Allen Bailey's secret to reaching the colossal physical proportions necessary to become an NFL defensive end is a protein source unfamiliar to most 21st-century Americans, let alone big-time football players. The University of Miami product, picked in the third round of the draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, sits down to home-cooked meals of slow-roasted raccoon, parboiled possum and hickory-smoked armadillo.
Wild boar, now that's a real treat. Bailey tips the scales at 285 pounds, having stuffed his gut during his formative years with just about anything on four feet his family could catch on the tiny island off the coast of Georgia where he was raised. Forty-seven people live in Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island, more than half of whom are related to Bailey.
All are part of the tight-knit Gullah/Geechee community, descendants of slaves admired for preserving their African cultural heritage two centuries after being brought to the United States. Bailey's ancestors were among 400 slaves from West Africa taken to Sapelo Island by a British plantation owner. Some stayed after the Civil War, and they subsisted on a protein-rich diet of deer, boar, marsupials and shellfish.
And still do. Even though game was a description of what's for dinner before it became a vehicle to a lucrative career, Bailey grew up big, strong and smart. On May 13, he will become the first from his family to graduate from college.
He asked his mother, Mary, what he could give her that would put a big smile on her face after he signed his first NFL contract. Her reply: "Your diploma."
Mary Bailey has worked for years as a cook at the Reynolds Mansion, a tourist and retreat destination on Sapelo Island. Guests can reach the island only by boat, and Bailey's father worked for decades as the first mate on a ferry called the Katie Underwood. After checking into the 13-bedroom, 11-bathroom mansion, guests are fed a sumptuous dinner prepared by Mary of seafood, turkey, red beans and rice, and locally grown corn and okra.
The good stuff she saves for her family back in the double-wide three-bedroom trailer in Hog Hammock.
"Raccoon has a good flavor, it tastes like nothing else," Bailey says. "Everything on the table is great. It's home cooking."
Bailey missed all of it while away at college. He was able to visit only a few times each school year, but he made up for it during the summers. He's the second youngest of seven children, and the family watched the draft from a friend's house in Georgia because there is no cell phone reception on the island. Bailey plans to spend time in Hog Hammock over the next few days, to do some hunting with his dad, eat his mom's meals and enjoy the peace and quiet.
"Where I'm from is country, the slow-down life," he says. "I'm outdoors all the time, it's what I call real nature. Not even one stop sign. There's no law."
Bailey didn't play football until the seventh grade. He and his brothers and cousins played a touch keep-away game they called "yard ball." A rusted basketball hoop helped him develop stamina, and he grew and grew, taking after a grandfather everyone on the island simply called, "Big One."
Sports became a priority when Bailey attended high school in Darien, Ga., a 20-minute ferry ride away. He chose Miami over Florida and Alabama, and developed into a chiseled NFL prospect. He has the best vertical jump ever by a Miami defensive lineman, and scouts loved his combination of strength and quickness as well as his relentless motor.
After getting the call from the Chiefs Friday night, Bailey tried to learn a little bit about Kansas City. It's a long way from the Atlantic Ocean and Sapelo Island, but a staple of his childhood diet is also considered a delicacy in Missouri.
It’s raccoon, a recipe for which was included in the first edition of "The Joy of Cooking."
Listen to Jeff Beringer, a biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation: "Raccoon meat is some of the healthiest meat you can eat. It's the ultimate organic food."
Bailey wouldn't disagree. He's a 6-foot-3, tightly muscled billboard for the virtues of lean protein, hunted by his kin, cooked by his mom.
"My parents won't ever want to move," he said. "They might add on to the house they have now. But leave Hog Hammock? I don’t think so. That’s home."