Smoke on the Water participants reach out to support fellow competitor

Published 12:01 pm Wednesday, November 29, 2023

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Matt Jones can now reach down to tend to his competition hog because his fellow competitors decided to reach out to him.

Jones, 38, a native of Hillsborough who now lives in Greenville after receiving his degree from East Carolina University, is confined to a wheelchair due to a genetic brittle-bone disease, a condition that has caused him to suffer over three dozen broken bones in his short life. Even the small bones in his ears have fused together, severely damaging his hearing, which has necessitated cochlear implants. But just don’t suggest that Jones is handicapped in any way.

“I have always been a highly-competitive person with a deep love for sports,” says Jones. “I had not really found an outlet to satisfy those passions until I found whole hog competitions sanctioned by the North Carolina Pork Council. After my first event I was totally hooked.”

That first event was the annual Smoke on the Water competition in nearby Washington in 2021. The week before the event the organizer was advertising the need for additional cooks to compete. It was then that Jones decided to load up his backyard grill, which was barely large enough to fit a competition whole hog, and head to the Washington waterfront to set up alongside a number of veteran cooks who compete regularly on the circuit.

“I pulled into the parking lot with my wife Courtney, hauling my small grill and not really much else, and it was clearly evident that I was out of my league,” says Jones. “I compare it to a NASCAR team showing up at Daytona with its race car on an open flatbed trailer.”

When the hogs were delivered to the teams that Friday evening, Jones had his placed directly on his grill, since he had no prep table. He watched with curiosity as the other teams started prepping their hogs, heating rags in boiling water, trimming fat, and applying oil, salt and baking soda to the skin. But if Jones was curious about what he was seeing, other competitors were also intrigued about the young man in the wheelchair whose hog was half cooked before anyone else lighted a grill.

First, it was local cook Thomas Spruill who welcomed Jones and offered a few tips. Then it was Kevin Peterson, a multiple state whole hog champion and his top competitor wife Dana, of Benson, who stopped by with encouraging words and a few more tips. That was followed by a steady stream of well-wishers, each offering both support and advice to Jones.

“I was amazed by the reception I received, being the new guy,” says Jones. “And everyone was more than willing to give me a few tips. No one would reveal all of their secrets, but I quickly realized that if I took a couple of tips from a number of people and put them all together, suddenly I would have a pretty good concept of what it would take to be competitive in an event.”

One of the other competitors who was watching Jones very closely was Andy Harrison, along with his wife Tricia, of Louisburg. He observed that Jones had a small grill with no turning grates, which meant Jones would only be able to flip his hog with the help of others. Harrison started thinking immediately: Wouldn’t it be great if Jones had a full-sized grill with turning gates? But that thought brought up a dilemma. A grill with turning grates would be too high for Jones to be able to see his hog from his seated position in his wheelchair.

When Harrison saw Jones at yet another event following Smoke on the Water and realized the novice was determined to meet the challenges before him, those initial thoughts sprung into action. Harrison called his friend and fellow competitor Travis Stafford of Mt. Olive, who had a grill with turning grates for sale. Harrison had an idea that Stafford embraced immediately. Harrison would buy the grill but needed Stafford, a metal fabricator and welder, to modify it so it could be lowered to the height Jones needed. The grill would then be given to Jones as a gift.

Stafford vowed to donate his labor and enlisted the help of his friend Westley Dean of Goldsboro. The two men set about drawing up a plan to modify the grill, which ended up being a greater challenge than anticipated. After several prototypes were scrapped on the drawing board, Stafford received a little wake-up from a very close source.

“My father knew we were struggling with a design that would work and he finally looked at me and said we were over thinking the process,” says Stafford. “Well let’s just say that is the tamed-down version of what he actually said.”

At the next competition Stafford made a point to hang out with Jones by his small grill. Stafford wore an old white t-shirt, and when Jones wasn’t looking marked that shirt so he would know the exact height he needed for his developing engineering project.

It took two months of work, but Stafford and Dean modified the grill so that the height could be raised and lowered, utilizing two 12-volt electric jacks used to level trailers. The completed project was delivered to Harrison in Louisburg.

By this time Jones had cooked in a number of competitions. When a high finish in one event qualified Jones to compete in the state whole hog championship, his fellow competitors reacted with both cheers and tears, each having a little stake in the random tips Jones had collected along the way. Harrison told Jones that he had certainly arrived now, and he invited Matt and Courtney Jones to Louisburg to help him with a charity catering event. By this time Courtney was in on the surprise, calling it the “hardest thing I have ever had to keep to myself.”

When Jones arrived in Louisburg, Harrison casually mentioned the he had a new grill that he wanted to show off. Then Harrison demonstrated the grill, complete with its hydraulics that adjusted the height. Harris asked Jones what he thought of it and Jones responded that it surely was nice.

“Well, it’s yours,” said Harrison.

Jones, still adjusting to his hearing issues, had to pause to process what he thought he had heard.

“I thought Andy had just told me that the grill was mine, but it just didn’t make sense to me for a moment,” says Jones. “To think that new friends would do this for me, and that so many people were involved, well it was just overwhelming. I really can’t express what this barbecue family means to me. I was speechless.”

It didn’t take Jones long to break in his new grill. He would win his first NCPC whole hog competition in his hometown of Hillsborough, almost a year to the day of that first wide-eyed experience in Washington. But as his level of competitiveness increased, so has his level of friendships he has made.

So, would Harrison have done anything differently?

“Yes, I would have taken action right after Smoke on the Water and not have waited until I saw Matt show up at a second event. I guess I need to work on my faith just a little and follow my instincts,” says Harrison.

As for Jones, he encourages all would-be competitors to experience the embrace he has witnessed.

After all, the reach of a true family is boundless.