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Thursday, June 30, 2005
Updated: July 1, 9:12 PM ET
Gettin' seedy with spit fire

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Super Bowl. The World Series. The NBA Finals. Page 2 has covered those championships over and over and over again, and we'll continue to do so. But we're branching out, too, into the championships of ... oh, say, cow-chip throwing and wife carrying. Yes, those lesser-known and goofy sports are coming to Page 2 in a series of stories we're calling SportsOFFCenter. Today, Darren Rovell tells us all about his experience ... spittin' watermelon seeds.

LULING, Texas -- Pick a seed.

Spit.

Pick a seed.

Spit.

Pick a seed.

Spit.

Darren Rovell at the Watermelon seed spit ESPN Motion

It is 9 p.m. in this small town (population: 5,080) in south central Texas; and here I am, practicing my watermelon-seed spitting over and over again as a Ferris wheel and "The Scrambler" from the nearby carnival provide just enough light to see where the black specks land.

For some reason, when I traveled 2,000 miles to Beaver, Okla., in April to participate in the World Championship of Cow Chip Throwing, I didn't practice. I didn't try to perfect the craft.

I also didn't come close to placing, and I left disappointed.

Word Watermelon Seed Spitting Championships
With the weight of the ESPN name on his shoulders, Rovell let it fly.

So for the 52nd Annual Watermelon Thump, which includes the World Championship of Watermelon-Seed Spitting, I made up my mind to try my hardest to learn, practice and make a worthy attempt at the world record. Eighteen hours before the competition, I was making up for those wasted years of not spitting watermelon seeds.

I've loved watermelon since I was a kid, but I always thought of the seeds as the most major inconvenience in all of the culinary world. With the exception, that is, of having to cut the poison out of the fugu fish before eating it.

Don't ever mention, though, that you prefer to "go seedless" here in Luling, even if it's OK in this place to ask a stranger about her melons.

"We do have some of the biggest melons around," confirms Trey Bailey, a director of the Thump, named for the sound the melon makes when locals flick it to see whether it's ripe.

Word Watermelon Seed Spitting Championships
You can never start too early if your dream is to be a world-class spitter.

I arrived in town a day before the event so I could familiarize myself with everything that is watermelon . . . like, for example, the water tower, which six years ago was painted to look like a watermelon. And Bailey's headgear, which was a watermelon cowboy hat. And Bailey's footwear, which was red Converse Chuck Taylor shoes with black seeds on them.

I was greeted by women who had painted their fingernails and toenails to look like watermelon. And I struck up scary watermelon-themed conversations with people like Mary Oubre of New Iberia, La., who drove about 400 miles so she could worship at this watermelon shrine.

"I have watermelon earrings, three watermelon shirts, a watermelon birdhouse, watermelon Mardi Gras beads, watermelon saucers, watermelon glasses, watermelon wind chimes, a watermelon robe, a watermelon hat, a watermelon doormat, a watermelon purse and a watermelon bag," said Oubre, who claims she eats at least one piece of watermelon every day.

The seed spitting contest was started about 20 years ago by a Georgia minister who became a Luling resident. Since then, it has been the premier event of the Thump.

"We have some spitters that spit all year 'round," Bailey said.

After I shook hands with Watermelon Thump Queen Megan Cox, I toured the Spitway -- an arena (decked out with murals of watermelons) featuring a special spitting floor painted white to make the spotting of the spits easier.

Later in the day, I sat down to watch the children's spitting competition, held the night before the main event. I listened carefully to James Nickells, the "Ambassador of Spit," as he told America's youth how to further their spit.

Word Watermelon Seed Spitting Championships
If you're going to be the belle of the fruit ball, you could do a lot worse than watermelon.

His recommendations: Roll the tongue, put the seed in the middle and blow as hard as possible.

Then he went over the rules:

1. Each contestant gets two spits with two seeds.

2. For the spit to be legal, it has to fall within the boundaries. (The Spitway is about 15 feet wide and 85 feet long.)

3. When spitting, it is forbidden to step outside the painted half-watermelon.

4. The final distance is calculated not by where the seed first lands, but where it ultimately stops.

For Luling (pronounced LOO-ling) residents, watermelon seed spitting is a tradition, so the initiation of the children into this competition was not to be taken lightly.

The mother of 1-year-old Blaine Benbow placed the seed in his mouth, and the boy spit it 5 inches. As each child spit, the crowd, sitting on both sides of the boundary lines on metal bleachers, applauded. They were all winners.

Not so in the adult contest. Many Luling locals thought I'd come to their town to make fun of them for their weird tradition. Hardly. Actually, I was there to steal their pride right out from under their melons. I was already thinking about how to diplomatically turn down their invitation to spit next year as the returning champion.

After the children's contest, I walked the distance from the foul line to the world-record spit mark of 68 feet, 9 1/8th inches, a point on the Spitway commemorated with a line and a watermelon seed sketched out in pencil.

Now I knew my challenge.

I spent the rest of the night spitting watermelon seeds and looking for something to eat. The offerings at a food stand called Fontenot's didn't exactly whet my appetite. The chefs offered the following delicacies served fried on a stick: alligator, rabbit, rattlesnake, frog, shark, and finally, squirrel.

Word Watermelon Seed Spitting Championships
The Pump, the Shox ... they have nothing on these old school Chucks.

Large bag of kettle corn, here I come!

I woke up early in the morning and, to get my blood flowing, ran in the Watermelon Thump 5K. Then I showered at the Dicke residence (thanks for warm water) and set out to get as much advice as I could from past champions.

Karen Easterling won the women's crown in 1999 by spitting a seed 40 feet, 2 inches. She taught me the importance of getting a big breath and said the small tip of the teardrop-shaped seed should be pointing out as it leaves your mouth.

After I'd spit a few seeds with her, I was introduced to Richard Clay Robbins, the 2004 male champion with a seed-spit of 52 feet.

"Make sure you lean back before you blow," Robbins told me.

I asked Robbins to watch my spitting and give me some advice. This led to an informal face-off in which I outdistanced him more than once. My confidence was rising.

As time was winding down before the contest, I wanted to talk with legendary Lee Wheelis, the man who set the world record in 1989.

"Like any legend, he sometimes doesn't show up," one Luling resident told me.

But he did, and he told me the story of his famous spit.

"It was a lot of luck," said Wheelis, who has been spitting watermelon seeds since he was a young child.

Wheelis' best advice was to pick the largest and roundest seed and put a little bit of melon in the mouth to make it moist.

The contest kicked off with "Ode to the Watermelon," a song sung a cappella by the locals. After a lottery pared the list of about 100 potential participants down to 47, it was time to spit.

Unlike the cow-chip throw, where I threw near the beginning of the contest, I was spitter No. 36. I watched closely as two spitters surpassed 38 feet with their seeds.

Word Watermelon Seed Spitting Championships
Rovell lets it fly ... all the way to a fairly respectable world ranking.

When my turn came up, I wanted to be bold and brash. Despite the fact that two watermelons had been sliced open and still contained plenty of seeds, I grabbed the mike and requested that they cut open a new one.

They obliged, surprisingly.

I took a small piece of melon to moisten my mouth, as Wheelis had suggested, and picked out two seeds from the huge Black Diamond watermelon.

I put one in my mouth.

I curled my tongue around it.

I leaned back.

And I blew.

The seed sank, traveling a measly 7 feet. The crowd laughed.

Watermelon Seed Spitting: Top 5
1. Randy White, 49 feet.
2. Rob Maley, 38 feet, 10 inches.
3. Jim McKinney, 38 feet, 3 inches.
4. Steve Tronzano, 38 feet.
5. Darren Rovell, 37 feet, 6 inches.

As I put the second seed in my mouth, I concentrated on what I'd done right in my practice sessions. And I remembered how disappointed I'd been on my way home from Beaver and my flop as a chip thrower.

Seed in the mouth.

Curled the tongue.

Leaned back.

Blew.

The thing soared through the air, landed at about 30 feet, then rolled another 7 1/2 feet. I was in third place! The crowd cheered.

By the time the field finished spitting, I'd slipped to fifth. But I beat Richard Clay Robbins. And I beat the legend himself, the world-record holder, Lee Wheelis.

And forever more, I can claim that in 2005, I was the fifth-best watermelon-seed spitter. In the whole wide world.

Darren Rovell, who writes sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com. He charges $150 an hour for watermelon-seed spitting lessons.