Five of NFL's greatest RBs are really cooking these days

Friday, January 28th 2005, 9:14 pm
By: News On 6

(AP) - For many Americans, Super Bowl Sunday is all about friends getting together and chowing down on a big ol' spread of ribs, sausage and chicken while watching the game.

For five of the greatest running backs in NFL history, that combination of food and football is more than a one-day event. It's now a way of life. Franco Harris, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson have all traded shoulder pads for aprons and moved into the food business.

Forget slapping their name on a restaurant, these entrepreneurs have developed entire lines of products - especially the kind of meaty goodies that fit perfectly on a Super Sunday buffet.

"Isn't that amazing?" Harris said. "It really is a coincidence. It seems kind of weird to me, but it's a fun business and I am glad to see some of the other guys in it."

Harris is the only one who actually planned on a second career selling food. He majored in hotel and restaurant management at Penn State, but didn't begin using his degree until 1984, after his Hall of Fame career ended. He's been doing it ever since.

He started with a line of all-natural foods, then in 1990 opened Super Bakery with a product that sounds like an oxymoron: Nutritious doughnuts. The concept has done so well with schools, hospitals and the military that the company now also makes nutritious muffins and breads.

In 1996, Harris bought Parks Sausage. In addition to keeping out of bankruptcy the country's first publicly traded black-owned company, he also moved into the realm of the other carnivorous ballcarriers.

After all, as food industry veteran Gene Street puts it, "Football and red meat just kind of run together."

A perfect example is Earl Campbell Meat Products, which began in 1990 based on some barbecue dishes Campbell enjoyed making for friends.

The company now offers several kinds of sausage, including a jalapeno version that's his favourite; hot links that are quite popular; and hot dogs that are sold at Diamond Shamrock gas stations, right next to his honey mustard sauce that's burnt orange, just like the colors of his alma mater, the Texas Longhorns. Seasonings are the company's latest item.

Jackson broke into the market in the mid-'90s with sweet potato and pumpkin pies made from his mom's recipe, and a nutritional bar. A few years later he rolled out an entire line of Bo Jackson Signature Foods, offering many of the basics Campbell makes and much more. The company's order form has seven pages with various styles of beef, poultry, pork, sausages, veal and seafood.

Walker got involved just a few years ago and is making a quick rise with Herschel's Famous 34 label. He has entrees, appetizers and sauces, with a menu nearly as long as Jackson's.

Dorsett dabbled a few years ago with a barbecue sauce cooked up by "a cousin of a cousin." Now he's making a big push with Tony Dorsett Food Products, which features ribs, catfish, chicken and several more sauces.

As the newcomer, Dorsett has turned to his fellow running backs for advice. He's leaned most on Walker, which might stun anyone who remembers that Walker's arrival with the Dallas Cowboys eventually led to Dorsett's departure.

"That's what networking is all about," Dorsett said, laughing.

It's pretty remarkable that five players who excelled in the same sport - and at the same position - all wound up in the same business, especially this one.

They all also want to make it clear that they're not just pitching a product. Food is as much their job today as carrying the football was in their younger days.

"This is what I do for a living," Campbell said. "I want to be as much of a success in my meat business as I was as an athlete."

They occasionally see each other at trade shows and you can imagine the excitement their presence stirs. Street recalls once seeing folks hurry past every big-name sausage maker because "they all wanted to get to Earl, Earl, Earl."

Street doesn't blame them for using their fame to their advantage. Harris is the only one whose name and picture aren't on his packages - and he grudgingly acknowledges that may be changing.

"What buyer would tell Bo Jackson, 'I don't have time to see you?"' said Street, chairman of Dallas-based Consolidated Restaurant Operations Inc., which runs more than 140 restaurants in the U.S. "You can just bank on it that they can get in to see anybody, from the biggest chain operator to the biggest grocery stores."

But name recognition will only get a consumer to buy a product once. It has to be good for them to keep buying it.

The facts speak for themselves: All five running backs have deals with Sysco, the country's largest distributor, and all count the military as a customer. Other heavyweight tie-ins include Walker's food being made by Tyson Foods, and Jackson's pies being made by Mrs. Smith's Bakeries, a top frozen-pie maker.

So, how about having some of their products at your Super Bowl party? It's not that simple - yet.

Walker, Campbell and Jackson are the only ones with national distribution deals to retail outlets. Harris' sausage is only sold regionally, but he's working on getting all his items into grocery stores by next football season. Dorsett said he's close, too.

Jackson expects to soon have his burgers join his pies on retail shelves. On Super Sunday, plenty of his products will be devoured by U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait.

He personally delivered 200,000 pounds of chicken wings, meatballs, "Bo burgers" and other treats last year, hopscotching between three military bases while the game was on. He was going to do it again this year until being told last week that civilian travel into the area is prohibited for now.

The good news: Another 200,000 pounds of his products should still be there in time for kickoff.

Distributed by the Associated Press