," Simmons said.
He made his post-prison debut last year as a commentator for the competition.
Simmons is unsure of his reception this year. El Wingador hasn't competed since 2012.
"I don't think I'm better than anybody else because I'm the five-time Wing Bowl champion," he said.
" I try to be straightforward in my life now, moving forward. I try to walk with my head held high although I made a bad choice."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; email@example.com