Denver's top dog: Report from the Nathan's Hot Dog Qualifier

See more photos from the contest at westword.com/slideshow.

John Proctor, a supervisor at the Park Meadows Sam's Club, knew he could eat a lot of hot dogs -- but downing eight and a half in ten minutes in the amateur hot-dog eating competition on Saturday afternoon unlocked a hidden talent.

"I didn't know I'd win," he said, smiling and clearly pleased with his victory. Others who competed in the amateur eating contest included a sampling of Sam's Club employees, a wrestler, a Lone Tree police officer and a dog named Storm that downed four wieners, but that was off the books.

While eight and a half hot dogs and buns is an impressive amount of food, the amateur  competition is named that for a reason. After it ended, the long table set up under blue tents in the parking lot of the megastore was quickly cleared and new cups and plates were whisked up in preparation for the main event. Nine hopefuls would soon fill the stage, each blinded by the desire to win a coveted slot in the big Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island on July 4.

This was the first time a qualifier has come through Denver, and the locals had their hearts set on a hometown hero. Most notably, eyes were on Marco "Mongo" Marquez from Englewood, who had proven just last week at another qualifier that he could pack away at least 27 hot dogs. He came in third that day and was determined now to show his family, friends and fans that he had what it takes.

But there was clear competition in the form of "Pretty Boy" Pete Davekos from Boston, who had already made it to the July 4 contest last year and would not be giving up his slot easily. The young competitor, wearing a blue cap with his nickname across it, had a personal best of only 23 hot dogs going into the qualifier, but remained hopeful. "You never know," he said, "I just hope to eat one more than anyone else."

Emcee Ryan Nerz, decked out in a trademark boater hat that was looking a little battered after a cross-country stint hosting qualifiers, announced the competitors as they climbed on stage. Marquez filled his cups with red Gatorade and turned on his music: Metallica's "Seek and Destroy."  Davekos stuck with water and silence, but looked no less determined.

The  contest started and everyone hit the dogs in a ravenous flurry. Davekos took a traditional route of separating the dog from the bun, alternating between each and making liberal use of the water for dipping. Marquez kept his dogs and buns together, but gave them a major soak in the Gatorade before powering them down. The two were neck and neck, disappearing five, then ten, then 15 hot dogs in a matter of minutes.  With the crowd cheering them on, they rounded 20, then 25.

With only a couple minutes to spare it, became a race to see who would be able to tackle the last plate of five hot dogs. At this point, Davekos began to fall behind. With a minute remaining, he held four naked dogs in one hand and a fistful of soggy bun in the other.  Marquez was looking like he would clear 30.  At the bell, both crammed everything they could in their mouths and commenced the arduous task of getting it all down.  Both appeared to be in severe pain.

A tally was made, and Davekos, seeing that he and Marquez were close, pushed for an overtime eat-off.  But even when all the detritus was taken into account, Marquez still came up a dog ahead of Davekos with a clean 30.

If there was any doubt that the crowd had a favorite, it was drowned out by the roar of celebration when Marquez was announced the winner. Davekos was disappointed, but managed to offer his congratulations to the ecstatic Marquez.

Even at 30 hot dogs, Marquez only did about half what the winner will probably put away on July 4 -- but for this local, it's all about joining the big leagues at the biggest competitive eating event of the year. Getting to meet the legends, ride the Bus of Champions, make an appearance on the live ESPN show, and become a part of popular history.

Will he be able to take off from his job at Home Depot on such short notice? "Oh, yeah," he said, smiling. "Of course.  I'll quit if I have to."

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