George Shea didn’t invent competitive eating. Since the dawn of mankind, there have always been individuals who dared to push their bodies to the limits. But along with his brother Richard and partner Dave Baer, George did take the tradition of competitive eating — one in which local champions were crowned in small competitions across the country — and build it into an organized sport, one complete with rules, rankings and global influence.
A Boston native who was raised mostly in Maine in a family of five children, George graduated from Columbia University in 1986 with an English degree. He began working for Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz, a pair of New York public-relations veterans who were known for engineering publicity stunts and were partly responsibly for creating the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in the 1970s. In typical Coney Island pitchman style, George claimed the contest was an annual tradition dating back to 1916.