A Farewell to Beefcakes

An enigmatic showman succumbs to bipolar disorder

Anyone who ever floated within earshot of Scott "Beefcakes" Bickel knew he was all about Cleveland.

Born and raised here, the North Royalton resident relentlessly mega-phoned his love of our fair land, so much so that when the dauntless 21-year-old embarked on an unlikely mission — to win a national competitive-eating contest — he would tell whoever asked that it was all about bringing back a championship for Cleveland. Bickels' enthusiasm wasn't the usual hometown flag-waving; he saw his own hardscrabble backstory mirrored in the city's history.

"I think the city of Cleveland is a lot like me," he told Scene last year. "It relates to my life. I've been through a lot of pain, I've been underrated, and I haven't gotten a lot of credit."

That pain won out in the end, when Scott Bickel took his own life last week. On Wednesday evening, Bickel, who struggled openly with bipolar disorder, posted a note on Facebook about his intent to commit suicide by jumping off the Route 82 bridge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

"I MAXED out my energy, intelligence, and love EVERYDAY of my life till it eventually burned out my existence from the horrific pain of my life," Bickel wrote. A winding trail of subsequent posts from friends gradually progressed from outpourings of alarm to eulogy.

According to the Summit County Medical Examiner's Office, Bickel was spotted jumping, and his body was found 30 feet downriver that night.

On Monday morning, under iron-gray skies, family and friends gathered at St. Joseph Byzantine Church in Brecksville to say goodbye. "Scott was the kind of guy who knew what his goals were and went after them," Father Bruce Riebe told a crowd that packed the pews. "That's why there were so many people here yesterday [for the wake] and today. Scott meant something to people."

Bickel first caught Scene's ear more than a year ago after relentlessly filling up editorial inboxes with e-mails detailing exploits that far outpaced those of an average 21-year old: He had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, published a romance novel, and dedicated himself to a career in competitive eating. When we began showing up at his events last winter, we saw the man lived up to his wild résumé.

The resulting feature story, "The Ballad of Beefcakes Bickel," tracked his efforts to train for the Super Bowl of face-stuffing: Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Along the way, Bickel racked up an impressive number of records, downing the five-pound roast beef plate at Beef O'Brady's, the seven-pound Garbage Dumpster Burger at Cleat's, and virtually anything else anyone challenged him to ingest.

"Ever since I was six years old, I've been praying every night: 'God, I want to make it big in something. I want to be an inspiration to people. I want to show people that a normal person can do something big if they just don't let people get in their way and believe in themselves,'" Bickel said at the time.

Local news outlets swallowed whole the story of a local guy committing gastronomic feats of strength in the name of Cleveland; he was a regular fixture of local TV and radio, and he landed a spot on Cleveland Magazine's Most Interesting People list. But even as he basked in the attention, Bickel struggled with the spotlight, earnestly wondering whether it was all going to his head. As a result, he made sure to stay humble, even as crowds cheered his name.

The path to glory hit a big speed bump last summer, when Bickel — in front of a couple hundred roaring fans — lost a regional hot-dog-eating contest at Tower City that would have won him a place in Nathan's Coney Island championship.

Outside of St. Joseph's after the service, Bickel's friend and eating coach, Oliver Gemmel, told Scene Bickel had recently returned to training, and Gemmel was courting sponsors for upcoming events. Beefcakes, it seemed, was ready to get back in the game, says Gemmel.

"He was doing what he loved to do."

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