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On the back burner no more

Tom McHale, who retired from the NFL in 1996, pursues his passion for cooking.

By JANET ZINK
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003


BRANDON -- There is life after football.

For Tom McHale, an offensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1989 to 1992, then two years with the Philadelphia Eagles and one year with the Miami Dolphins, that life is in restaurants.

McHale, who lives in Tampa Palms, owns and operates McHale's Sports Pub on Howard Avenue in South Tampa and McHale's ChopHouse on State Road 60 in Brandon.

The restaurants give him the chance to flex his culinary muscles, which he started exercising while growing up in Maryland.

"My younger sister would starve if she didn't have a microwave," says McHale, the fourth of five siblings.

So he made lunches for her. Eventually, he started barbecuing for the whole family, taking over cooking duties from his mother and testing recipes on his friends.

He took an academic approach to the task and studied barbecue by reading history books and old cookbooks.

He learned that the tradition began in the Tidewater area of Virginia, and eastern North Carolina.

He discovered that the classic vinegar-and-pepper barbecue sauce was known as ketchup 250 years ago. Tomatoes were added later to create the popular condiment.

"If you look at a Heinz ketchup bottle you'll see it says tomato ketchup, established 1869," McHale says. "The original ketchups were vinegar and spices that might have been flavored with oysters or mushrooms."

And, most importantly, he learned that, much like the meals his Italian-born mother used to prepare, great barbecue is more about quality ingredients than complicated techniques and fancy sauces.

After retiring from professional football in 1996, McHale got a job managing a Longhorn Steakhouse in Brandon to learn the ins and outs of restaurant management.

Then, football player that he is, McHale went, well, on the offensive.

In 1999, he opened McHale's ChopHouse in South Tampa and a second restaurant in Brandon in March 2001. McHale closed the South Tampa restaurant when business slowed shortly after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and reopened it in June as a sports bar with a limited menu.

McHale is about to install 15 televisions and three wide-screen TVs at the Brandon restaurant to better serve sports fans.

"Barbecue and sports are a natural combination," he says, noting that grilling is often a part of the tailgate experience at football games. That's not to imply, however, that it's a man's world.

"Our motto is real women eat barbecue," he says.

McHale made his first foray into the food business in 1976, at age 14, when he and two friends launched Teen Produce. The threesome grew sweet corn and tomatoes that they sold door to door and from a stand at their church.

When McHale went to college, his two friends kept the business going, operating four produce stands in the Washington, D.C., area until 1998.

While attending Cornell University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in hotel administration, he made spending money by tending bar and running a small catering business.

Although family, work and church occupy most of McHale's time, he still hasn't completely passed on football.

Last month, McHale was elected president of the 120-member Tampa chapter of the NFL Player's Association's Retired Players division. The union organization hosts two major events each year: Bowl with the Pros, held in June, gives underprivileged kids a chance to bowl with retired and active NFL players. Race for the Taste is a road race followed by a food fest; it raises money for the Boys and Girls Clubs and two Youth Education Town centers in Tampa. The NFL establishes YET centers, which provide educational and recreational opportunities for at-risk children, in Super Bowl host cities.

"Sports has always been a passion of my life as well as cooking and food," McHale says. "So now I'm realizing my second dream."

-- Janet Zink can be reached at 661-2441 or jzink@sptimes.com .

Tom McHale

AGE: 40

FAMILY: McHale and his wife, Lisa, have three children: T.J., 8; Mikey, 5, and Matthew, 3.

FIRST MEAL HE EVER MADE: A tuna salad sandwich at age 8. The secret to a top-notch tuna salad, McHale says, is not the mayo or the sweet relish. It's breaking up the tuna well enough. He does it with his bare hands.

HIS MIRACLE CHILD: McHale's son T.J. weighed less than 1.5 pounds at birth, and the boy's arm easily fit through McHale's wedding ring. T.J. has cerebral palsy and his mother, Lisa, who earned master's and doctoral degrees in school psychology, does a lot of his physical therapy herself.

FAVORITE RESTAURANT (OTHER THAN HIS OWN): Mi Pueblo Cafeteria, a Puerto Rican restaurant on Lincoln Avenue near Spruce Street.

WHERE HE WATCHED THE BUCS WIN THE SUPER BOWL: At home, with his wife. "In nine years of the NFL I never went to a Super Bowl. I would rather be at home."

VITAL STATS: After three weeks on the Atkins diet, McHale is proud to report that he lost 28 pounds, his cholesterol dropped from 275 to 195 and his triglycerides dropped from 195 to 94.

THE BACK OF HIS BUSINESS CARD: "As our food nourishes your body, may God's word nourish your soul."

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