- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

COCKEYSVILLE, Md. | If Southern culture is all about football and barbecue - with a dash of Elvis and catfish thrown in - then Alabama native Andy Nelson is probably the region’s most distinguished ambassador to Maryland.

Mr. Nelson, a former Memphis State University football star, moved to Baltimore in 1957 to play for the Baltimore Colts. He played in two NFL championships alongside Johnny Unitas before opening what is widely regarded as Maryland’s best barbecue restaurant.

His sons mostly run the business now, continuing a family tradition that dates back to a Depression-era grocery and barbecue shop called Hoggly Woggly that his father ran in north Alabama’s Limestone County.

“It’s in your blood. Barbecuing is an art,” Mr. Nelson, 75, said in the wood-paneled “Sittin’ Room” of his restaurant north of Baltimore. “Once you get that smell, … it sticks in your mind.”

Fifty years ago, the NFL didn’t pay like it does now - he made $6,000 his first season. So after retiring, he and his wife, Betty, started selling barbecue in a shopping center parking lot to make extra cash.

Mr. Nelson and his oldest son, Andy Jr., would jump the locked gate in the wee hours to fuel the smoker as pork shoulders cooked overnight. And there was the night the fire department showed up, fearing the place was burning.

He also had to sell pork to people who regarded crabs as the local delicacy and considered pit-roasted beef their barbecue. Maryland may be below the Mason-Dixon line, but it’s a whole lot different from Alabama’s Southern ways.

“I said, hell, if they don’t like it I’ll eat it myself,” he said.

But he’s been honing his craft since he was a boy, and now, “We got ‘em eating this pork, 2,000 pounds a week.”

Mr. Nelson recalled helping his father prepare barbecue feasts at county fairs and Fourth of July celebrations in his hometown of Athens, Ala. He describes digging open pits and smoking as many as 20 whole hogs at a time, carefully lining the pits with hot hickory coals.

The scent would waft for miles.

“I think about him a lot and the way he used to make it,” Mr. Nelson said, reciting his father’s motto: “Serve no swine before it’s time.”

In high school, Mr. Nelson hoped to play football for the vaunted University of Alabama Crimson Tide. But the coach told him he was too small - he weighed only about 160 pounds.

He walked on at Memphis State, now the University of Memphis, where he played on both sides of the ball: running back and quarterback on offense, and safety on defense. He never expected to make it in the NFL and had lined up an assistant coaching job at a high school outside Memphis. But his college coach put in a good word with Colts coach Weeb Ewbank, and the team drafted him in the 11th round.

It turned out to be a good pick. Mr. Nelson started his rookie season and developed into a wiry, hard-hitting safety. In his second season, the Colts would win the first of their two consecutive championships, just as the league began catching up with baseball as a major American sport.

After an eight-year career, including one season with the New York Giants, he worked as a salesman for a trucking company.

He also had the itch to barbecue. With a growing family - he eventually would have seven children - the weekend takeout stand offered extra income.

He developed enough of a following to open the sit-down Andy Nelson’s Barbecue restaurant a few blocks from his old takeout stand in Cockeysville, Md.

A giant pink pig stands on the roof, a visual for folks who don’t pick up the scent. He no longer awakens at all hours, thanks to a high-tech smoker that regulates the temperature and shuts off automatically.

He serves Southern favorites like catfish and black-eyed peas, and he smokes or fries turkeys for the holidays.

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