MCWS 2023: How a Jell-O shot challenge became the second-biggest event in Omaha

Todd Graves (purple shirt) helped LSU set the record for most Jell-O shots bought at Rocco's Pizza and Cantina. Todd Graves

OMAHA, Neb. -- Rocco's Pizza and Cantina, which sits about 50 steps across the street from the site of the Men's College World Series, was predictably busy Sunday when manager Pat McEvoy was called to the patio to meet a guy interested in placing a large order. The man looked like an average fan, wearing an LSU cap and a green T-shirt with a logo for the Murphy's on West State Street, a now-defunct Baton Rouge bar. When someone told McEvoy that the man was the founder and CEO of Raising Cane's chicken, McEvoy was skeptical.

"This time of year," McEvoy said, "everybody's somebody. I had no idea if he was telling the truth or if he was just messing with us."

But this wasn't a joke. Todd Graves, a Baton Rouge resident and entrepreneur, bought $30,000 worth of Jell-O shots -- 6,000 total drinks. He wanted to give LSU the MCWS Jell-O Shot Challenge record and fire up the fan base Monday right before the Tigers played No. 1 Wake Forest at the Men's College World Series.

LSU lost that night's baseball game but claimed the Jell-O shot record, and on Thursday ended up beating Wake Forest for the second time in two days to advance to the MCWS championship series.

The Jell-O Shot Challenge, in its fourth year, has become the second-most talked-about event in Omaha. Fan bases from the eight teams in the MCWS compete over who can ingest the most shots, which are color-coded for each squad. Stanford fans consumed wild-cherry red; Florida fans downed green apple. "We couldn't really get a good blue color," McEvoy said.

One dollar from each of the $5 shots will be donated to the shot-drinking team's local food bank, owner Kevin Culjat said, and another 50 cents will go to the Heartland Food Bank in Omaha.

McEvoy updates the totals four times a day, weaving his way through the sunburned masses to add the counts on a whiteboard. LSU, whose fan base travels better than any MCWS team's and particularly enjoys its food and drink, was the favorite to win the contest even before Graves flashed his credit card.

LSU's fans had 29,023 shots on the board by Thursday; the other seven fan bases combined have not consumed as many Jell-O shots as the Tigers. Ole Miss' 2022 record was 18,777.

Graves had initially planned to order 5,000 shots, which was enough Monday to break the record. But when he found out that country singer Merle Haggard apparently owned the Guinness World Record for buying the largest round of drinks, Graves decided he wanted to shatter that, too.

Haggard set the record in 1983, when, according to Wineandspirits.com, he bought 5,095 shots of Canadian Club for his fans at Billy Bob's Texas. Graves said he's a big fan of Haggard's. But there is some debate over that record, according to the website, as a British brewery bought 412 drinks for customers at a pub celebrating Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday in 2016. That claim is based on gallons consumed.

In an email to ESPN Wednesday, a spokesperson for Guinness World Records North America Inc. said that it doesn't currently monitor a record title similar to the "largest round of drinks." It was fun while it lasted.

Graves said he knew spending $30,000 on alcohol might seem frivolous or "cheesy," but he decided to do it when he found out that a portion of the proceeds goes to charity.

"You know what, man? I started from nothing," Graves said. "I had to commercial fish in Alaska to start my first restaurant ... You work hard and become successful and then you're able to buy all these LSU fans a shot, it feels pretty cool.

"It's a good way to celebrate with others."

He stood behind the bar Monday when the leaderboard was updated at 5 p.m. and the Jell-O shot record was officially broken. Graves raised his arms in the air as the crowd chanted "L-S-U." Culjat said that everyone who was 21 and raised their ID in the air received a purple Jell-O shot.

"Obviously," Culjat said, "you can't serve 6,000 shots at the same time. It's not legally right and it's not morally right. So we just agreed that what was going to happen was that he's purchasing the 6,000 to get the record and also obviously to donate to charity.

"So everybody got one; they all did them at once. And then after the game, when people came in three hours later ... we gave them one as well. I don't know what the final total was, but everyone got one who was here."

Rocco's is across the street from Charles Schwab Field, and drinking competitions among fans have gone on in the spot for years. In 2011, when Florida played South Carolina in the finals, both teams' fans wanted their own shots, so McEvoy invented separate concoctions. Six months later, he was sitting at a dueling piano bar when Creighton and Nebraska were facing off in basketball, and dueling chants of "Go Big Red" and "Let's Go Jays" filled the air.

Thousands of dollars flew into the tip jars that night, McEvoy said, and it made him think about the possibilities for the MCWS. He decided to make signature shots for all eight teams.

When Culjat bought the establishment, he decided to do Jell-O shots because they're easier to make. Five years later, the demand for the shots is so deep that this year he hired Tennessee-based company Jevo, which uses automated gelatin shot makers and Keurig-like cartridges to mass-produce the drinks.

Culjat said 42% of Rocco's yearly revenue comes from the two weeks each summer during the MCWS. He's not a fan of social media but concedes that Twitter has helped the challenge explode into a national curiosity.

McEvoy started the CWS Jell-O Shot Challenge account on a Monday last year during the MCWS and had seven followers. By the end of the MCWS, that number was 17,000. Today the account has more than 36,000 followers. The phone rings constantly, McEvoy said, with callers asking for a leaderboard update.

On Tuesday, before the LSU game, Tennessee fan Bobby Bellenfant downed an orange-colored shot with his sister, Raychel. Bellenfant said he heard about the bar, and the challenge, through Twitter. He glanced up at the board. The Volunteers had mustered up just over 1,800 shots.

"I don't think we're gonna get there," he said. "But it goes to a good cause, so we're glad to do it."

A few minutes later, McEvoy updated the board, and Tigers fan Jason Malasovich played "Tiger Rag" on his trumpet while a sea of purple-clad fans danced. LSU was on top again, and the party won't stop until the Tigers lose.

Actually, it probably won't stop then, either.

"I think they need to put more alcohol in those shots," LSU fan Jesse Lamonte said as the crowd began to head for the stadium.