He once ate 38 eggs in 29 seconds, then had a stroke. Here comes his comeback.

Mort Hurst, 68, eats 100 chicken McNuggets at the McDonald's in Robersonville, NC on Wednesday, August 30, 2017.
Mort Hurst, 68, eats 100 chicken McNuggets at the McDonald's in Robersonville, NC on Wednesday, August 30, 2017. jwall@newsobserver.com

At the height of his fame, Mort Hurst ate 21 whole watermelons in 10 minutes. He gobbled 1,248 pistachios in half that time. He consumed 7.5 pounds of collard greens in front of a thousand screaming fans – a superstar of stomach-busting feats.

His reputation stretched so far that the National Enquirer wrote a profile in 1987, calling the champion a “Bottomless Pit.” The district attorney of Nash County wrote a song about Hurst that got recorded and played widely on the radio. Hurst appeared on television, eating hot dogs while dangling upside-down from a crane.

Then in 1991, Hurst suffered a stroke after sucking down 38 soft-boiled eggs in 29 seconds. Not long after, he hung up his fork. In the decades of his absence, competitive eating has grown to a professional sport, its contests broadcast on ESPN. Joey Chestnut, the new eater to beat, holds a No. 1 ranking from Major League Eaters and a sponsorship from Pepto-Bismol.

But at 68, the godfather of gluttony has returned. On Sept. 9, Hurst will stage a comeback at the Ayden Collard Festival, hoping to break his old mark. Though the festival measures volume rather than speed, he promises to eat the first 5 pounds of greens in 5 minutes – all of them slathered in ketchup.

“They’re comparing it to Michael Jordan coming to town,” he joked. “I’m going to let my fork do the talking.”

On Wednesday, Hurst sat down at the Robersonville McDonald’s – 90 miles east of Raleigh – for a training session. His goal: 100 chicken nuggets dipped in sweet-and-sour sauce. As he chewed, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses, his face expressionless as a poker player’s, a crowd gathered to watch the old warhorse.

To see Hurst eat is to witness fast-food zen. He hardly speaks. He barely moves, conserving energy. He never groans, moans or clutches his stomach – let alone vomit or belch. He takes his McNuggets one box of 20 at a time and lays out three on a napkin. He takes a bite of each and submerges the halves in a container of sauce. He takes small sips of Diet Coke from a small cup. He continues this process with machine-like precision. Twenty nuggets ... 40 ... 60 ...

“What I’m thinking about is nothing,” he said. “Straight tunnel vision. Total concentration.”

A few days ago, Hurst gnawed the meat off 63 rib bones at Shamrock Restaurant in nearby Williamston. He followed this with a practice session at McDonald’s – which is providing all his training food for free – by eating a dozen pancakes and two dozen eggs. Collards are easier to eat. They don’t need chewing.

Still, he admits that he cannot match his old stardom. The new Mort Hurst is a good eater. The old Mort Hurst was a great eater. So why come back after surviving a stroke, seeing his blood pressure shoot to 252 and stabbing himself in the face with a fork?

Several reasons:

For one, he got invited by the collard festival, his old stomping grounds, which asked for a shot in the arm to help with flagging attendance. The owners of Bum’s Restaurant, which provides the contest collards, reportedly said they’d rather have Mort Hurst visit than President Trump.

Two, Hurst always said he’d come back one more time, and he intends to keep his word. None of his doctors recommend such a return, but Hurst has always compared himself to race car drivers: comfortable with risk. The festival will have a paramedic waiting, just in case.

“This is the last shot,” he said. “This is the last one. Live or die, this is it.”

But clearly, Hurst enjoys the attention – and why not? He still keeps a cupboard full of folded news clippings, which fill two shelves. A plywood sign still graces his driveway on N.C. 125: “Collard King, Eatin’ Mort Hurst.” He still has a 45 rpm copy of the old song, “The Legend of Ol’ Eatin’ Mort Hurst,” and he takes it out to play on a Fisher-Price record player.

“They played that on a lot of radio stations,” he said. “Still good.”

Back at McDonald’s, Hurst polishes off 100 nuggets to applause. He insists, several times, that he could easily finish 50 more. But this is just practice.

So he orders ice cream for dessert. Food stands no chance.