THERE ARE no bikini-clad women serving up buffalo wings in the prison's lunchroom, no crowns being laid upon his graying flattop, no one chanting "Wingador" over and over.
Competitive eater Bill "El Wingador" Simmons, 52, might be a caged bird today, a mildly famous inmate at Southern State Correctional Facility in Cumberland County, N.J., but he plans to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of a cocaine-distribution conviction.
"Everybody falls down. The winners get back up," the five-time 94 WIP Wing Bowl champion said yesterday morning inside a small visitation room at the prison. "I'm gonna get back up and make this right."
On June 15, 2012, a little more than four months after a third-place finish at Wing Bowl 20, Simmons was driving his Wingador-themed Kia Soul in Harrison Township, Gloucester County, when he noticed what looked like a "SWAT" team surrounding him. Simmons had $8,000 in powder cocaine and $4,000 in cash in the car, but said relief rushed over him as he pulled the car over.
"When the cops got me, I thanked them. It was over," he said. "I told them, 'I'm not going to give you a problem, I've had enough.' "
It was a string of financial hardships that made Simmons move drugs, he said, including a failed restaurant at 4th and Girard streets in Northern Liberties that he'd sunk tens of thousands into, and a KFC promotion that dried up. When he entered Wing Bowl 20, he was there strictly for the $20,000 prize, not gustatory glory, but the 250 wings he devoured weren't even close to first place. Takeru Kobayashi won by inhaling 337 wings.
"I'm not a bad person," he said. "I'm not a drug addict. I just got to a point where there was just this ugly face on what I was doing."
A Gloucester County Superior Court judge sentenced Simmons to seven years in prison last month, although he is trying to enter the state's Intensive Supervision Program and hopes to be out in months instead of years. At Southern State, a medium-security facility, he sleeps in a small unit with 12 other men, spending his days reading, trying to do sit-ups, pushing brooms and listening to other inmates' stories.
"There's a lot of good people here, and there's people who will go out and commit the same crime as soon as they get out," he said with a laugh.
The New Jersey Department of Corrections website lists Simmons as 6 feet 5 inches tall and 315 pounds, although somehow he seemed small yesterday, humbled in a blue, plastic chair, his prison khakis matching the cinder-block walls around him. Simmons said he trained with weights and cardio to prepare for prison, to ready his body for any problems, but he hasn't had any.
It's the heartache he couldn't prepare for.
"The hardest thing I'm dealing with right now is missing my family," he said.
Simmons is married with three children, a stepdaughter and a grandson; and thoughts of his youngest boy, Sean, a 7-year-old running back who's a regular in the end zone, caused him to pause yesterday, to look away and shake his head. Sean believed his father was going away for work, but Simmons said some of his son's schoolmates peeled off that protective lie, and his boy cried over it one night at football practice, the tears pooling in his chinstrap.
"Yeah, he broke down a little over it," Simmons said, choking back the emotion.
Family, friends and fans don't visit, Simmons said, because he won't allow it, believes it would be too hard on them. He also won't allow for much sympathy from anyone, he said, including himself.
"I made a mistake and I don't expect people to forgive me for that," he said. "I want people to really understand that I understand what I did, that it was wrong. I'm being a man and I'm doing what I have to do to rectify it. Do not feel sorry for me."
There's still a hunger inside Simmons, literally for better prison food, but also for success again as El Wingador, the flexing, crimson-feathered chicken hawk tattooed on his calf. He said he's had discussions with producers about television shows, hopes to open another restaurant, and is writing a tell-all book about his rise and fall. He has ideas on how to improve Wing Bowl and wouldn't mind taking a run at the current champ, Jamie "The Bear" McDonald, of New England.
"I don't take Wing Bowl too seriously," he said. "I'm so competitive, though, that I'd love to come back to Wing Bowl and beat this kid."
Simmons was disappointed he didn't hear much from 94 WIP management after his arrest, hoping he would have been asked to appear at Wing Bowl 21. He's not sure he'd be welcomed back into the fold there, although friends at the sports-talk station have been supportive.
Officials there did not return a request for comment yesterday.
Big Daddy Graham, a comic and radio host who also lives in Gloucester County, said Simmons reached out to him often when he fought throat cancer, gestures he cherished.
"So I can't turn my back on him now that he is in trouble," Graham said in an email. "I believe he sincerely regrets what he did and will be a better and stronger man."
One thing's for sure: Simmons won't be a bigger man when he gets out, already down to 312 pounds, he said, thanks to the NJDOC's "heart healthy" menu. There's one cup of spaghetti on Wednesdays, four ounces of breaded fish on Friday, and three ounces of Rice Krispies on Saturday mornings, to name a few offerings.
"I love to eat, but here I'm just eating my trays. It's not too bad, you've got your vegetables, your meat. It's bland, which is fine. I think my blood pressure is down. I feel healthier," he said. "On Sundays we get chicken, but I only get one piece. One piece!"