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Al "Bubba" Baker, former defensive end with the Browns, compares his homemade barbecue sauce to the gridiron. "It's a lot like football," he says. "You have to bring your A game every time." Baker's Bubba's-Q Bar-B-Q will be one of 11 grilling teams competing at this weekend's Great American Rib Cook-Off and Music Festival.

The 15th anniversary of the BBQ fest includes grillers from across the nation, including New Jersey, South Carolina, and Virginia. Live performances by Blues Traveler, Southside Johnny, and Rick Springfield help kick off the start of summer.

Baker, in his first year of competition, says he's honored just to be asked to participate in the area's best-known rib-fest. His Avon restaurant, Bubba's-Q World Famous Bar-B-Q, serves everything from seafood to coleslaw to sweet-potato fries. But it's the fall-off-the-bone ribs that have people lining up and waiting more than an hour to get a seat on weekends. "I was born into the barbecue business," he says.

Baker spent 12 years in the NFL, playing for Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland. He retired in the early '90s, and since then has spent most of his time perfecting sauces. The recently opened restaurant is an offshoot of his condiment business, which boasts nearly a dozen different sauces and marinades (including honey, raspberry, and chipotle flavors). "Every single recipe is mine," he says. "I have a new one sitting on my desk right now, waiting for me to tweak."

For Baker, he sees the sauce business as a way to bring the glory to Cleveland that eluded him during his football days. "I'm hoping to represent Cleveland in rib cook-offs around the country," he says. "I feel I owe it to them, since we couldn't bring home a win over Denver."
Thu., May 25, noon; Fri., May 26, noon; Sat., May 27, noon; Mon., May 28, noon

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