Blackledge sinks his teeth into his work
Ready for seconds? He's a football analyst and "the food guy" on "Taste of the Town"
Todd Blackledge is not a picky eater.
"I have a wide variety of things that I like," Blackledge told ESPN SportsTravel. "I love breakfast. I love barbecue. I love salads and fish and chicken."
It's here where he begins speaking more rapidly and in a slightly higher-pitched register. Clearly this is exciting stuff.
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"I really like Southern cooking, where you have a lot of choices of meat and different vegetables and side dishes and things like that. That's the way I like to eat."
Indeed, it's always nice to speak to someone who loves their job.
For the past three seasons, Blackledge has been navigating the culinary delights of college campuses across the country as host of "Taste of the Town," a popular video segment that airs during ESPN college football broadcasts.
Every week from whichever campus town their broadcast schedule takes them, Blackledge and the production staff comb through a short list of local independent eateries -- an archive built through school recommendations, good, ol' fashioned word-of-mouth, and his own impressive mental inventory -- to find the one that deserves to be the focal point of their 45-second episode.
And ultimately it's this snippet of a program, "Taste of the Town" -- not his national championship win as quarterback with Penn State, or receiving the Davey O'Brien Award for best QB in the nation, or his years playing in the NFL, or working as a college football analyst since 1994 -- that seems to have become Blackledge's unlikely legacy.
Luckily, he's been preparing for this role his entire career.
"When I went to games, those were the kinds of places I looked to eat anyway," Blackledge said.
So it's not surprising that when a brainstorming meeting was held at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., to develop compelling segments to spice up the network's college football coverage, he offered up his unique experience as food-taster extraordinaire.
"I already had a catalog of places," he said.
The surprising part, at least for Blackledge, was the immediate positive response the show received.
"Really, from the second week that we did it [at alma mater Penn State], it was kind of a phenomenon," he said.
So much so that he's had to adapt to how the public perceives him. He's no longer "sports announcer" or "football analyst" or even "former star quarterback." Like it or not, he's traded in those labels for a different title.
"I'm 'the food guy' now," Blackledge said. And he definitely likes it.
One need look no further for the omnipresent nature of this new moniker than his scouting trip to Florida to prepare for this season's opening tilt between the Miami Hurricanes and the Florida State Seminoles.
While taking in Miami's practice to get a sense of what to expect during the game -- Blackledge of course spends most of his time on the road preparing for his announcing duty; he estimated a 2-to-1 ratio between boning up on football knowledge and researching restaurants -- he found out how deeply this new reputation had burrowed.
"Their starting free safety was looking at me, and I could tell he had some idea of who I was," Blackledge said. "All of a sudden he says, 'You're the guy that eats at all of those places, aren't you?'"
And eat he does -- from hickory burgers at The Apple Pan in Los Angeles, to signature omelets from The Peppermill restaurant on the outskirts of the Vegas Strip, to pulled pork from Van's Pig Stand in Norman, Okla.
But according to Ben Cerny, a new producer of "Taste of the Town," it's not just the quality of the dishes that are considered when selecting which places get the seal of approval.
"We're looking for stories more than anything else" Cerny said. "You want people that have a connection to the community, that aren't brand new. You want some history that people can grab onto."
That said, there is one thing that will get an establishment immediately stricken from consideration: being tied too closely to the school or being a booster of some sort.
"We want it to definitely be more organic," Cerny explained.
One such place that passes the above tests, and somewhere that Blackledge couldn't help but get excited about when he saw the broadcast schedule, is the iconic Doe's Eat Place near the University of Arkansas.
"The place has a great feel to it, especially a Friday before a home football game," Blackledge said. "It's pretty lively."
A new producer isn't the only change to "Taste of the Town" this year. Gone is the well-received "Todd's Taste of the Town" bus, cut due to budgetary issues despite Blackledge's acknowledgment "it was an attention-getter." And the biggest loss of the year might be on the calorie counter from the greasy spoons Blackledge typically likes to patronize on the road.
"One thing I'm going to try is to do some healthy alternatives," Blackledge said. "I had so many people almost incredulously ask me about how I eat all that stuff, and ask about my cholesterol and everything else. I guess they assume I eat like that all the time, three meals a day."
The healthy alternatives are something that Cerny is completely thankful about.
"Todd typically is on a treadmill bright and early in the morning," Cerny said. "And I might have to join him if I want to keep my weight down. I didn't get the 'freshman 15' [pounds of weight gain in college], but this could be the 'Taste of the Town' 15."
But even with the healthy alternatives on board this year, there's one gastrointestinal pleasure Blackledge refuses to sink his teeth into ... despite his proclamation of not being a picky eater.
"Cauliflower," Blackledge said. "I'm not going to mess around with that."
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