Wenzel ’04: The athlete, the legend, the sandwich

Alex Berggruen ’10, a weekly consumer of Alpha Delta Pizza’s campus-famous Wenzel sub, said he was introduced to the sandwich when his roommate, Hyatt Bailey ’10, ate his first Wenzel and insisted that Berggruen try a bite. Berggruen told Bailey he was not hungry, but his roommate insisted that he try it. He took a bite. And, he says in blissful retrospect, “my eyes were opened to a whole new world of flavor.”

When asked who the sub was named after, Berggruen admitted he did not know. But he said he imagined Mr. Wenzel would be a god-like figure with “a long white beard, long white hair, and in a large, flowing robe — presumably in heaven.”

The late-night snack of choice for many students, Alpha Delta Pizza’s Wenzel sub hides a storied history between its buffalo chicken, lettuce and tomato.
Nick Bayless
The late-night snack of choice for many students, Alpha Delta Pizza’s Wenzel sub hides a storied history between its buffalo chicken, lettuce and tomato.

Berggruen’s description does not match the actual physical appearance of Eric Wenzel ’04, but judging by the popularity of the sandwich that bears his name, Wenzel’s image on campus — if most Yalies knew him — would be close to god-like.

Mustafa Dagiden, a manager at Alpha Delta Pizza, said his restaurant often serves 150-200 Wenzels on the average weekend night. In a city best known as the birthplace of American pizza, the Wenzel is the most popular item on campusfood.com, a Web site where students can order food for delivery from their favorite local restaurants.

A former All-American goalie for the Yale lacrosse team and three-year starter for the Yale football team, Wenzel was also a brother of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Current fraternity brother Eric Senn ’10 said he still hears stories of the legend that is Eric Wenzel, a student whose late-night request — “chicken cutlet, lettuce, tomato, cheese, some mayo and I wanted it all covered in hot sauce” — sparked a campus sensation.

Its cult appeal on campus notwithstanding, the Wenzel sprang from humble origins. Wenzel said he went to Alpha Delta one Saturday night during his junior year, because it was convenient at the time. Wenzel lived nearby on Lynwood Avenue, he said, and liked the guys who worked there.

Dagiden said he thinks the hot sauce was the key ingredient in the sandwich that was soon to be a phenomenon. “Wenzel said to me, ‘Put hot sauce on the chicken,’ ” he recalled. “Then we tried that, and everybody loved it.”

Unexpectedly enamored of his new creation, Wenzel began patronizing Alpha Delta with increasing frequency, each time asking that the cooks prepare his namesake sandwich. At a certain point, Wenzel said, he was eating two or three of his sandwiches a day. His friends quickly caught on to his new obsession and began to try it out as well. Eventually, he said, “Everyone was ordering the sandwich. They’d say, ‘Hey Wenzel, get me one of those subs that you get.’”

Based on word of mouth alone, the sub became a hit on campus, prompting Alpha Delta — which had previously prepared the sandwich specially at the request of Wenzel and his friends — to add it to the restaurant’s permanent menu. Alpha Delta mangers first named their new creation “Venzel’s Sub,” the phonetic German pronunciation of Wenzel’s name, but Wenzel was quick to have that fixed.

Wenzel’s growing status as a campus celebrity received a jolt, however, when he was injured in a car accident early in his second semester senior year that killed four of his friends, leaving only Wenzel and two others alive.

When the Alpha Delta employees heard about the accident from one of Wenzel’s friends, they immediately began closing up shop so they could visit him — until they learned that he was not taking visitors because he was in a doctor-induced coma.

When he woke up two months later, Wenzel’s focus was far from the lacrosse and football fields, not to mention his favorite kind of chicken sandwich. Upon awakening, Wenzel had to put his mind to remembering how to talk, read and write.

Wenzel suffered internal injuries, broken ribs, a broken collar bone and a facial fracture in the crash, but pulled through against steep odds. After months of rehab, he came back to Yale and graduated in just five years. As a fifth-year senior, he volunteered as an assistant coach for the lacrosse and football teams.

Jordan Ellis ’07 said in an interview with the News in 2004 that Wenzel’s presence was inspiring. For Wenzel, Ellis said, “The fact that he can still be out there means a lot to him, and we can see that, and it makes us appreciate being out there all the more.”

At his commencement in 2005, Wenzel was presented the Amanda D. Walton Award, given to an “outstanding athlete who has excelled on the field of play and who has shown spirit and courage in transcending unforeseen challenges.”

But Wenzel’s reputation as an outstanding athlete will eventually be forgotten, he said.

“Years down the road,” he said, “people might have no clue about those things — but there’s a good chance people are still coming in and ordering Wenzel sandwiches at Alpha Delta Pizza.”

Today, when Wenzel returns to Yale for games, students and alumni he meets often tell him what avid fans of his sandwich they are.

“I’ve even met some people who do not believe that I invented the Wenzel, saying ‘There’s no way’ as if there was some other guy who made it,” he laughed.

Still, it is not just Yale students who crave the Wenzel, Dagiden said — it has also proven popular among locals, as Wenzel’s firsthand experience can attest.

“I literally witnessed some New Haven locals fighting over the first Wenzel that came out of the oven,” Wenzel said of one late-night trip to Alpha Delta.

Indeed, Wenzel’s name is now part of the campus vocabulary. Zoe Ballance ’10 said an ex-boyfriend once tried to use the Wenzel to pick her up, saying with a smile on his face, “Do you want a Wenzel? I have one back in my apartment!”

People build their legacies in different ways, Wenzel said, and he does not mind that he will be best remembered — at least in New Haven — for his famous culinary creation. He said, “I am proud of it.”

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