"BARBECUE IS IN ME," says Al (Bubba) Baker. He doesn't mean literally—though the defensive end who weighed 265 pounds when he chased NFL quarterbacks around in the 1970s and '80s has definitely enjoyed plenty of it. No, he means he was born to cook. Baker (inset) was indoctrinated into the family business by his uncle, who owned a string of barbecue joints in Jacksonville.
"Football was my job, but barbecue is my passion," he says.
On NFL road trips, Baker scarfed down Gates BBQ in Kansas City and Mother's in New Orleans, developed his own culinary style. And in 1992, two years after his NFL retirement, he opened his first restaurant. Today he and his family operate Bubba's-Q, a barbecue shop in Avon, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, where Baker finished his football career.
"My blood is sauce," says Baker. Again, he's not being literal (thank goodness). But he does have his own line of products, which he developed and showed on a 2013 appearance on Shark Tank. (He successfully pitched the concept of boneless baby back ribs.) And like any barbecue maven, Baker also has a signature sauce. Dark, sweet and mild with a tangy undertone of lemon, Bubba's-Q Bar-B-Q Sauce has a hint of acidity that nicely complements the sweet succulence of pork.
The former defensive end prizes creativity, both on the field and in the kitchen. "That was the way I rushed the passer—I wanted to be different. I used basketball moves," Baker says. "I've always thought that way: Be original."
MAC & BLONDIE MOMBO3
The former Florida head coach, now overseeing receivers at Michigan, teamed with his wife, Karen, to craft a "sauce for all seasons"—a sweet and tangy creation with a kick. McElwain suggests the Mac Dog: a hot dog with chopped sweet onions, slathered with Mombo3. Buy: macandblondie.com; select stores across Florida
KYVAN SWEET BBQ SAUCE
The 12-year NFL veteran tight end and Mississippi native, who retired in 2011, created a "sauce with soul" inspired by his Southern roots. Kelly sells many variations of barbecue sauce: sweet, sesame garlic, Asian style, sweet potato and cherry apple. Buy: kyvan82.com, Walmart.com, Amazon, select Firehouse Subs
BILLY SIMS BARBECUE
The Sooners legend, a three-time Pro Bowl running back with Detroit, lends his name to a barbecue chain with more than 40 locations in the U.S. The 1978 Heisman winner sells an assortment of sauces, from Hickory Bold & Smokey to Original Sweet & Mild. Buy: Billy Sims Barbecue restaurants, select Walmarts, Reasor's grocery