In 27 years at The Inquirer, one of my favorite stories I wrote was a profile of El Wingador on the morning of Wing Bowl in 2002.

I was at his home at 4 a.m. and followed him through to his crowning as Wing Bowl champion for the third time.

I loved that story for two reasons. One, the level of Americana - the things El Wingador said and did that morning before and during the competition were simply priceless.

But the second reason is the more important one. There was more than foolishness. El Wingador had a family, and he had an American Dream as serious and as real as any man's. He surely loved the fame and attention Wing Bowl brought him, but he said he believed this was a means to something better, a better life for himself and his family.

I've been thinking about my day with El Wingador - Bill Simmons, 50, of Woodbury Heights - since his arrest June 15 on charges of distributing cocaine in South Jersey.

Wing Bowl is a spectacle, in many respects a despicable act of gluttony, and El Wingador became a creation of that spectacle.

I remember the intense pressure El Wingador felt that morning to win.

He had discovered after winning two previous Wing Bowls that there was money in eating, a way to parlay his gift for gluttony into a better life. In 2002, he had developed a wing sauce, and he was trying to capitalize on his fame to promote and sell it.

At the time, he was 40, a truck driver, and he told me that morning how much he hated driving, dealing with the traffic. He was hoping that becoming the first three-time winner of Wing Bowl would get him backing, venture capital, the fame and support he needed to build this new life.

"I'm financing my sauce myself," he told me. "I've invested a lot of money. I can't do it [eat competitively] much longer. . . . Hopefully, I got this guy who might come in as a partner. It's business now. I got to win."

He was so nervous about winning that he was up all night with a churning stomach and was in the bathroom when I arrived. His wife, Debbie, had given him Imodium, and it seemed to be working. He showered and came downstairs.

The house was jammed with 60 friends in El Wingador shirts and Team Wingador hats. His mother-in-law, Bernice Moffitt, told me, "Everybody has a talent. My son-in-law eats for six."

Three limos were out front to take El Wingador and his entourage to Wing Bowl at the then First Union Center. El Wingador climbed into the back of the longest limo.

"I pray my stomach doesn't act up anymore," he said to his wife. He handed her his gold wedding band. "I can't eat with this," he said.

He rubbed his jaw and felt confident. Every morning for six weeks, he had been eating refrigerated Tootsie Rolls, three at a time. "I got pit bull jaws right now. I just hope I don't bite a finger."

Even before 6 a.m., traffic around the sports complex was jammed. Some 23,000 people would attend.

El Wingador needed no pass to enter the building. "I'm the eater," he told the security guard. "I'm El Wingador."

He won his third title - devouring 143 chicken wings in 30 minutes. But the sauce business didn't work out in a significant way. El Wingador went on to win five titles, but the restaurant he opened in Philadelphia last year closed months later. There is talk of a reality TV show about competitive eaters.

Lots of dreams, lots of tries, but so far never a big payday.

Maybe when the hard road, the honest road, didn't work out, he took the easy road. Maybe having tasted the good life, having wanted it for so long, he weakened.

He was arrested for possessing $4,000 in cash and $8,000 worth of cocaine - more than 5 ounces uncut. A prosecutor said it could be processed and packaged to create 1,120 bags for sale on the street.

Simmons is by many accounts a kind and giving man. When I wrote in 2005 about Katrina victims who relocated to the area, one family had settled in Woodbury and the first person at their door was El Wingador, who took them shopping and gave them bottles of his barbecue sauce.

Police said they were observing El Wingador for a month before his arrest. His attorney, David Bahuriak, says El Wingador was a delivery man, a courier.

"Nobody thinks he touched the drugs, or prepared them for resale," said Bahuriak. "He got caught picking them up at Point A and dropping them at Point B. This is inconsistent with his personality. Everyone I've talked to loves this guy. It's a shame."

Bahuriak said El Wingador "has a lot of personal issues pending right now" and "he got caught up." He said El Wingador "has a big heart and is a guy who can be easily exploited by other people."

Bahuriak went to see El Wingador in jail Friday. He said his client told him, "Leave me in here. I don't deserve to get out."

The lawyer said El Wingador was released from jail on Monday evening after his family and friends paid the bail bondsman the required $10,000. Bail had been set at $100,000.

Distributing cocaine is unforgivable, regardless of circumstances. Bill Simmons knows right from wrong. I can't blame Wing Bowl, but somehow I want to, at least in part. Maybe I should blame myself, because I put him on the front page in 2002. I hope El Wingador pays his debt and rebuilds his life. It's a sad story. I wish him the best.

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or Follow @michaelvitez on Twitter.