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.