The West Bottoms' arteries are clogged with traffic around 4:30 p.m. on this first October Friday. The roads around spaceship-shaped Kemper Arena are blocked and alive for the world's largest barbecue contest, the American Royal.
I'm here with Kansas City Chiefs offensive linemen Donald Stephenson and Jeff Allen. We've come for a sauce-tasting contest. The Chiefs picked Allen and Stephenson in last year's NFL Draft. Another member of that draft class, first-round pick Dontari Poe, has sworn off barbecue to slim down. Not Allen and Stephenson.
Allen, 6 feet 4 and 307 pounds, is an Oklahoma Joe's guy. Stephenson, 6 feet 6 and 312 pounds, grew up on Gates Bar-B-Q. (Raised on the city's East Side, he played his senior year at Blue Springs.) Me, I'm just under 6 feet, about 160 pounds, and I like just about every barbecue shack in this city. Somehow, none of us had been to the Royal before.
On the eve of the competition, though, we've been ushered in to eat all we can before the two players have to board a flight to Tennessee for the game against the Titans. (The Chiefs will stretch their record to 5 - 0.)
A chubby guy tosses a football in the street in front of Kemper. Stephenson calls for a pass, pulls down the ball and returns a spiral. Allen follows but can't make a one-handed grab.
"They ain't playing for the Chiefs," the guy says.
Stephenson and Allen look at each other and bust out laughing. Playing in the trenches affords them a bit of anonymity, even among the Arrowhead faithful.
At Hale Arena, the American Royal's publicist, Jennifer Brand, says it isn't time to try the sauces. She sends us on a tour of the grounds. The first stop: Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, whose charcoal-fired electric rotisserie might be the most ridiculously impressive cooker on the grounds. But it's not turning.
Big Bob's Owen Lilly introduces himself, but Allen has already recognized him.
"That's the real deal right here," Allen says. "I've seen you guys before on the Food Network. I watch it all of the time."
Lilly, from Decatur, Alabama, isn't making food yet; he doesn't have to. "We're cooking on Sunday for the open," he says. "We're not cooking tomorrow for the invitational."
"That's big time," Allen says.
We leave hungry.
Next up is the lot occupied by Tuffy Stone, from Q Barbeque in Richmond, Virginia. But now it's a pattern: Nothing's on fire here, either.
"Y'all probably don't eat barbecue before a big game anyways," Stone says.
"Living the dream, right?" Stone asks.
"Yeah, it was crazy when they drafted me," Stephenson says.
"I get to make a living doing what I love to do, too," Stone says.
People have started to crowd around, smartphones out, hoping to get pictures. Allen and Stephenson sign and pose.
"Wish you good luck," Allen says. "Hope you guys can pull it out."
"Fingers crossed," Stone says. (Stone's Cool Smoke team ends up winning the Royal's grand championship, beating 174 teams.)
"Look forward to maybe seeing you guys in the Super Bowl," Stone's father says.
"No, you will," Allen says. "Not maybe."
A guy in a Plowboys shirt stops Stephenson. He's a former high school teammate.
"You weren't this dang big when I played you," the guy says. "I'm a midget now."
Stephenson says he's headed to Plowboys soon. (I'm going with them. Watch this space.)
Meanwhile, Allen spots an Illinois tent next to Hale Arena. "Who's the Fighting Illini over here?" he asks.
"We are," says Tim Muehring. "I'm from Illinois. I started the Illini Fever program about 14 years ago, and every year they give the university about $70,000."
Last year, Muehring's Lickins X-tra Thick sauce was named "Best Sauce on the Planet." He has the globe to prove it. "I'm defending my title right here now," he says, then offers a taste on thinly cut meat. We poke the meat with toothpicks, spread on the sauce and bite. It's really good.
We head inside for the Diddy-Wa-Diddy sauce-tasting contest. Tables from Oklahoma Joe's, Plowboys, Pork Barrel BBQ and Meat Mitch are set up in a banquet room. Little bowls of burnt ends are on the tables for tasting the sauces. Kansas City Barbeque Society founding member Ardie Davis, wearing a bowler hat, greets the players. "I'll be watching Sunday," he says. "I'm worried about those Broncos."
"If you want to win the division," Allen says, "you've got to beat them."
Allen and Stephenson camp out at the Meat Mitch table, eating barbecue popcorn (which Allen pronounces "great") and fawning over the sauce.
"Meat Mitch," Allen says. "Remember that." He walks away from the table with a tin of the popcorn.
We move from table to table - from Meat Mitch to Plowboys to Pork Barrel - as the Chiefs figure out their ballot picks. The winner of the sauce-tasting contest isn't Meat Mitch, but Royal publicist Brand lets Meat Mitch know that it has two very big fans. "You're No. 1 in our hearts," Allen yells.
"That Oklahoma Joe's over there?" Allen says, recognizing the politics of the moment. "I said you were my favorite barbecue, not sauce."
On the way out, Allen sees the chubby guy with the football. He calls for another pass. This time, he makes the catch.
"We could use you on the Chiefs, man," Allen says.